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Why is policing so broken? Four Seattle teens ask the adults in charge

As Seattle teenagers and journalists, we have watched our city grapple with policing through face-offs between protestors and police officers after the murder of George Floyd and killing of Breonna Taylor. We watched people across the country react to the insurgency at the Capitol, and we heard the news that six Seattle Police Department staff members attended.

Witnessing all of these events left us with questions. Like, why is our policing system so damaged? What are we doing right now to address issues in policing?

[RadioActive Youth Media is KUOW's radio journalism and audio storytelling program for young people. This episode was entirely youth-produced, from the interviewing to the writing to the audio editing.]

Podcast highlights, at a glance

Reactions to the Capitol riots in January 2021

Some watched the sparse police presence and lackluster response during the Capitol riots with shock. Sean Goode, a Seattle-based activist and executive director of the nonprofit Choose 180, did not share that reaction.

“To look at the news and watch the insurgency at the capitol and watch people who aren’t advocating for Black lives, and if anything, are trending towards advocating for the lives of white people to be supreme, get a chance to run ragged all over the capitol building [...] it’s harmful, it’s traumatizing, and it’s not surprising,” says Goode.

Where does our problem with policing start?

Policing in the United States can be traced back to slave patrols. It began as a way to control slaves in the South. In the North, police departments were created to protect mercantile interests.

Policing began as an organization that enforced institutionalized racism, and it's continued that legacy, from Jim Crow laws to the Civil Rights era. That's not a legacy that changes or ends overnight.

[Ed. note: To learn more about the history of policing, listen to the Throughline episode on American Police or read the Time article “How the U.S Got its Police Force.”]

The Office of Police Accountability

There are three government branches of police accountability in Seattle: The Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Community Police Commission, and the Office of the Inspector General.

Andrew Myerberg is the director of the Office of Police Accountability. He says that the Office of Police Accountability typically evaluates reports of police misconduct with this lens: Here's the officer's conduct. Did it violate a certain policy or practice of this permit? He clarifies that the office does not look at criminal law.

After receiving a complaint, the process usually involves a thirty-day investigation on the facts of the case, followed by an independent verification of that investigation by the Office of the Inspector General.

Myerberg says that the Office of Police Accountability is the "most robust, transparent civilian-led system in the United States of America."

"It's not debatable," Myerberg says. "We have more civilian oversight here than anywhere else. Thus far, I have not seen a model that's better than ours, for better or for worse."

But Myerberg acknowledges that there is room for change. For example, as it functions right now, the Office of Police Accountability "can't compel [the Seattle Police Department] to do anything."

One proposed method of change is that if all three entities -- the Office of Police Accountability, the Community Police Commission, and the Office of the Inspector General — make a recommendation, it would be hard for the Seattle Police Department to disagree with that recommendation "because of the public pressure that would be placed on the agency. But they could," Myerberg explains.

"One scenario that we've talked about all together is, what if we created a situation where the recommendation is made by [the Office of Police Accountability, the Community Police Commission, and the Office of the Inspector General] jointly, SPD cannot say no. They have to do it," Myerberg says.

Community solution to reduce police violence

Another proposed method to reduce police violence is a policy that requires officers to live in the communities that they police, or within a certain radius.

“One of the things that I’ve been saying throughout all of this is we really need to return to the days of the beat cop," says TraeAnna Holiday, the communications director of King County Equity Now. "[When] the cops are living and working in the same areas, they are going to know their neighbors, they're going to see them at the grocery stores.”

The logic is that, by building those connections, cops would understand and empathize with the people that they’re supposed to protect.

But Randy Huserik, the public information officer with the Seattle Police Department, disagrees.

"I'm not entirely sure why people seem to think that if we don't live in the city that we're not invested in what happens here, because we are," Huserik says.

Sean Goode of the nonprofit Choose 180 also disagrees with the idea — for a different reason.

"If the system of policing requires people to live in the neighborhood that they're policing in order for it to be done with equity, then the system of policing is broken. I'm less concerned about where police officers live, and I'm more concerned with the inability to recognize the humanity in people throughout our city," Goode says.

Are police officers expected to do too much?

One problem that continued to come up in our interviews was about how much officers and police departments are expected to do.

For Huserik, the public information officer, this was especially around mental healthcare.

"We're not trained mental health professionals, and we're handling calls of people that are having mental health crises. I would be the first person to admit, that's not our area of expertise, and we probably aren't the best people to be handling those issues," says Huserik.

Goode agrees but draws a distinction. "I don't think that police are held to an unrealistic standard. I think they're asked to do unrealistic things. So are we asking them to do more than what they should be doing? Certainly. Are we holding them to an irresponsible standard? No. If you are a law enforcement officer, you carry life and death in your hand, every moment of every day. There is a very high standard that they should be held to," Goode says.

Systemic change versus individual responsibility

TraeAnna Holiday, the communications director of King County Equity Now, advocates for the idea that police officers can and should make efforts to be different from the harmful culture around them.

"Sometimes it looks like they don't see themselves as civilians of the city that they are meant to protect," Holiday says, "but more so that they're looking for suspects in everything they do, and they're looking for somebody to be on the opposite end of where they're coming from. Unfortunately, that is what leads to them grabbing their guns very quickly and shooting people."

Holiday is a proponent of community-based conflict resolution.

"What isn't lifted up enough? Are there officers who do it right? When I think about Officer Cookie -- and she has been an officer for many years -- she's very rooted in community," says Holiday.

Detective Cooking is an officer of the Seattle Police Department who has won awards for her work with young people in her community.

[Listen to a 2012 profile on Detective Cookie by RadioActive youth producer Demitrus Price.]

Change at the individual-level could make communities happier and safer while systemic change is taking place, but it's not easy. The problems endemic in policing are not just a matter of policy, practice, or rules; they're also a matter of culture. Until that's addressed, individual cops trying to do good are always going to be working against a system that hurts marginalized people disproportionately. A system that -- in some cases -- might target them next.

[Here's the story of Adrien Schoolcraft, an officer who attempted to expose illegal activities.]

Ways forward, from four perspectives

TraeAnna Holiday, the communications director of King County Equity Now: “I think we can't wait for the system to change for some of these officers to start doing the right thing. We need them to start doing the right thing now, while we work on systems.”

Sean Goode, activist and executive director of Choose 180: “When older generations hear things like "defund police," the first thing that their mind usually goes to is like, ‘Well, of course, we need police, right? Who's going to protect us?’ When I talk to folks, and they say, ‘What does it look like to have a world without police?’ And I say, 'Picture the suburbs where you don't have police who are regularly patrolling neighborhoods actively looking for somebody who may be engaged in behavior that could be criminal.’ Like, this isn't some sort of far-off concept.”

Randy Huserik, public information officer for the Seattle Police Department: “We need to focus on what our priorities are, what issues do we need to take care of when it comes to our communities of color, to those with mental health issues, those who have substance abuse issues. Instead of defunding the police, I think the police and these other entities need to partner and work together to come up with reasonable solutions.”

Andrew Myerberg, director of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability: “This is all that I can do, these are the parameters of my work, and if you want to change those parameters, I’m all in. Let's do it.”

This podcast was produced in an advanced producers program for high school and college students. Production assistance from Jadenne Radoc Cabahug. Edited by Lila Lakehart. Prepared for web by Mary Heisey. Special thanks to Casey Martin and Patricia Murphy for their advice and guidance.

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