Snohomish County councilmembers hear from citizens on racism, criminal justice reform

Snohomish County officials and other participants on Monday night’s Zoom forum.

The Snohomish County Council held a virtual town hall meeting Monday, June 22 to gather public comments by video conference or telephone about racism and criminal justice reforms. A
majority of those who spoke were in favor of addressing what they see as systemic inequalities and also supported the council’s resolution — adopted on June 3 —  in response to the death of
George Floyd, condemning racism and supporting peaceful protests.

The event drew 57 speakers from throughout the county and lasted nearly four hours, which was twice the amount of time the council had allotted for the town hall.

Maxwell Mooney, of Snohomish, backed the council’s previous resolution but encouraged them to take it further. “I think we need to see substantive action and policy surrounding the
declaration, that shows action behind the intent.”

Many expressed the need for changes and urged the council, and people in general, to engage in actively listening to more diverse voices while exploring and discussing topics of inequality.

Comments reflected the feeling that racism is present and systemic throughout many institutions, from the federal down to local levels.

“People are just willing to go by their own narrative of, ‘Hey, I’m white nothing affects me, and it shouldn’t affect anybody else,’” Snohomish resident Irvin Enriquez said. “And until the voices
of Black and brown bodies are heard, it is the same story over and over again.

Rev. Carol Jensen, pastor of Everett’s Trinity Lutheran Church and chair of the statewide Faith Action Network, called for people to listen and learn about racism, especially from people of color. She said she would like to see police forces demilitarized while acknowledging that there are many fine officers throughout law enforcement.

“We believe that there are more just and less costly ways to ensure public safety and it’s time for our county to be looking deeply at this, at some of the other models, so that both justice and safety can be served,” Jensen said.

Several speakers said that in order to make changes effectively, they felt it is necessary to address the sources of these problems. Numerous people suggested that any efforts should start with increasing education, along with more social funding and resources for populations who are disenfranchised.

Yolimar Rivera Vázquez, of Lynnwood, said that police officers with guns aren’t necessarily the most appropriate response to a lot of emergency calls. “We need to shift these funds from the police department to actually deal with the root causes that people call 911 for, which is homelessness, housing, social services for mental health and help in general for people,” he said.

According to many who offered comments, there is a pressing need for more transparency and accountability within law enforcement and the criminal justice system. In addition to demilitarizing police forces, ideas included requiring officers to use body cameras, eliminating the use of chokeholds or restraints that can kill people, and more public oversight of police .

The panel for the Snohomish County town hall meeting included all five councilmembers, County Executive Dave Somers, Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell, Sheriff Adam Fortney, two judges and other county elected officials. Several people called out the lack of racial diversity within the makeup of the council itself and the panel assembled to address these issues. While members of law enforcement, the county prosecuting attorney and the judiciary were present, several commenters also called for including public defenders and social workers in the process.

Whitney Rivera, a public defender from Edmonds, said that based on her work experiences, it was hard to hear people denying the existence of structural problems with disparities. “I think we just need to all acknowledge that racism is part of the criminal justice system, it always has been and without a lot of hard work it always will be,” she said.

Many who spoke expressed dissatisfaction with Sheriff Fortney, who is the subject of two recall petitions related to an earlier Facebook post stating he would not enforce state stay-at-home orders related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Commenters speaking Monday night pointed to how the sheriff’s office handled the events surrounding racial justice protests in downtown Snohomish on May 31, which they said provided an example of misconduct and systemic problems in law enforcement.

During the May 31 event, militia members and vigilantes — many armed with military-style rifles and some of whom were reported to be wearing the patches of national groups that express organizational bias or hatred — had lined up along historic First Street in downtown Snohomish during peaceful local protests .

Participants said they were trying to “protect” businesses against an alleged threat of outside activists descending on the town for looting purposes. The protests were peaceful and the supposed menace from outsiders never materialized, mirroring and a multitude of similar false reports statewide and nationally regarding anti-fascist organizations coming to small towns.

Several people who attended the protests reported feeling threatened by armed citizens. There was also an assault on a high school-aged protestor later that night, and a reported atmosphere of tailgating, a display of the Confederate flag, and people publicly consuming alcohol.

Speakers said they believed that the sheriff’s department, which contracts with the City of Snohomish to provide city police services, didn’t adequately protect public safety by allowing the armed participants to intimidate and harass protesters.

Also brought up during public comments were countywide incidents throughout the county involving biased treatment and bullying, along with what some speakers saw as a rise in the activities of local hate groups were also brought up during public comments. Several people provided examples of either their own or direct family members’ alleged mistreatment at the hands of local law enforcement officials and also expressed fear for the safety of their children and/or grandchildren.

One woman, who identified herself as white but said her children are not, shared details about an encounter she said that her then-14-year-old son had with members of the sheriff’s department, adding it opened her eyes to what she felt was systemic racism.

Valerie M., who withheld her last name during public comments, said that her son was arrested for not wearing a helmet while bicycling. When the boy asked deputies what they were arresting him for, they threw him off his bicycle onto the cement, punched him in the head and kicked his ribs. She also said that after her son was handcuffed, the deputies taunted him, cut his backpack off with a knife, removed his belt and made him walk to the patrol car with his pants around his ankles.

Valerie said the boy was cited for failing to stop on his bicycle, and the officers said they were concerned about gang activity, despite him having no gang involvement or prior arrest record. The sheriff’s office wouldn’t return her son’s bicycle to the family until she personally spoke with the officer who assaulted him, she added.

Some of those who spoke – and who identified themselves as white — disagreed with sentiments that systemic changes to address racism and criminal justice reforms were needed. Instead, they offered suggestions like “teaching safety in schools. ”instructing kids to listen and obey police commands,” and more respect for law enforcement.

Dave Goldsmith of Snohomish said he opposes the idea of defunding the police. “I don’t believe in systemic racism,” he said. “I think clothes and body language are generally the reason for situations like this, not skin color.” He added, however, that police brutality and misconduct — along with governmental abuse of authority — do need to be addressed.

Council Chair Nate Nehring told the town hall, “We fully recognize and appreciate that we will need to continue this conversation and follow through with genuine action.” He acknowledged limitations of the format and urged the public to reach out to councilmembers by email with additional comments on the topics. Nehring said that after the meeting, the councilmembers would work to identify the next steps to be taken for continuing discussions and developing actions to follow.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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