This story was updated Wednesday to clarify an earlier quote from Chief Pete Caw regarding Mountlake Terrace policing.
Prompted by a nationwide focus on law enforcement and racial biases, Mountlake Terrace city staff and police dedicated the city’s virtual Coffee with the City earlier this month to answering community members’ questions about police policies and procedures.
During the June 10 virtual meeting, City Manager Scott Hugill and Police Chief Pete Caw fielded questions from residents about the Mountlake Terrace Police Department’s training, hiring practices and de-escalation tactics.
More than 30 community members signed into the virtual meeting — a record number for the monthly informal meeting with city officials, according to Hugill.
Attendees included several community members concerned that the city is not doing enough to take a stand against racism. On June 2, Mountlake Terrace released a statement condemning the actions of the Minneapolis police officers, which led to the death of George Floyd after a white officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Dissatisfied with the city’s response, a group calling itself the MLT Anti-Racism Coalition requested a more direct statement from city officials. The group has a private Facebook page that community members can request to follow here.
The group has also started an online petition, with more than 200 signatures so far, asking the city to create a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission similar to commissions in neighboring cities, including Edmonds and Lynnwood. Last year, Mountlake Terrace City Councilmember Steve Woodard raised the idea at council meetings in October and December. Since then, no further action has been taken regarding forming a commission, the petition states.
City councilmembers also attended the virtual Coffee with the City meeting; however, they did not participate in the conversation to ensure there was no violation of open public meeting requirements.
Hugill and Caw opened the meeting by addressing frequently asked questions from residents, which have been made available on the city’s website. Many of the questions focused on department policies and practices regarding diversity and equity.
For the first question, Caw was asked whether the Mountlake Terrace Police Department has adopted the recommendations of President Obama’s 2015 Task Force on 21st Century Policing. Caw said the department adopted those recommendations in 2016 and continues to use them today. The six “pillars” of the task force include building trust and legitimacy, policy and oversight, technology and social media, community policing and crime reduction, training and education, and officer safety and wellness.
“It is our goal as a department to achieve these pillars of policing,” Caw said. “We go about achieving them in a variety of ways. Chiefly among them, training. Every training session we participate in quarterly reminds (officers) about these pillars and what they mean.”
When asked about the department’s commitment to anti-racist policing and training, Caw referred to the department’s policy against biased policing of any kind. He also pointed out that the department has received accreditation through in-service training from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) for its work against biased policing. Reaccreditation takes place every four years and the last training session was in 2019.
“In accreditation you have to not only have a policing talking about bias-based policing — and the fact that you are not practicing bias-based policing in a variety of areas — but you have to submit proof you’re doing exactly what you’re saying,” he said.
Additionally, Caw said the department actively tries to recruit in communities of color to bring more diversity into the department.
“That is a goal of ours to be a diverse department,” he said. “We are a diverse department and we’re always eager to become more diverse.”
However, some residents said the department’s majority-white police force was not reflective of the community. According to the 2019 Police Department Report, 71% of Mountlake Terrace residents identified as white, 12% identified as Asian, 7% identified as Black and the other 10% identified as biracial or other.
However, Mountlake Terrace resident Lisa Hernandez said the department is not doing enough to showcase diversity. For example, she said there are no photos of police officers of color on the department’s website. Hernandez also asked Caw if he believed he was doing enough to represent the community in the department’s hiring process.
In response, Caw said the department recently has been receiving fewer applications for officers. He said one reason is because the area has other higher-paying jobs in technology that are more appealing than police work.
“I’d love to have…more minorities represented, but that’s sometimes a difficult thing to obtain,” he said.
Caw addressed a question regarding whether the recruiting officers reflect the communities they are in when his department recruits in communities of color. The police chief agreed that while that practice would be ideal, he added that there are logistical complications involved.
Hugill said that most of the department’s diverse hires have been done within the last decade and because those officers are newer to the city, they are not as knowledgeable in some areas as their superiors. Also, Hugill said newer officers with less seniority are often scheduled to work night shifts, and attending community engagement events could interfere with their schedules.
“Based on their lack of seniority, they tend to work nights, which means you’re bringing them in on a day they would be off and sleeping,” he said. “I’d rather that they have that (time) with their family.”
Mountlake Terrace resident Terry Hill asked where he could find the demographics for the department’s police officers. Hugill replied that the city does not track employees’ race. Though prospective city hires are asked for their race on their job applications, Hugill said it is only done to check if diversity levels are being met.
“That information is then taken and logged by human resources for purposes of reporting to the state and the federal government, but it’s an anonymous report,” he said. “We have chosen not to tie that to an employee.”
Emily, a 20-year Mountlake Terrace resident who did not give her last name, asked about transparency in the department regarding officers’ records — including complaints against them — and how available they are to the public.
In response, Hugill said those records are controlled by the state’s Public Records Act and complaints against officers can only be viewed by the public if they were proven to be true.
“That’s in place because police officers do get complaints for their behavior and if every complaint was out there for public view — even if it was not true at the end of the day — then we’d have a problem,” he said.
If a complaint is proven to be true, Caw said disciplinary measures are taken that range from a letter of reprimand to termination. Also, if an officer is found to have compromised integrity, is dishonest or uses excessive force, he or she could face criminal charges or risk decertification.
Since 1991, the city has had a Community Policing Advisory Board that helps promote public awareness of police services and programs, like crime prevention and the city’s annual National Night Out event. During the Coffee with the City discussion, Caw said it is critical the city and department commit to “re-energizing” the board.
Though he agreed about the importance of the advisory board, Hugill stressed it is not a police accountability board, which is not legal in the state. He pointed out Seattle has a police accountability board but under state law such boards have no authority, and disciplinary action is taken by police unions.
“It (the MLT policing advisory board) doesn’t involve citizens at all under the current structure,” Hugill said. “It’s good to get community feedback, (but) I don’t want you to have the false hope you will be able to determine holding police accountable.”
Resident Margaret Loiseau asked what measures are in place to protect officers who stand up to superior officers exhibiting unethical behavior or acting against the department’s policy. In response, Caw said officers who report that behavior should not fear repercussion because it is in fact their job to do so. He added that officers are more likely to get in trouble for not reporting in those instances.
“It’s part of (the department’s) policy that if you do that you’re not going to get in trouble,” he said. “Quite frankly if you don’t do that you’re going to get in trouble.”
In recent years, police officers across the country have been criticized for using chokeholds and other methods of force that obstruct suspects’ ability to breathe. When asked if the department uses chokeholds, Caw said the department does not, adding it is an unacceptable method for police. Instead, Caw said officers are taught to use a technique called the lateral vascular neck restraint, which he said puts pressure on the sides of the neck to cause unconsciousness.
When asked if officers are trained to shoot without intending to kill, Caw said it is unlikely that would work in any situation. He explained that officers are trained to fire at the center mass of the body and firing anywhere else, like the arm or leg, is not a realistic option and could result in someone else getting hurt.
“If you’re going to employ deadly force you have the risk of resulting in death,” he said. “Obviously, no officer wants to take a life, but if your life or the life of someone else is in threat, we have to stop that threat as effectively as possible.”
Hugill closed the discussion by thanking the participants for their engagement and assuring them the city is committed to continuing the conversation. He also invited community members to contact officials through the city website.
“The first step is to learn and by listening to this conversation I’m learning, the chief is learning the council is learning and from that we can ID steps to change,” he said. “This is not the last time we’re going to have this conversation.”
–By Cody Sexton