Nate Nehring, Jared Mead, Megan Dunn and Sam Low were joined by other Snohomish County Council members and staff during Monday’s town hall on race and criminal justice.

Nate Nehring, Jared Mead, Megan Dunn and Sam Low were joined by other Snohomish County Council members and staff during Monday’s town hall on race and criminal justice.

County town hall shows schism over whether racism is here

Some denied that systematic discrimination exists. Others called for reforms to fix the problem.

EVERETT — A man of color said it’s “scary” that he has to coach his children on what to do if they are accosted by police.

A white woman recalled how officers needlessly accused her Black boyfriend of having drugs during a traffic stop.

And yet, during four hours of testimony at a Monday night town hall on race and criminal justice, there was disagreement among the more than 50 speakers as to whether institutionalized racism has taken root in Snohomish County.

“As a woman of color, looking at a non-colored panel, you cannot tell me that systematic racism does not exist. It does,” one speaker, who did not identify herself, told the all-white County Council. “You cannot make changes for people of color when you don’t know the issues or you’re being blinded to the issues.”

The town hall comes as a wave of protests nationwide have called for an end to police brutality in the name of George Floyd, who died at the hands of police in Minnesota on May 25, and others whose lives have ended in law enforcement’s custody.

It highlighted the challenges that the council will face as it attempts to develop policies that promote equity in a county where some people say they live in different realities because of the color of their skin and others dispute that notion.

“This is just the first of many steps,” Council Chairman Nate Nehring said at the conclusion of the meeting. “All of us want to follow through with genuine action.”

The council announced the meeting after County Executive Dave Somers unveiled a sweeping racial justice plan, including body cameras, cash bail reform and a community police oversight board. There’s no definite timeline or funding for the county executive’s plan; Somers has said it will likely take years to bring to fruition and require support from the leaders of county government’s two largest law enforcement agencies, Sheriff Adam Fortney and Prosecutor Adam Cornell.

Monday’s meeting showed Somers that there’s still “quite a bit of denial” about the racism that exists in the county, the county executive said at a Tuesday morning press briefing.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. Still, “I think there’s been an awakening, and I’m very optimistic that we’re going to make some really real progress in our county and our community,” he added.

Several speakers at the town hall, including Ben Smith, expressed concern about racism against white people.

Smith said he was against Somers’ proposal to ingrain social justice in county government policies. He said Somers is “scared” of mob-like protesters who are “shouting for change.”

“Social justice becomes racism. Social justice becomes discrimination,” Smith said. “Let’s continue what’s so great about America and try to be colorblind about most things.”

Another man, Randy Hayden, called on the county executive to step down. Hayden accused Somers of “throwing gas on the fire instead of water” by sharing posts on Facebook about white privilege that Hayden said contained false information.

The town hall’s suggestions for criminal justice reform ranged from shooting unruly protesters with paintball guns to overhauling the public school funding system so that it’s no longer tied to property tax values.

The Snohomish County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is asking that the county create a community task force to review complaints of excessive force or misconduct by law enforcement, install dashboard cameras in sheriff’s office vehicles and implement training programs that teach deputies “how to recognize and manage systemic discrimination.” Sandra Palmer, one of the branch’s executive officers, made those requests after criticizing Fortney for his refusal to enforce Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Palmer also blasted Fortney’s decision to clear a deputy of wrongdoing after the deputy tackled a Black woman accused of jaywalking.

Sheriff’s Office personnel are required to attend two hours of crisis intervention training every year, plus additional instruction related to using force and preventing harassment and discrimination, a council staffer said at the beginning of the meeting.

Several people said two hours was not enough time.

Some called on the council to redistribute sheriff’s office funds to other programs and social services that promote community well-being.

Those suggestions echoed demands that a group of public defenders made on June 8 when they called on the council to allot half of the sheriff’s office budget to housing, counseling and other social services.

Advocates have made similar requests to “defund” law enforcement in cities across the United States. They say social workers and other specialists are better suited than police to deal with 911 calls related to issues such as mental health and domestic disputes.

“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 and housing and social services for mental health and health in general for people,” Lynnwood resident Yolimar Rivera Vazquez told the council. “People of color’s lived experience is being erased by other people’s comments. You really need to look beyond that.”

Attendees alluded to events that recently unfolded in Snohomish, when armed vigilantes lined the historic downtown in what some say was an attempt to protect local boutiques from alleged leftist looting threats that never materialized. One of the self-appointed guards waved a Confederate flag, and some wore apparel blazoning hate group symbols.

A few people who spoke during Monday’s meeting defended the vigilantes.

“It didn’t look violent at all while we were there,” said Dave Goldsmith, a Snohomish resident, who added that he was against violating the Second Amendment gun rights of those on Snohomish’s First Street.

Others, though, called for a deeper investigation into the incident and any involvement by hate groups.

Brittany Tri, an attorney who lives in Everett, stressed the need for fundamental criminal justice reform, beyond additional training for officers.

“We have to modify the entire system, not just individual officers’ actions,” Tri said. “This is not about weeding out bad eggs or individual racists in the system. This is a system that we have seen consistently brutalizes people of color, people in poverty.”

The meeting, which was originally slated for 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., continued until 10 p.m. It drew several hundred viewers.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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