Exterior of Mercer Island City Hall. Blake Peterson/staff photo

Exterior of Mercer Island City Hall. Blake Peterson/staff photo

Mayor signs police reform pledge

The city council, who approved 6-0 signing, still voiced reservations about the pledge.

The Mercer Island City Council voted 6-0 at its July 21 meeting to have Mayor Benson Wong sign a pledge committing to police reform — specifically relating to use of force — in the city.

Councilmember Jake Jacobson abstained from voting.

The pledge, introduced by the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, calls for mayors and city councils of communities nationwide to review their police department’s use of force policies, collaborate with community members in the review, report review findings back to the community and then ultimately reform a city’s use of force policy.

The pledge had previously been discussed at a July 14 city council meeting. At that meeting, Mercer Island Police Department (MIPD) representatives additionally gave a presentation about procedures in the city in response to community demand and recent police-brutality protests.

When it came time to discuss the “Obama pledge,” which community members had requested the mayor sign, many officials at the July 14 meeting showed hesitancy. Chief Ed Holmes felt that the pledge was designed more for police jurisdictions “way behind” in their use of force policies, making it antithetical to the MIPD — a department he characterized as more contemporary and partial to updating its practices. Application of force is minimal on Mercer Island, and the policy itself had been revised recently.

Councilmembers Lisa Anderl and Jacobson echoed Holmes’ belief that if the MIPD was already showing diligence, then it wouldn’t be altogether necessary to sign the pledge.

Councilmember Craig Reynolds, on the other hand, noted that by having the mayor potentially sign the pledge, the city would be sending an “important message of commitment to the community.”

July 21 discussion

At the July 21 meeting, Holmes reiterated his previous stance. He said he didn’t want to create misleading community expectations about being involved in reformation.

Holmes added that while he wasn’t in favor of signing the pledge for Mercer Island specifically, that didn’t mean he wasn’t in support of the ideologies outlined. He later said that the police department intends to publish an annual report for the public to access at the end of 2020.

In the meeting agenda item, it’s noted that city staffers are currently working on a June 16 council direction to “engage a consultant to conduct a series of listening sessions for the community so that we can hear first-hand the stories of minority experiences on the Island, and gather ideas for what we can do to make the island a safe and welcoming place for people of all races and ethnicities.”

It’s also stated in meeting documents that the fourth item in the pledge assumes that the current use of force policy is “inadequate or misguided,” a framing the MIPD and several city officials don’t agree with.

“My concern is not with the principles embedded in that pledge — that is not my concern,” Holmes said. “In fact, I think if communities are not doing those best practices that I’ve described, the things that we do, I think they do need to be reformed and updated…My concern really is about if we tell the community that we’re going to reform the policy — and we, I think pretty universally, agree we have a good, solid policy — my concern is around community expectations. [The pledge] says that we’re going to have community outreach, engage the community. I think it is appropriate for communities that don’t have up-to-date policies, communities that have a lot of application of force, communities that really want to engage and share their experiences of how they work…That’s really where I’m at on this.”

Councilmembers Jacobson and initially Anderl, who said the pledge was “a slap in the face” to the police department (she later rethought the optics of not approving the pledge ahead of the vote), agreed with Holmes.

Other members of the council didn’t have the same stance.

Councilmember David Rosenbaum pointed out that engaging the community via a use-of-force review could provide a valuable educational opportunity. He said he’s had many conversations with residents who were not familiar with current use of force policies. Since uses of force are low on Mercer Island as it is, Rosenbaum said, community engagement could highlight the work done by the MIPD.

Reynolds said that if anything, effective and conscientious work by the MIPD helps make a good argument for passing the pledge.

“It sends a message to the community that … we consider this to be an important issue,” he said. “And I think on an Island that has at least some history of racist history collectively — not everybody, but collectively there has been — and some recent activity in particular of racist behavior by children in the community, I think standing up and setting an example saying, ‘we’re going to be anti-racist” — I think this is an important message to stand for. I think it’s an important thing to put our words out in front for what we believe.”

He further pointed out what it would look like more broadly if the pledge were presented to the council and then the council opted to not vote for the mayor to sign it.

“It’s one more thing that contributes to the stereotype of Mercer Island as the white flight enclave. And I don’t want to be known as that, and I don’t think we are that,” he said.

Councilmember Salim Nice, while ultimately approving the motion, felt like the pledge acted as a kind of “short-circuiting” of the community engagement that could tell the council, as a legislative body, of improvements that need to be made. He expressed some concern about the signing potentially standing in the place of substantive community outreach efforts, some of which had been addressed in the aforementioned June 16 council direction.

When talking with people of color on Mercer Island, Nice said, what he’s heard most is that they want city officials to listen.

“It feels out of sequence to go do things for the public, on behalf of the public…we haven’t done that yet,” Nice said. “So the question I wanted to ask is: are we going to do that? When are we going to do that? And is the public going to ask us to take this pledge or not, or some other pledge, or some other action? Why is it that we as a council, mostly not people of color, want to go do things for the people of color that our community — that we — said we would engage with hasn’t told us to do?”

When Anderl wondered aloud whether the motion had to be approved at the July 21 meeting, given the still not-so-uniform points of view on the council, Deputy Mayor Wendy Weiker stressed urgency.

“‘Why now?’ Why not now,” she said. “It’s been decades — centuries — of racism in this country…we’ve seen demonstrations; we had our own march last month organized by our youth, by our high school students. The time is now. Ed [Holmes] is doing a great job…[but] we can always do better.”

Weiker brought up a personal anecdote to reflect the gravity of the commitment.

“The night after [Holmes’] presentation [on July 14], a friend of mine, who is Black, was pulled over,” she said. “His plates were done. He wasn’t speeding. He was just sitting there. We can always do better. Our police chief can always do better; we can always do better. We can hire better; we can approve our boards and commissions better. Now is the time for us to acknowledge the systemic racism we have in all aspects of our society in our workforces, in our schools. Let’s take the pledge; let’s keep doing better. We’re doing great work. Let’s build on it…Right now, this is in front of us — we don’t have to wait. We’ve waited long enough.”

To watch the full July 21 city council meeting, go to the city of Mercer Island’s YouTube page.

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