200626-yh-news-townhall-2.jpg

In this photo taken on Friday, June 19, 2020, a man holds placards against police brutality and harassment during a Juneteenth celebration at the Henry Beauchamp Community Center in Yakima, Wash. This year, the Yakima County NAACP's celebration of Juneteenth, which marks the official end of Black slavery in the United States, also drew participants concerned about policing practices in the country. The organization held a virtual town hall with Yakima City leaders on Thursday to discuss local policing measures. 

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.

Q. Does Yakima have clear standards for officers regarding use of force? How are officers held accountable?

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.

Q. Do officers receive training in racial bias? Who teaches those classes?

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.

Q. Has the city of Yakima started discussions about police reform or defunding the police?

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.

Q. How have local law enforcement agencies approached implementation of I940?

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.

Q. What about body cameras?

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.

Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.