Dec 26, 2020
In this episode, Crystal brings on her colleague Shannon Cheng, ACLU People Power activist and all around wonderful person, to talk about what’s next for policing in 2021, what action on policing we can we can expect from the upcoming legislative session, and follow Shannon’s path into activism.
A full text transcript of the show is available below, and on the Hacks & Wonks blog at www.officialhacksandwonks.com.
Learn more about ACLU People Power: https://www.wethepeoplepower.org/kcca
Learn more about bills during this legislative session: https://leg.wa.gov/
Find your state representatives here: https://app.leg.wa.gov/districtfinder/
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s Police Union Contract Toolkit: https://www.naacpldf.org/wp-content/uploads/LDF_07242020_PoliceContractToolKit-12c.pdf
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to Political Hacks and Policy Wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work, and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Today, joining us is Shannon Cheng, who in addition to being a colleague of mine at Fincher Consulting, is an activist with ACLU People Power. Thanks for joining us, Shannon.
Shannon Cheng: [00:00:56] Thanks Crystal! Excited to be here.
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:58] Thank you! Excited to have you - so why don't you tell us a little bit about who People Power is.
Shannon Cheng: [00:01:04] Yeah, so People Power is a grassroots project of the ACLU. What they do is, sometimes they will provide blueprints of campaigns to further civil liberties for all, but it's up to volunteer organizers to choose tactics and put them into motion. So it's truly grassroots and it was pretty exciting for me to get involved. I was not really a politically active person, but like many other people in early 2017, I was feeling pretty adrift and powerless after the election of Trump and was looking for something to do to change something.
Crystal Fincher: [00:01:38] That completely makes sense, so what did you do?
Shannon Cheng: [00:01:41] So, yeah, there was a call to action by the national ACLU on - this first campaign was called Freedom Cities, which involved meeting with local law enforcement agencies to ensure that people's constitutional rights weren't being violated through cooperation with federal immigration enforcement. And yeah, kind of at the same time, our local affiliate, the ACLU of Washington, approached our group about supporting local police accountability reform. So as part of that work, we helped advocate for passage of some local ordinances. One was at the King County level and expanded the authorities of the County's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight. And then there was also the City of Seattle's Police Accountability Ordinance that, in response to the work on the consent decree, enshrined a three-body system to allow for community input and civilian oversight.
Crystal Fincher: [00:02:31] In your work on that and starting out, how did that affect you or what ended up happening at that time?
Shannon Cheng: [00:02:38] I hope that people listening to this can feel inspired about starting their own journey as an activist, because I really knew absolutely nothing when I started. And have just been learning along the way and just having my eyes opened to how the world works. And so what happened was both of these ordinances we were asked to help - they passed and there was much joy and excitement. We got to celebrate alongside everybody in community who had fought for those reforms for way longer than we had been there. And it's really kind of humbling to just get to be there at the finish line.
But I think a lesson that I've gradually learned through activism is the work doesn't stop at wins like these . Actual follow through is key and in this case, accountability for a robust accountability system needed to happen. And so though we had that victory in May 2017 when Seattle City Council unanimously passed our landmark accountability law, we had a huge setback in November 2018, when that same City Council voted to ratify the SPOG, or Seattle Police Officer's Guild contract, which contained provisions that watered down that accountability ordinance. And I think for me that City Council meeting where that happened was a huge turning point for me, where I naively entered thinking, Oh, well, you know, the last time we were here this passed. And gradually at the meeting, hearing community member after community member come up to testify about how collective bargaining and police accountability aren't mutually exclusive, and then to see the writing on the wall as councilmembers made speeches and ended up supporting the contract anyway.
A core group of us stayed engaged after that, trying to monitor the city's progress on the consent decree and the new police contract negotiations that are now upcoming. And honestly, earlier this year it was feeling a bit hopeless. Despite being court-ordered in 2019 specifically to address accountability, the City had been stalling on that front and in early May of this year filed a motion to end independent monitoring of Seattle Police Department's use of excessive force and racial bias in policing. And meanwhile, the pandemic was in full force and community groups were focused on trying to take care of their communities. So it just felt like they were trying to slip something through when people weren't able to pay attention. And I think this felt alarming - that community was just going to be ignored.
Crystal Fincher: [00:05:08] Which had been the case in the past, and I share your feeling with the approval of the 2018 SPOG contract and seeing accountability measures rolled back and watered down, and feeling like we just took a big step back and wondering where do we go from here? And also that it's a really complicated process. Once we start talking about the Guild contract and some of the really inside process, it's hard for the average person who hasn't been engaged in this process to follow the process through. And certainly looked like maybe this was going to happen again and we were going to take another step back. And then - George Floyd was murdered. After so many other Black people have been murdered and assaulted and civil rights being violated at the hands of police - and it was just a breaking point - the straw that broke the camel's back and protests broke out nationwide, including in Seattle, and brought a huge focus directly onto police accountability. How did that impact your group?
Shannon Cheng: [00:06:21] Yeah - that moment was a real tipping point. Our core group had been trying to understand the systems - where were the levers of power - speaking to our City Council members, trying to affect change, and testifying at meetings to try to make the next contract negotiations go in a better way. And like I said, it was feeling hopeless, but then after that event and all the protests breaking out, immediately there was this spotlight on all these issues that had always been there but just been able to be ignored by the broad public. And within a week, I think, after protests broke out, the City of Seattle withdrew that motion - trying to get out from being monitored. And it was kind of funny because it felt like, Okay, our goal is now done. But as I said before, the work doesn't end there. And so what ended up happening is our somewhat sleepy little group suddenly had a giant uptick of interest and people coming from all over, wanting to work with us. And we were a little overwhelmed, because we had been so focused on a particular goal, that at that point had been met. And so it was about trying to regroup and re-understand and listen to what the protestors and community members were saying. And try to understand - where do we go from there?
So we ended up helping support - locally here in Seattle, we had months of budget talks - this deep questioning of what the role of police is in the City of Seattle, and what we would want that to look like, and what kind of accountability measures could come from that. In addition, with the large outpouring of new support - we had people reaching out to us who wanted to help, who didn't specifically live in the City of Seattle - so we ended up wanting to broaden our focus and we found an opportunity at the King County level to help out, as in this past election in November, there were four charter amendments on the ballot that specifically were about police reform. And so we worked on a campaign to help support and pass those, which they all did successfully. And then, we're also looking at the upcoming state Legislative Session where a lot of policy and bills are being introduced - that some of them are foundational to being able to get a lot more of this work done at all the other levels.
Crystal Fincher: [00:08:51] You talked about action in the City, action in the County, action at the legislative level - talking about police accountability, reform, transformation - is not just a one-jurisdiction job. It touches so many. How do you manage that?
Shannon Cheng: [00:09:11] It's a little dizzying. Trying to wrap one's head around all the different layers - there's your local jurisdiction's police department, there's the local police guilds, there's just the local government - in Seattle, we have the Mayor and the City Council - just trying to understand how all those fit together and who actually has power to make some of the changes - that is something that we've tried to look at. At the City, we kept running up into walls - when we would have meetings with City Councilmembers asking about reforms, they would point to us to the State and say, Well, this is under state law and for that to happen, we would need state law to change. So basically, we agree with you, but this is not under our purview. So kind of pointing us elsewhere - and part of it as an activist is trying to understand what they're telling you - and one, doing your fact checking and make sure, making sure that's correct - that they're not just diverting you and passing you off to somebody else, but then understanding, Okay, the next step of this process - maybe it is to go to the State.
And then for Seattle, a lot of what got us involved in the King County process is understanding that when an officer-involved shooting happens anywhere in King County, whether that's through the King County Sheriff's Office, the Seattle Police Department, or any other city that has their own departments, such as Bellevue, Auburn, Kent - all those go through inquests that are under the King County level. And that was what one of the charter amendments was about - was about reforming that inquest process. So, you start down a path and it just quickly turns into this rabbit hole of all these interconnected laws and policies between these different levels. And it is hard to keep track of.
Crystal Fincher: [00:11:08] And looking at how - all right, we want cities to make a change and we want you to reduce funding, we want these officers to be held accountable - but understanding especially institutional power usually doesn't just rely on one method or one lever to maintain power and control. Usually institutional power is like tentacles - the entrenchment of our current policing system is not held actually within the police department. It happens quite frequently that an officer can be found to have violated policy and/or the law, and then can appeal it - go through arbitration - appeal that discipline. A Chief can fire them and then that decision can be overruled and the police officer can wind back up on the force. So it looks like police chiefs are ultimately powerless when it comes to establishing a culture and setting discipline - certainly rots the culture of a department - is completely demoralizing to people who feel like they are doing their jobs in the right way, but it leaves them powerless. How do you get around that issue? Does that lie in the Guild contract? Does that lie in other laws? How does that get fixed?
Shannon Cheng: [00:12:31] This problem is really huge and I think in some ways, it lies everywhere. We, as community members, need to be engaged and continuing to pressure our elected officials who have different levers of power - that this is important. The police guild definitely has a huge role in it. They, under state law, get to collectively bargain in what way discipline and accountability happens when there's officer misconduct. Even though the City can pass an ordinance, as Seattle did in 2017, it doesn't actually become law unless it's accepted into the police contract, which are done through these closed-door negotiations, and that there's very little public insight into what actually happens there. At the same time, city government does have the power that City Council could reject a police contract, if it comes out from behind those closed doors, that is not acceptable - but the police are very entrenched, as you said, and it has just been the pattern of accepting that what comes out is what we have to take, even though that may not technically be the case. Then there is this question - at the state level - that they could help empower local communities to be able to be better - to implement these accountability systems that have been proposed by taking it out of the collective bargaining process and making that something that is truly public - that everybody and anybody can see what's happening and understand what trade-offs are being made - and making sure that that is something that we all want. I hear a lot about people talking about needing to restore trust in law enforcement and sometimes I wonder if law enforcement trusts us - why are they so concerned and fighting tooth and nail against any attempts to put any amount of accountability process into place for them?
Crystal Fincher: [00:14:54] Just a reminder that you're listening to Hacks and Wonks on KVRU 105.7 FM. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. And today our guest is Shannon Cheng, grassroots activist with People Power.
Valid question. A lot of the conversation right now is philosophically on the front end. There's a lot that deals with accountability - after something potentially bad has happened - but there is a call for, Okay, let's actually not just focus on tinkering around the edges, as it appears to some people, or focusing on things that only deal with something after the fact. How do we prevent these things from happening in the first place? Hence, calls to reduce the amount of patrol officers on the street, reducing funding, demilitarizing organizations, and re-imagining what policing is and divesting from armed enforcement to community-based solutions. How do you navigate that?
Shannon Cheng: [00:15:59] Policing is very reactive. You call the police when there's a problem that is already happening or happened. And oftentimes, I think the experience of a lot of people is, when the police show up, they aren't actually helping or addressing the root cause of what the problem was that brought them to that place. To me, it makes sense to try to be more proactive and try to address those. And I think as we've been delving deeper into what city and police budgets look like, it appears that we're spending a lot on being reactive rather than being proactive. And so this is this issue of thinking about, Okay, are we going to just continue to reform a system that has not worked for many of us in the past, or currently? Or do we want to figure out how to transform it and society into something that better serves all of us, not just a few of us. And I guess that's, to me, like in my own life - if I think about problems - it's better to get to the root of things, but it's harder. And I think it's also - it's harder for people to quantify whether something has worked. And that is the issue and why, I think, we go back to being knee-jerk reactors to problems.
Crystal Fincher: [00:17:30] So as you're looking at what you're supporting, or what is on the table coming up in this legislative session in the near term - in local, regional and state government. What is that landscape? What is being talked about? What are the things that are going to be in front of bodies that have the power to change process and change the law?
Shannon Cheng: [00:17:55] So there's going to be a lot of bills related to policing coming up at the state level in January. Some of them are addressing police standards - so trying to change at the police level what happens - things that will ban chokeholds and neck restraints, no-knock warrants, unleashed police dogs. There are bills that are looking to demilitarize the police. There are bills that are looking at setting a statewide standard for use of force and when that's appropriate. There's also talk about having a standard where officers have to report misconduct of their peers. So that is looking at trying to change upstream what happens throughout an officer's daily day-to-day.
Then there's a lot of bills that are going to look at different avenues of accountability that are available. So when an officer misconduct situation does happen, what opportunities do community or jurisdictions have to hold those officers accountable. And so I think there's three different levels of accountability. There's the criminal accountability , which currently there's a lot of talk about trying to have truly independent investigations, where you're not having police departments investigate other police departments. They are looking to set up a statewide oversight entity to oversee that and potentially, also have an independent prosecutor for deadly force incidents. There's also talk about - at the civil liability level - making it possible for both police officers and departments to be held civilly liable for misconduct. Part of that is going to be removing the restriction of qualified immunity at the Washington state level. Then administratively - so allowing police departments or chiefs to actually follow through on the standards that we're setting and hold officers accountable when they don't live up to them - there is talk about trying to reform collective bargaining such that we do empower local jurisdictions to be able to hold officers accountable.
And then in support of a lot of these are talks about de-certification - having the ability statewide to de-certify officers from being able to get jobs at other police departments. There's also a push to have more transparency - so setting up databases that would track misconduct and disclose police activity. And then there's also talk about trying to empower the setup of local community advocacy boards across the State.
Crystal Fincher: [00:20:53] Okay, so that is a lot. And also, probably not enough. So if this is going to be introduced in the session, which starts on January 11th, how can people advocate for these? What do they need to do? And how do you recommend people getting involved and making sure that legislators know that they're paying attention and that they want this at the local level?
Shannon Cheng: [00:21:19] Thanks for asking that, Crystal . People absolutely need to be engaged and involved for any of this change to happen. We can't just leave it to lawmakers to make it happen. So what we need to do is show them that there is community public support for these reforms that are being talked about. So one of the best ways to do that is to look up who your legislators are, and write them an email, or call them, or even set up a meeting with them to talk about - if you have a personal story about how you've been affected, that is a huge boon for legislators to hear from you. And there's also opportunity - a lot of these bills will be going through committees that are dealing with Law and Justice or Public Safety, so you can look up on leg.wa.gov when the bill you're interested in is going to be in committee. You can - I think everything's going to be virtual this year, so in some ways it's going to be a lot easier for grassroots activists to take part. You don't have to drive yourself down to Olympia to be present and you can testify or just sign in and show support. I think it's about making noise that these issues matter to the public - and keeping up that noise - and continuing to put pressure on our lawmakers to live up to the vision that the community has for what policing could look like.
Crystal Fincher: [00:23:00] You mentioned getting bill detail and finding out who legislators are - we will include in the show notes for this podcast and the website - the links in order to be able to do that and to be able to track each piece of legislation that's proposed, the bill name attached to it, and a synopsis of what happens. There is a lot of good information that can be tracked down with those. So we'll include those in the show notes, but if someone wants to get involved with People Power, Shannon, how should they do that?
Shannon Cheng: [00:23:35] So we have a new website that we set up this last year and it is wethepeoplepower.org. And if you go there, there's a summary of what all we're working on and you can sign up - there's a sign up link at the bottom of the homepage, or if you do Get Involved -> Join Us that also takes you there. We will also likely be having action alerts on our webpage once Legislative Session starts, so check back for updates.
Crystal Fincher: [00:24:07] I want to touch with you, in about the five minutes that we have left, talking about collective bargaining reform that you talked about. Why is it important to be paying attention to what is happening with renegotiation of the SPOG contract and other police guild contracts for other city police departments, county police departments? Why is that so important in the overall conversation of reform and accountability?
Shannon Cheng: [00:24:41] To me, it's important because it empowers the local jurisdictions and police departments to have a say in what their police department looks like. A lot of reforms are being proposed, but if there isn't mechanisms in place where accountability for those reforms can happen, then passing all those reforms is kind of pointless. So what we need to do to strengthen the overall reform effort is prevent accountability being able to be watered down, contract after contract, in local jurisdictions.
Crystal Fincher: [00:25:23] So ultimately local jurisdictions don't have the final authority or the final say on what happens in terms of discipline for officers. And that's something that lives within the police guild contracts?
Shannon Cheng: [00:25:40] Practically speaking, that's how it's played out. As I said, City Council could refuse to ratify a contract, but I think what is more concerning is that the public is calling for wanting accountability, and understanding, and having transparency into how that accountability is happening. And by having the process by which that is set up happen in closed-door negotiations, the public doesn't have any ability to trust that their interests are being met. I think it's dangerous - because without this transparency, it sets up this assumption that we have a robust accountability system in place when we really don't. And so when something does happen that the public wants to call out, they are often going to agencies or officials who don't actually have the power to solve the problem. It just continues to degrade the trust that the public can have in the process.
Crystal Fincher: [00:26:57] The challenge that we are hearing from pretty much every legislator involved in this process and many community members - is this rule is unionwide, across the big spectrum of unions that represent workers. And I am certainly a strong proponent of unions, as most of us, especially in this region are. And so not wanting to tear down any union protections for general workers, but recognizing that police officers do have a unique role because they can impact people's civil rights with every contact that they have with the public - and do have the power and authority to use lethal force. And so it seems like that responsibility is far and above most other positions that are involved, and so the accountability that should be tied to it should be greater than most other positions involved. But the details and how to segregate police from others, in terms of the contract, and treat them independently as their role would indicate as appropriate, is a challenging thing. Do you see any other complications in that process?
Shannon Cheng: [00:28:26] It is complicated. I mean, we respect the rights of workers to collectively bargain fair pay, benefits, working conditions. I think - it's just police unions and guilds have been masterful at muddling up that push for workers' rights with their ability to avoid being held accountable. As you said, police officers have state-sanctioned responsibilities that other union employees do not have. And so it makes sense that they should be held to a higher standard for those. They have the ability to get in the way of civilians' life and liberty - and that is a serious matter - and shouldn't be left up to being weighed against how much they get for overtime, or how much vacation they get. It's a serious enough matter that it should be brought out into the public. We don't want to bring everything out - we want just this piece that is specific and special to law enforcement.
Crystal Fincher: [00:29:44] Right. And to that end, it seems like that is a conversation that is certainly occurring within the labor community. Here in King County where we're located, the King County Labor Council, or the overarching organization representing all unions in this region, in this County - actually expelled the Seattle Police Officers Guild, particularly after seeing their staunch resistance to any kind of accountability or oversight, and seeming defense of violations and violence perpetrated by some officers during protests. We have had the opportunity to talk about a lot in this conversation, but I think overall is just that - you started from just someone who felt like - I need to get involved and make a difference to someone who's involved in a number of advocacy, reform, re-imagining, and accountability efforts at all levels in government. And that other people can follow that same path and impact these decisions that are being made. And that they do need to be involved if we are going to push our elected officials to pass the reforms that are so necessary. So thank you so much for spending time with us today, Shannon.
Shannon Cheng: [00:31:07] Thanks Crystal! We all have our own skills and I like to call them activism superpowers. I think, for a lot of us, it's just trying to figure out what that is, and just go out there and make change.
Crystal Fincher: [00:31:27] Thank you for listening to Hacks and Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones, Jr. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii and now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts - just type in Hacks and Wonks into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get our Friday almost-live shows and our mid-week show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes. Thanks for tuning in. Talk to you next time.