Divisions emerge as council members address racial injustice
Sammamish City Council members remain uncertain on how to locally address concerns about racism and policing as community conversation about the topics continues to circulate.
Hundreds of people gathered peacefully in Sammamish on June 4 to protest police brutality and the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody on May 25. The event, organized by several teenagers in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, underscored the city’s need for comprehensive change, Councilmember Jason Ritchie said.
Ritchie believes transitioning from the city’s long-standing reliance on policing contracts to a more localized public safety approach should be a first step, given the needs of the community have changed since 1999.
“We should have our own type of policing, our own type of public safety that is appropriate for our type of community,” Ritchie said. “And frankly, we’re a changing community.”
Councilmember Pam Stuart thinks the city should also use this time to reassess policies for bias.
“I think that’s the thing that this movement is highlighting,” Stuart said. “It isn’t just the terrible, awful abuse that we’re now seeing because everyone has a cell phone camera. It’s the fact that the problem is insidious. It’s in everything, it’s everywhere.”
But divisions are starting to show within the council on how to approach reforms to address racism, police and accountability.
Most of the change needed to address racism needs to come from within community members, Deputy Mayor Christie Malchow said in a social media post, stressing the importance of self reflection.
“In #Sammamish, policy makers alone cannot alter deep seeded emotions or bias,” Malchow said in the June 13 post. “It must start in your own home.”
Malchow emphasized her respect for both community members and police officers.
Her post originally contained an image of a ‘Thin Blue Line Flag,’ which has been previously flown in support of police officers, and symbolizes the role of law enforcement as a ‘thin blue line’ protecting society from the chaos and crime represented by the flag’s black color stripes.
The image gained increasing controversy when white supremacists carried the flag at an alt-right rally in 2017. Other sheriff and police departments across the country removed the flag in recent weeks due to recent protests.
Malchow later edited the post and removed the flag image after several community members criticized her intentions for including it. She did not respond to the Sammamish Independent’s request for comment.
During a meeting on June 16, council members reviewed anti-bias policies currently in effect in Sammamish. The city is fully compliant with existing anti-bias policies as an equal opportunity employer, according to Celia Wu, the City’s communications director, who gave a policy presentation.
Police Chief Daniel Pingrey also spoke about existing anti-bias training programs within the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO). Officer training includes de-escalation and control tactics, implicit bias training and crisis intervention training, he said. Officers also receive training on justice-based policing, which focuses on the need for personnel to “listen and explain with equity and dignity.” KCSO is now working to clarify policies requiring verbal warnings before shooting occurs and the duty of officers to intervene in excessive force incidents.
The City Council did not directly address the June 4 protest or rising calls in Washington state to defund police departments and redistribute funding to other community needs.
With over $65 million in the city’s 2020 general budget, Sammamish has enough resources to increase funding for human services, road development and a full-time local police force, Ritchie said. He believes the decision not to is purely political.
Police services in Sammamish received more than $7.8 million dollars in funding for the 2020 year, per the city’s latest revised budget. But re-examining and changing the city budget distribution would likely take time, Stuart said in a separate interview.
“It’s a little bit complicated to start to unravel all of this,” she said. “That’s not to say that we shouldn’t push to do that, but I don’t know that something is going to happen immediately.”
Stuart, who attended the June 4 protest, said she was pleasantly surprised by the turnout of young protesters and organizers. The conversations between teenage protesters and police officers, as well as displays of protest solidarity, deeply resonated with her.
“I haven’t heard of anything horrible happening [in Sammamish], but I also think that just because no one died on video doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for improvement,” Stuart said. “We should always be striving to improve.”
The city is now working to organize a town hall to provide community members with a more formal forum to discuss racial justice, police and fire department relations, Wu, the city’s communications director, said during her June 16 presentation. A date has not yet been set.
The June 16 council meeting concluded with a unanimous vote in favor of having the Arts Commission explore a new art project representing racial and social justice in the community.
Ritchie said he is still doubtful about the reality of implementing more meaningful reform in Sammamish.
“I don’t think people’s perceptions are going to change,” he said. “When it comes to whether or not we’re going to see any concrete change from this, I think that the establishment is strong.”