More than 70 people tuned in Thursday to a virtual town hall discussion about police use of force and possible police reform in Yakima County.
Yakima County NAACP hosted the discussion as the final event of its annual celebration of Juneteenth, a date that commemorates the official end of Black slavery in the United States.
Panelists were city of Yakima Mayor Patricia Byers, Yakima Police Chief Matt Murray, Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney Joe Brusic and Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell. Community leader and activist Ester Huey moderated.
The recent death of Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd has sparked questions nationwide about the use of neck restraints within police departments, which surfaced during Thursday’s discussion.
Udell said that his deputies do not use neck controls — a decision he said the department made prior to Floyd’s death. Murray said Yakima Police Department policy does authorize the use of neck restraints in certain circumstances but added that police officers only used neck restraints in 17 incidents in 2019, of the more than 55,000 calls to which they responded.
Brusic said that his office generally “looks down” on any restraints around a person’s mouth or neck area. But he added that in conversations he’s had, some officers view the use of neck controls as a way to properly defuse a situation so that deadly force isn’t required.
Other questions centered around existing policies for law enforcement regarding use of force, how officers are held accountable for their actions, and whether city leaders had started discussions about police budgets and funding. Here’s a recap.
Murray said that the Yakima Police Department has published policies related to use of force, including that officers need to intervene if they witness another officer inappropriately using force. The department’s policy also requires that officers document all incidents involving use of force.
Murray cited department data that in about 99% of incidents, Yakima police officers did not use force. Murray said the department has not received a single complaint from a citizen about an officer using inappropriate force since he started at the department last year.
He also said he’s appointed a new lieutenant to serve in charge of professional standards to ensure that everyone who files a complaint receives a call back from the department.
Brusic said his office keeps and publishes a “Brady List”: a listing of the names of officers who have had sustained complaints brought against them about their honesty, bias, or integrity.
Brusic said the law’s process relies on law enforcement agencies to “police their own.” Law enforcement agencies investigate alleged complaints against officers. If the agency finds the officer acted inappropriately, those results need to be reported to his office, Brusic said.
Murray said all Yakima Police Department officers have received training in racial bias, de-escalation techniques, and use of force parameters, for at least the past three years.
Murray said the most recent training for racial bias was an 8-hour course taught by an African American man from Seattle.
Byers said she had not spoken with other city leaders within Yakima County about making possible county-wide, uniform policy changes related to police reform.
Murray said he’d be against such an approach, as localized policies allow for local feedback and also for community members to hold leaders accountable.
Byers said she’s been involved in early discussions about defunding the police department but asked for clarification on what specific aspects of the department the community wanted defunded.
Huey clarified that the nationwide push is for a re-allocation of funding to alternate agencies, such as mental health organizations.
Byers noted that Yakima already has an agreement for designated crisis responders with Comprehensive Health Care, through which trained mental health professionals can accompany police officers on calls.
Byers said the Yakima police department already isn’t fully staffed- in a recent update to council, Murray noted only 109 of the department’s 133 staffed officer positions are considered “deployable”- and added that additional “trims” to the department’s staffing likely wasn’t feasible.
Washington Initiative 940, approved by voters in 2018, created a “good faith” test to determine when use of deadly force by police officers is justifiable, required officers to receive de-escalation and mental health training, and also required officers to obtain medical treatment for individuals if needed.
Brusic said he had worked with police departments within the county to create a special investigations unit that provides independent review of any officer-involved shooting or incident involving use of force.
Brusic said that when he reviews cases, he looks at what an officer knew at the moment of using force and whether the response could be considered “reasonable,” as determined by state law.
Murray said he had asked a Hispanic pastor and a member of the NAACP to serve as the two citizen representatives on the special investigations unit to ensure diverse representation.
Both Murray and Udell said they were in favor of outfitting law enforcement agents with body cameras but that costs of implementing and maintaining the equipment could be prohibitive.
Udell said benefits of body cameras include less complaints filed against officers and also better evidence in the event an officer would act with inappropriate force.
But he said start up costs for equipping deputies with cameras likely would be at least $300,000. The state’s public disclosure laws also would require archiving hundreds of thousands of hours of video footage, so that he’d have to employ a staff member full time just to handle video.
“I’m all for it. There are a lot of benefits,” he said. “But it comes down to cost.”
Murray said he helped start a body camera program for officers in Denver, where he previously served, and that officers generally liked having the cameras. Murray said video footage also proved helpful in resolving false complaints brought against officers. But he cautioned against the belief that cameras would be a cure for policing issues.
“The magic pill isn’t in a policy, or a law, it’s in the culture,” he said.
State data regarding confirmed cases of the new coronavirus shows Hispanic populations continue to be hit hardest, including in Yakima County.
Staff with the Washington State Department of Health said Thursday that data related to the COVID-19 pandemic shows a continued disproportionate impact on the state’s minority populations.
Paj Nandi, the department’s director of community relations and equity, said 44% of confirmed cases and 29% of hospitalizations are Hispanics, who comprise 13% of the state’s population, according to the department’s data.
Hispanic people also make up about 12 % of the total number of deaths statewide, Nandi said.
The Yakima Health District’s most recent data reported that about 50% of confirmed cases are people who identified as Hispanic, compared to about 19% of confirmed cases among whites and about 4% of confirmed cases among American Indian and Alaskan Native people.
Hispanic people make up about 49% of Yakima County’s population, according to the district’s data.
Amy Reynolds, who works with case investigation and contact tracing for the state Department of Health, said the department collaborates with local health districts on messaging and public education efforts.
But the department also allows local health districts to conduct outreach efforts in the ways they feel will resonate most with their communities, Reynolds said.
The state Department of Health already has started working with the Yakima Health District on a three-month media campaign to reach Hispanic communities, as well as to aid with on-the-ground efforts, DOH staff said Thursday during a conference call hosted by the Latino Civic Alliance and the Commission on Hispanic Affairs.
A focus of that media push includes educating people about the importance of wearing masks while in public to slow the spread of the new coronavirus as well as how to wear a mask properly.
The health district and local nonprofits have been attempting to address issues of equity, including whether people in Spanish-speaking communities have equal access to information about COVID-19 as well as masks.
Several groups in Yakima, including the Latino Community Fund, also have been engaged in public education and outreach efforts.
Cristina Ortega, community organizer for civic engagement and advocacy for that organization, said the group has distributed more than 600 masks to essential workers and others in June alone.
The organization also continues to educate Spanish-speaking communities about COVID-19 and precautions they should take, Ortega said.
SELAH — Selah City Administrator Don Wayman is keeping his job, but the city will be preparing a code of conduct in the wake of Wayman’s remarks about the Black Lives Matter movement.
City Council members discussed Wayman’s comments and the public backlash against them during a special council meeting Wednesday night that was mostly conducted in closed session.
While no action was taken against Wayman, the council agreed to complete work on a code of conduct for both council members and city staff, including Wayman.
“I am personally disappointed in his words as he works as the city administrator,” Councilman Russ Carlson said Thursday. “He stated that they are his words and his opinions only, but when he sits in a position like that, he is a public official.”
While Councilman Kevin WIckenhagen apologized for a letter he wrote defending Wayman’s characterization of Black Lives Matter as a “neo-Marxist organization,” Wayman reiterated his remarks in a prepared statement that used comments from a conservative commentator without attribution.
“Perhaps some of you believe you are representing a universally outraged community. This is simply not true,” Wayman said. “The vast majority of our residents still value a city administrator who’s willing to stand up to a group devoid of intellect and reason.”
Wayman’s remarks did not satisfy his critics, who believed he should have been disciplined for his actions.
“That he didn’t get a reprimand is insane,” said Courtney Hernandez, one of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter protest in Selah.
The controversy began June 6, when Black Lives Matter protesters staged a demonstration in front of the Selah Civic Center. Yakima Councilwoman Holly Cousens said Wayman pulled up next to her and her stepfather in a city vehicle and, after introductions, Wayman told Cousens that the protesters were engaging in “communist indoctrination” with their chants, Cousens recounted in a post on her Facebook page.
Cousens also said Wayman patted the side of his jacket and said Selah didn’t have the problems Yakima did because most residents carried concealed weapons.
In an interview in the Yakima Herald-Republic, Wayman denied implying to Cousens that he was armed, but stood by his remarks about communist indoctrination and added that Black Lives Matter was a “neo-Marxist organization.”
After a meeting in which council members met behind closed door for more than 90 minutes, the council unanimously voted to have a code of conduct ready for the July 14 council meeting.
Mayor Sherry Raymond said at the meeting that a code was started sometime in the past, but never completed. She also said that training can be provided for council members and staff about how to conduct themselves when dealing with the public.
Wickenhagen, who earlier defended Wayman’s labeling of Black Lives Matter as neo-Marxist by citing a definition of the philosophy from a crowd-sourced dictionary, apologized for the division his comments caused in the community, which he said was his worst nightmare.
“I did not stop to realize that most of the Selah citizens who marched or supported the march probably did not know about the politics, political affiliations or the policies of the organization known as Black Lives Matter,” Wickenahgen said. “In the emails I have received, I learned they were marching because another Black person died at the hands of a police officer. They were marching because racism harms communities and needs to stop. They were marching because they were doing what Selah does best by pulling together in difficult times.”
Wickenhagen also promised to do a better job listening.
Hernandez and Bill Callahan, a city resident and critic of Wayman, both commended Wickehagen for his humility and willingness to learn.
“It was the perfect example of somebody who says he now knows better, compared to Mr. Wayman’s ‘might makes right’ approach and anybody who disagrees with him is a neo-Marxist,” Callahan said.
At the end of the meeting, Wayman gave what he described as his own opinion on the controversy. But his remarks quoted large portions of an article by conservative commentator Ben Shapiro accusing left-leaning people of promoting mob rule and crushing dissenting opinions, without citing Shaprio as the source.
“Once the group has been purified, change will only require the snap of a finger. No more gridlock, no more conversation,” Wayman said, using a line from Shapiro’s work.
Hernadez said there was irony in Wayman questioning the protesters’ intellect while plagiarizing Shapiro.
Wayman, in an interview Thursday, acknowledged that he had drawn on the words and ideas in Shapiro’s article, but said he was not plagiarizing.
“I don’t believe I was suggesting I was the author,” Wayman said. “I would give credit to some of the words and inspiration from him.”
Wayman, in his statement, said he was experiencing the wrath of a mob because his opinion challenged Black Lives Matter’s views, and the group was now “conducting a coordinated campaign to destroy my reputation and eliminate me as your city administrator.”
He also vowed to continue to provide leadership for city staff, be fair in all deliberations, support the police and to uphold the oath to defend the U.S. Constitution he swore as a Marine.
“I will never quit or take a knee, even in the face of personal slander, lies and death threats,” Wayman said.
Councilwoman Suzanne Vargas took issue with Wayman’s characterization of Black Lives Matter as a “left-wing mob.”
“They are citizens of Selah and speaking out on something important to them,” Vargas said.
Wayman said Thursday he would take Vargas’ comment “for what it’s worth and give it the consideration that it is due.” He said his words about Black Lives Matter speak for themselves.
New COVID-19 cases topped 200 again on Thursday after two days of fewer than 100 cases, according to the Yakima Health District.
Thursday’s report was 204. It’s the third day this month confirmed cases rose by at least 200, bringing the total to 6,940. The death toll remained at 132.
Thursday’s jump in cases followed two days of double-digit figures. The health district reported 72 new cases Tuesday and 68 Wednesday — the two smallest increases in weeks.
As of Thursday evening, 56 people were hospitalized, including 14 on ventilation tubes.
Total recoveries rose to 3,475 the day before Gov. Jay Inslee’s order to make masks mandatory statewide goes into effect. Yakima County businesses must turn people away if they don’t wear face coverings and businesses that don’t follow the order could face fines, judicial action or loss of their license for noncompliance.
Yakima Transit announced Thursday it will also require riders to wear face coverings starting Friday. As with the state order, the city’s announcement makes exceptions for those with certain disabilities or health conditions, people who are deaf or hard of hearing, and children ages 2 and under, while kids aged 3 to 5 are encouraged but not required to wear masks.