Community policing is the safety solution the ID needs

Mourners gathered at Hing Hay park in the International District to honor slain community leader Donnie Chin on Sunday evening. (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

When Donnie Chin was murdered outside of a hookah bar last July, it sent shockwaves through the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) community. Our sheriff, the Protector of the Chinatown/International District (ID), was slain, and we demanded that the outlaws be brought to justice.

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray’s response was to launch an effort to shut down all of Seattle’s hookah bars. Eventually, he backed off.

And for that, we are grateful. After all, the solution doesn’t lie with closing down all the hookah bars; rather, we must address the underlying cause of the problem: The ID is unsafe due to the fundamental way the Seattle Police Department (SPD) works in neighborhoods.

True justice lies in a shift to culturally appropriate community policing. It’s about building a trusting relationship between police and the people they protect. It should be more a partnership than an institution enforcing on a community. Police should be seen as trusted allies making a community stronger, not an outside entity there to keep people in line. 

That starts with hiring a diverse police force that grew up, looks and feels like us.

According to an analysis by Governing Magazine, three out of four SPD officers, or 75.3 percent, are white, as of 2013. That means less than 25 percent of the police force are comprised of people of color, compared to 34 percent of the overall population in Seattle. And just 8.6 percent of SPD are Asian, compared to 13.9 percent citywide.

Service, Pride, and Dedication” is the SPD motto. But the badge is not there to hide behind. It is not just the role of police to protect, but to serve. And that happens by being a part of a community.

True community policing is not a box you check, a tidy program you launch, or shutting down a hookah lounge. It’s about transforming the fundamental way you do business.

It might be complex, but community leader Maxine Chan, who served as an SPD community liaison to the Chinatown/ID neighborhood for 12 years throughout the’90s, boils it down to one question.

“What is going to make people feel safe? And that’s the key,” she says.

Community leader and former SPD community liaison Maxine Chan spoke at Donnie Chin's vigil on July 25.
Community leader and former SPD community liaison Maxine Chan spoke at Donnie Chin’s vigil on July 25.

However, it’s more than just importing cops to the ID. Yes, Donnie called for more police presence, but the long-term answer is what Donnie did all his adult life: being someone the community could trust who cared about them.

Whether it be the elder in the high-rise apartment or the homeless guy on the street; the tourist or the API families who — despite living all over the region — come back to where their cultures and ethnic identities are not questioned.

“It’s great to have police presence, but it has to be in partnership with the community and businesses down here,” Chan says. “Police that come down here have to know what’s happening. Donnie always knew what was happening.”

Donnie was deeply involved and empathized with everyone he knew in the neighborhood. But this kind of empathy can also be taught. Chan recalls “cultural awareness, cultural competency game” that used to be part of police basic trainings when she was an SPD community liaison.

Cadets were divided into different “families,” or pods, she remembers. The scenario was like this: the cadets were refugees who just arrived in the U.S. after their home country got nuked. The goal of the game is to get a job, learn the language and support your family. And no one speaks English to you the whole time.

Then the participants get arrested.

“I remember, I watched these people,” Chan says. “In those few hours of simulation, people got what it’s like to be a refugee. It started out, people were laughing, and it was fun. Then, people got put in jail. People were no longer laughing; they got pissed. ‘I know it was a game, but I was ready to punch out the jailer,’ they would say. That shifting, for that brief second, that gave me hope.”

Donnie’s death does not have to be in vain. We urge Mayor Ed Murray and the SPD honor Donnie’s gift of building trust in the community by engaging with us. Without this service, true public safety cannot be attained. 

The views expressed here are those of the writers and not necessarily of The Seattle Globalist.

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