Lofty goals find high hurdles in county’s Office of Social Justice

In the wake of protests, Snohomish County created an office for police oversight, bail reform and anti-racism. How much was achieved?

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EVERETT — Conceived in 2020, Snohomish County’s Office of Social Justice aimed to change the landscape of law and justice here through a slew of headline-grabbing goals: a community-led police oversight board, cash bail reform, anti-racist training and body cameras for police.

Yet many of those ambitious targets, set by Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, have been thwarted by funding limitations, logistical issues and a lack of political will, according to members of the office and county officials.

“It’s like saying we want to end racism,” county spokesperson Kent Patton told The Daily Herald. “These are not necessarily easy goals. And there aren’t necessarily singular barriers. But you sort of have to lay them out there and say, ‘Yes, we want to end racism. We want to end institutional racism and systemic racism.’ But a county executive wouldn’t have all the power to do that.”

Somers announced the new office and its agenda amid widespread protests calling for racial justice, in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.

Only this year was the OSJ allocated a substantial budget — more than $3 million.

To explain the slow progress, Somers noted the office was working with just a $250,000 budget until January.

“It’s February,” he said.

OSJ still has no full-time employees, instead relying heavily on two county staff members to run the office.

‘Asking for some transparency’

Perhaps the most controversial piece of Somers’ announcement was a new police oversight board that could hold deputies accountable for misconduct.

Under a proposal drafted in 2020, the community board could review use of force by the sheriff’s office, hire independent investigators to review complaints against deputies, subpoena the county council for records, review the sheriff’s office’s compliance with state law and provide policy recommendations.

The proposed board would not have disciplinary power. But it would shift power from the sheriff’s office to civilians, and it would be a paradigm shift from police investigating their own.

Still, it was never even pitched to the county council.

“Quite frankly, it’s been a little while since we’ve talked about whether we recreate that or revisit that,” Somers said this month.

OSJ leaders Alessandra Durham and Annie Cole said the county wanted to hold off on the idea in case state lawmakers mandated local oversight boards when they convened in early 2021.

Several bills reshaping policing were signed into law, including one establishing a new state office to look into violent police interactions. But efforts fell flat to create community oversight bodies.

“I think we’re still waiting to see what the Legislature does this year,” said Jason Schwarz, who directs the Office of Public Defense and works with OSJ.

It would be “frustrating,” Patton said, to backtrack in the face of new state laws.

“If we go down a path of starting another in-depth conversation on this, and then the Legislature comes in and blows it up, then we have to start from ground zero again,” he said.

Patton pointed to HB 1203, a proposal mandating local community police oversight boards. It died in the 2021 legislative session and made little progress this year, then failed to meet a cutoff date this month.

He also cited HB 1507, a bill creating an Independent Prosecutions Unit under the attorney general. It also failed last year and did not make a key cutoff date this month.

Locally, political will around police oversight is also a hurdle, county officials said.

“The community is asking for some transparency,” Schwarz said. “And that isn’t always easy to go to another department and ask them to do.”

It can get “chaotic” at a local level, Somers said: “It lends itself to people saying, ‘Oh, you’re just anti-police.’”

Sheriff Adam Fortney, who describes himself as conservative, declined to be interviewed for this article. In 2020, he said he wouldn’t oppose a community oversight board, as long as he had final say over disciplinary actions.

County Councilmember Jared Mead, a Democrat who chairs the Law & Justice/Human Services Committee, said he doesn’t have plans to introduce a police oversight proposal to council, regardless of what new laws are passed this year.

‘Ghost committee’

Going forward, OSJ leaders say the county’s Regional Law and Justice Council — an advisory group to county council — is the right place to restart conversations on law enforcement oversight.

“Historically, there are some good things that have come out of there,” Durham said, citing the group’s work on mental health court and housing policies.

Just one problem. The body hasn’t met in about two years, she said.

“The last time it was really active was about six, seven years ago,” Mead said.

In 2020, the county solicited applications for six new seats on the advisory group, specifically reserved for “marginalized, underrepresented and underserved communities.”

Some of those new members are frustrated.

“It’s essentially a ghost committee,” activist Castill Hightower said. “It’s less of an opportunity and more of a burden to even be a part of this committee at all.”

She described struggling for weeks to even get her official email address.

Luisana “Lu” Hernandez said she never got hers, and was never told how or when the group would operate.

“It feels like in the government’s game of optics, we were used as tokens to sway public perception,” Hernandez said. “There’s nothing progressive about inviting people of color to the table if you’re going to leave them in the dark without chairs.”

Mead said he wanted to create the positions preemptively. If a major law and justice policy is introduced into council, he said, a more diverse regional council should be on-hand for discussions. The group “fell to the wayside” after difficulties getting in touch with new members, he said.

“I also totally understand the frustration,” Mead said, “and maybe that’s more of a me-not-having-set-expectations-for-what-the-council-is and all of that.”

The group should have been part of last year’s budget conversations, Hernandez said, when the county council allotted the majority of its general fund to law and justice, despite the protest of some activists. That included money for new sheriff’s deputies, a bigger South Precinct, body cameras and upgraded helicopters.

“It seems reasonable to think that the … people of color that were appointed to this council would be looped into that conversation,” she said. “To any conversation.”

County-level police oversight is largely guided by law enforcement itself. The public can file complaints to the sheriff’s Office of Professional Accountability. Those are mostly investigated by the employee’s supervisor, according to the office.

The Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team investigates police use of force when the sheriff or a city police chief requests its help.

SMART’s board of directors is made of members from the sheriff’s office, the Everett Police Department and four other police representatives from across the county. Representatives from the prosecutor’s and medical examiner’s offices are included, but don’t have voting power.

Louis Harris, one of five non-law enforcement community members on the SMART board, said there’s “unprecedented inclusion” of community in police investigations.

“Of course we’re not certified police investigators, so we don’t have the level of training to direct investigations, but we’re certainly included,” he said. “And when we have questions it’s an open forum for us to ask questions and provide suggestions.”

Harris emphasized he was not speaking as a Mukilteo city councilmember, vice president of the county’s NAACP chapter or member of the Everett Police Chief’s Community Advisory Board. He described SMART as a “welcoming, professional group.”

“But I still think there’s more work to be done,” he said.

For Hightower, the activist, a community oversight board needs to have the power to discipline and fire officers based on its investigations. Hightower’s brother, Herbert, was killed by Seattle police in 2004.

Without disciplinary power, she said OSJ’s drafted oversight board is “a wash.”

“That’s a full no,” she said. “That means nothing.”

‘We can’t just abolish it’

Somers said there was “quite a stir” when he announced OSJ would work to reform cash bail. It’s a system critiqued for keeping poor people behind bars, when they’re presumed innocent until proven guilty under the Fifth Amendment.

“I don’t have the authority,” Somers said. “But by putting it out there, the courts and the prosecutor’s office have tackled, and are tackling, that issue.”

At a county level, Schwarz said, codified bail reform just isn’t realistic.

“We can’t take on cash bail,” he said. “We can’t get rid of bondsmen or the idea of bail. We can’t just abolish it and put everyone on court release … because there’s a state law.”

State law gives courts discretion to set cash bail. And in lieu of blanket reforms, defense attorneys seek to make bail more equitable on a case-by-case basis.

Each morning in Snohomish County, public defenders gather details from jailed people awaiting bail hearings.

“If you knew I was a dad and I had work, and everybody was depending on my income,” then it changes the answer to, “What bail amount is appropriate?” Schwarz said.

When it came to anti-bias training, OSJ’s original goals were “ambitious,” Patton said.

A news release proposed all county employees undergo “anti-racism, inherent bias and trauma-informed training” by fall 2020. That didn’t happen.

“They reached out to a few consultants and said, ‘Hey do you have the bandwidth to do 150 trainings over the next year?’” Patton said. “And all of them said, ‘Nope, we’re completely booked.’”

The office hasn’t conducted any formal implicit bias trainings, he said in an email.

“Rather,” Patton said, “we have been focusing on developing understanding of equity language and increasing comfort levels through that understanding.”

Somers pointed to cabinet meetings where department heads and elected officials discussed the book “Me and White Supremacy,” a New York Times bestseller on anti-racism.

OSJ officials said they’re the hub for other departments looking for guidance.

“Given how long we’ve been in existence, I think we’ve done a tremendous amount of work,” said Cole, of the OSJ team. “A lot of that work has been around building relationships so people trust us when we come to the table and talk about racial equity. And (so) there’s not so much tension and fear that a lot of that conversation brings up for people, because they understand we’re not judging. We’re not blaming.”

‘Crawling’

From Cole’s perspective, OSJ is in its “infancy.”

“We’re in our crawling, starting-to-walk stage,” she said.

In 2021, the office was given a tiny budget: $250,000 with the condition that county council pre-approve expenses. That caveat was time-consuming. Ultimately, OSJ used its budget to help resettle incoming Afghan refugees.

“It was a better use at that point to help our new neighbors,” Cole said.

About half of the budget had been intended for an “underserved communities analysis.” The idea was scrapped, Patton said, when “it became clear that communities were fatigued and frustrated with yet another request to analyze/assess them,” rather than tangibly helping.

OSJ is now working to complete a “disparity study” and “internal equity readiness assessment,” he said. It’s still looking for a consultant to help with that, and to develop a general strategic plan.

Somers said he’s happy with how OSJ spent its first budget.

“It’s just something that had to be done, and it’s working well,” he said, adding that he’s “really, really proud” of the county’s partnerships to help hundreds of incoming refugees.

OSJ has made progress in other areas. For example, a pilot program is underway to equip sheriff’s deputies with body cameras.

Patton said OSJ was “instrumental” in getting COVID-19 vaccines out equitably.

A 2021 memo to county council cited OSJ’s work directing federal relief dollars to Black, Indigenous and People of Color-led organizations and supporting Marysville students targeted with racist threats.

Officials are optimistic about 2022. OSJ has a few million dollars and more autonomy over how they get spent. There’s $750,000 for “training and education,” money for studies and half a million for a “Hate Has No Home Here” campaign.

“Overall, I would say I’m really pleased with their progress,” Somers said. “OSJ really serves as a sounding board and a service and advisory to anybody.”

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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