Wary of racism complaints, police look the other way in black neighborhoods

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Witness refutes police account of shooting death

The cops on the street have different names for it: de-policing, selective disengagement, tactical detachment. They even joke about it, calling themselves "tourists in blue."

Whatever the term, rank-and-file officers in the Seattle Police Department say it is a spreading phenomenon in the city's black neighborhoods, and a logical reaction to chronic charges of police racism.

De-policing is passive law enforcement: Officers consciously stop trying to prevent low-level crime and simply react to 911 calls. Many officers, wary of being labeled racists or racial profilers, say they hold back or bypass opportunities to make traffic stops or arrests of black suspects.

Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske acknowledged yesterday that "some officers are being particularly cautious" in black neighborhoods because of the uproar over the police shooting death of 37-year-old Aaron Roberts on May 31. But Kerlikowske said he has seen no evidence that the trend has reached crisis proportions, or that it is even prevalent.

Black community leaders said yesterday they won't accept lax law enforcement; the police are paid to protect the public, even when it means taking heat.

But several officers said caution on the streets is inevitable and will hurt black communities the most as crime increases in their neighborhoods.

"It's real. It's happening," said Eric Michl, a Seattle patrol officer for 17 years. "Parking under a shady tree to work on a crossword puzzle is a great alternative to being labeled a racist and being dragged through an inquest, a review board, an FBI and U.S. Attorney's investigation and a lawsuit."

Not limited to black areas

Michl and other officers say they now question whether certain stops or certain tactics are worth the potential consequences. Such caution isn't limited to black neighborhoods. He described an incident Friday night:

A car turned left into oncoming traffic in the Crown Hill neighborhood, nearly causing an accident, then sped away. Michl said he stopped the car; the driver was a black man who acted very nervous and showed signs of being high on cocaine. The man carried no identification and no car registration, and he couldn't remember his birth date.

"Something was very suspicious," said Michl, who is white. "If he were any other race, I would have probably arrested him on the spot. But then I started thinking, 'What if he's on cocaine, what if we get in a fight and he dies, and then we find out he's only guilty of a suspended license.' I don't want to see my name in the papers."

Instead, Michl left the driver in the car while he walked back to his police cruiser to run a background check. The check revealed that the car was stolen. But the man, in the meantime, ran away. He eventually was captured, but Michl said it was distressing to go against his own police instincts.

"There are a lot of us who are extremely frustrated about this," he said.

Switch to 'reactive mode'

Last week, Officer Al Warner, a black officer assigned to the Central Area, stopped in front of Deano's bar on 20th Avenue and East Madison Street, where four black men were smoking marijuana in a car. The men accused Warner of racially profiling them.

"It's the catch phrase now," Warner said. "If I were an African-American drug dealer here, that's the way I'd play the game. It intimidates officers."

Warner said police in the Central Area have been less aggressive since the Roberts shooting and have switched to "reactive mode," focusing on serious crimes.

Roberts, a Central Area resident, was shot dead by Officer Craig Price after allegedly dragging Price's partner, Greg Neubert, with his car. It was found later that Roberts was wanted for escaping a work-release program. Price and Neubert are both white.

Capt. Nick Metz, commander of the East Precinct and an African American, defended his officers this weekend in a Times story, saying that the shooting was not racially motivated. The police account of events is being questioned by a woman who says she witnessed part of the incident.

It was the latest in a string of incidents that have put police at odds with some in the black community.

In April last year, David John Walker, an African-American man with a history of mental illness, was shot dead by a white police officer near Seattle Center; Walker had shoplifted at a Queen Anne grocery, fired two shots and skipped down the sidewalk waving a knife. In January 1996, a police officer accidentally shot and killed Edward Anderson, an unarmed black man, after a chase in the Central Area.

Of the 31 people killed by Seattle police in the past two decades, nearly one-third were black. Community protests have intensified with each shooting. And some officers say de-policing has increased as protests have increased.

Holding back at Mardi Gras

Some officers, such as Michl, say police restraint during this year's Mardi Gras riots was an example of de-policing. Most of the suspects in the Mardi Gras violence were black, and police leaders, knowing the violence was being widely videotaped, did not want officers battling with black suspects on TV.

"It wouldn't have looked good," Michl said.

But as police held back, a young white man was beaten to death by a mob.

Officer Tyrone Davis, who is black and works the Central Area, said police are hesitant to use any kind of force for fear of igniting a confrontation.

Protesters have called police racists and murderers. Residents taunt the officers with names. One woman spit on Warner's police cruiser as she jaywalked.

Despite those tensions, Metz said, the neighborhood around 23rd Avenue and East Union Street, which has had a long history of drug-related crime, was the safest and cleanest it had been in years, due in part to the work of Price and Neubert.

Critics say it's part of the job

Leaders in the black community said police must be able to take criticism, even when it's harsh and constant, and still do their jobs. Individuals who have the authority to arrest and the legal right to use deadly force must be subject to scrutiny, said the Rev. Leslie Braxton of Mount Zion Baptist Church.

"If they're saying that public criticism impacts morale, then that's an issue that needs to be addressed inside the department," Braxton said. "But I expect them as professional people to do their job, without regard to what criticism they may face. That's the burden of the job. Join the rest of the world."

James Kelly, executive director of the Urban League, said the recent outrage expressed by black residents in the Central Area must be understood in context. The anger, he said, is not about one shooting but rather about a long history of mistreatment blacks have felt at the hands of police and the criminal-justice system.

Chief plays down problem

Kerlikowske downplayed the problem of de-policing, although he acknowledged that officers have expressed growing concern over charges of racial profiling.

But he said the "cautiousness" that officers have been showing in the black community and with black suspects is temporary; the same thing has happened in other cities and after other high-profile incidents involving police and blacks. The Rodney King incident in Los Angeles, for example, had a chilling but temporary effect on officers nationwide, he said.

"We just want to make sure we're not doing something that will increase the tension," he said.

Officers who did not want to be named said another form of de-policing which is harder to quantify is the exodus of veteran officers from high-crime, minority-dominated neighborhoods.

Veteran officers with seniority request transfers to neighborhoods where racial profiling isn't an issue. The result: Those who patrol the highest-crime areas often are the officers with the least experience.

Many officers see the racial-profiling dispute as a distraction to doing their jobs.

"It's a ghost. It's a phantom," said Ken Saucier, a veteran of 16 years in the department. He is black. "As long as you can get people chasing the smoke, you won't have to deal with the real problem."

Threat to black neighborhoods

Saucier said the real problem is a thornier one, and lies within the black community. Police are deployed according to crime incidents. The more crime in one neighborhood, the more police. More police means more contacts with the public, and more potential for conflict.

Saucier and other officers cite statistics that consistently show blacks commit a disproportionate number of crimes, especially violent crimes. Department of Justice studies show black males, who make up 6 percent of the population, commit 40 percent of the violent crimes. The vast majority of the victims are also black.

Michl said the black community would be most affected by any kind of pervasive de-policing. He said most people don't understand that routine traffic stops, for example, play an important function, especially in high-crime areas. They show a police presence and spot the potential for crime.

"We're telling the bad guys that we're here and we're watching them," Michl said.

If that stops, Michl said, it's only a matter of time before drug dealers and gang members take control of the streets.

Saucier's words of warning for Seattle: "Be careful what you wish for because you might get it."

Seattle Times reporter Florangela Davila contributed to this article.