How One Town Developed a New Way to Police
When a young black man told his parents that police handcuffed and detained him while he was trying to leave work around 4 am in Renton, Washington, they were incensed. They called their pastor and wanted to organize a protest. That pastor called the Rev. Dr. Linda Smith, the leader of the Renton African American Pastors.
Smith immediately called the chief of police, Ed VanValey, who reviewed the incident report and dashcam video. A 911 call had been placed by a security guard, who suspected a break-in. VanValey then met with Smith, the young man, and his parents, and explained police protocol, which had been applied without regard to race.
Nearly 12 years of work with its growing communities of color helped Renton and its police force defuse the racial tension that sits below the surface of much of urban America. “It could have blown into something we don’t want to talk about,” said Preeti Shridhar, a Renton city aide.
As police shootings continue to make headlines, cities across the country are looking for answers. In Fort Worth, Texas, on October 12, a white police officer killed a black resident, prompting another city to contemplate “serious systemic reform” of their police department, as the attorney for the family of Atatiana Jefferson put it. Jefferson, 28, was shot and killed in her home by a Fort Worth officer, Aaron Dean, who has been charged with murder. The charge against Dean came less than two weeks after former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murder for shooting Botham Jean in his apartment last year.
A national model for de-escalating this deadly trend may have emerged in, of all places, Renton. By building partnerships with its changing population, the city and its residents have agreed on procedures for preempting sensitive situations; established lines of communication and personal connection; and turned the development of cultural competency into a collaborative effort. Between 1990 and 2018, Renton’s population increased nearly 150 percent, to over 100,000 residents, and its nonwhite population grew even faster. Today, the city is majority nonwhite.
Yet, until police shot and killed a young black man in the process of stabbing another man last June, a Renton police officer hadn’t shot a person since 2010 and the city had never had a police shooting in which the suspect died. Renton police shot and wounded a man last week who, as in the previous case, was threatening other people, this time while naked and armed with a gun.
Now slightly below 46 percent white, Renton is the 20th most culturally diverse city in the country, when also taking into account linguistic and birthplace diversity. It sits near other majority nonwhite cities including Bellevue, Kent, and Federal Way in southern King County, the state’s largest. That county’s biggest city is Seattle, an ultraliberal though largely white municipality whose police force has been under a consent decree since 2012, after a federal investigation uncovered racial profiling and unnecessary use of force.
Both the demographic changes and Renton’s response to them occurred under Denis Law, the city’s third-term mayor. Besides him, the drivers of Renton’s diversity efforts have been his aide Shridhar and Benita Horn, an equity consultant. Their instinct, early on, was to implement ongoing diversity training for all of Renton’s public servants. They also assembled and empowered representatives from the city’s myriad underrepresented communities into a Task Force for Inclusion, which carried the weight of mayoral presence and commitment, and provided an essential connection to the police department. The police chief is a member of the body and, along with his officers, hears and addresses the concerns and needs of the various communities.
Meanwhile, just up the hill, Seattle is considered one of the country’s most liberal bastions and in 2005 was the first US city to create a race and social justice initiative. Yet, in addition to issues with its police force, Seattle has struggled to deal with homelessness, massive income disparities, and gentrification. Displacement of nonwhites has been so pronounced that the Central Area, the city’s only historically black neighborhood, flipped to majority white in 2000.
Seattle’s displaced were pushed south to smaller cities like Renton. The city was lucky to land Law, a well-liked media businessman and a former breaking-news photographer known for beating first responders to scenes. Even today, VanValey, his chief of police, will head upstairs at Renton City Hall to deliver an incident briefing only to find Law, portable police radio in hand, saying, “I heard.”
Law’s personal involvement early in his first term touched off a series of initiatives to improve access and equity in public services, the most visible being policing the community. Those efforts have led to Renton’s winning national awards for its inclusiveness and serving as frequent consultant to city governments undergoing similar transitions across the country.
“We’re not all the same, but government is for everybody,” said Law, who is not running for a fourth term. “And we should try to create an environment where people feel safe and engaged and welcomed. The question was: How do we do this effectively, and not just to say we’re doing it, so therefore we’re good people?”
For Law, the civic argument for inclusion seemed obvious: Growing trust and access in previously ignored communities would broaden the base for input and ideas, helping to change relationships and perceptions, which tap directly into customer satisfaction. Prioritizing equity and inclusion wasn’t simply a way to accommodate changing demographics. Law saw it as an opportunity to change the culture at City Hall in an effort to better connect Renton’s citizens with city services, including policing.
Early in Law’s first term, Shridhar was tasked with rewriting Renton’s mission and business plan. One of the pillars in the plan adopted by the Renton City Council in 2012 was “Building an inclusive city with opportunities for all.” All outcomes would be judged against that standard, and inclusion would be a competency criterion for leadership positions in Renton.
When Horn was brought on in 2014, she conducted an inclusion assessment, internally and externally, of city systems and access points. She also began annual, mandatory citywide training on implicit bias and related subjects. She helped develop what Renton calls its “equity lens” to identify unintended adverse impacts on vulnerable communities in policies, budgeting, and planning. The equity lens is a process of evaluating each stage of projects and policies; it led, for example, to the Family First Center, in partnership with former Seahawk star Doug Baldwin, among others, in the depressed Cascade neighborhood. Horn also helped implement measures that have produced more diverse hiring pools, most visible in the police force, which has had the most churn of any Renton department. The city adopted a blind application and recruitment process that removes most identifiers until the interview round, in hopes of reducing the chance for bias to invade hiring.
Adding a significant degree of difficulty to Renton’s transformation was the year when Law first took office: 2008, the start of the Great Recession. Washington’s state legislature had passed a 1 percent annual lid on property tax levies by municipalities at a time when the cost of operations was rising 3 to 5 percent per year. It also was when Renton annexed a depressed area, Cascade/Benson Hill, which now accounts for almost a quarter of the city’s population and where 12 percent of its residents live below the poverty line.
Today, Renton’s economy is booming. Its 3.7 percent unemployment rate is lower than the state’s, which is the lowest since the mid-’70s. Still, Law believed all along that any progress would be meaningless if people did not feel safe in their own city. It was a baseline necessity that he understood intimately through his newspaper work, relationships with first responders, and his own community involvement. Mayors often have the most opportunity to shape cities through the police departments, which are the most interactive faces of local government and have the most fraught relationships with communities of color.
As Law monitored police service calls early in his first term, he learned of high-crime areas near the downtown core of his city. Out of concern, he began communicating with a single mother living at a property besieged by drug dealing and violent disputes. One day, she e-mailed Law about shots fired the previous night, forcing her to take her young son downstairs to avoid the bullets.
“It just pissed me off,” Law said.
Law summoned his police chief—VanValey’s predecessor, Kevin Milosevich—and the longtime city attorney. He challenged them to come up with an idea better than the one he had conjured: stationing a squad car in front of the property with lights and sirens blaring, all day, every day. The three cooked up an approach known generally as “nuisance abatement.” This is a kind of focused civic attention on criminal activity, using a combination of police presence, inspections, and ordinance enforcement, and informing landlords, creditors, and lien-holders of the pattern of violations. The cost of accommodating a criminal element becomes too high; businesses or property owners move to stop it or, as in a couple cases, the businesses wither and close down. The tactics ended the service calls to the single mother’s home.
Today that neighborhood has a new award-winning STEM-focused school, Sartori Elementary. Renton avoided the trap of profiling low-income communities of color as the main targets of its nuisance abatement. It confined the strategy to individual properties or businesses and worked in its areas of redevelopment to actually increase low-income housing units. “We essentially created neighborhoods where people of all income levels can live in a quality community with access to amenities normally missing in areas where low income is heavily clustered,” Law said.
Although the complexion of the force doesn’t yet reflect the community it serves, it has made more progress on that front than the rest of city government. One of VanValey’s deputy chiefs, Kevin Keyes, is black. The department also has attached itself to all of Renton’s citizen-access groups, including the Mayor’s Inclusion Task Force, as well as the Renton African-American Pastoral Group, Latino Forum, and Vietnamese-Chinese Forum. It conducts regular access events, including a monthly Coffee with a Cop, in which the community is invited to question and interact with police at various locations in the city. Individual officers serve as voluntary liaisons, maintaining a consistent relationship with client communities via nontraditional policing activities such as pick-up basketball or school presentations.
The connections pay dividends. A Renton police officer last spring provided off-duty presence at the local Sikh Temple, Gurudwara Singh Sabha of Renton, during a contentious congregational election. The off-duty cop tried to intervene in an altercation, but was badly outnumbered and had to radio for reinforcements. The same officer was back the next week, at the temple’s request, for the announcement of election results.
The officer manned the entrance, opening the door and greeting the congregants. One of them asked the officer to remove his shoes and cover his head, in accordance with Sikh custom at places of worship. Wary of a reprise of the previous week’s clash, the officer said he needed to remain vigilant and could not comply, insulting his hosts.
The resulting furor prompted Satwinder Kaur to write an e-mail the next day. A Kent City Council member, Kaur once belonged to the Mayor’s Inclusion Task Force in Renton. She knew where to send the e-mail: “Because of my relationship with Mayor Law, I knew he would acknowledge and do something about it, or let me know what I could do so we don’t have these issues in the future.”
Law put his police chief on the case. VanValey met with Kaur and three representatives from the temple. To avoid future misunderstandings, the chief provided the temple with a 24-hour-access phone number. They agreed that officers onsite simply for presence would be prepared to remove their shoes and cover their heads. Officers responding for public safety reasons would maintain a respectful distance from the entrance to the temple. VanValey and his force were invited for a tour of the temple and a discussion about Sikh customs.
“There is a culture competency deficiency that needs to be [addressed] across this country,” said Smith, the head of the Renton African-American Pastoral Group. “Culture is the driving force behind good or bad, excellent or mediocre, and behind every system, process or strategy we embrace, implement or practice. We have seen this culture shifting in Renton, which equips all of us with knowledge about who each are and how we respond in our daily dealings with each other. It is ongoing, long-term work that must be done [between] the police department and the community.”
Smith raised a son in Renton. She said she remembers, when he was younger, stopping in front of a crosswalk and having a white male pedestrian spit on her car. In response to such hate, she forbade her son from having a driver’s license until after he graduated from high school.
“I did not want him to be stopped by the police,” Smith explained. “For black people, our goal is to stay alive.”
Given the way Renton has changed, she was asked if she would make a different decision about her son’s driving today.
“I think I would,” Smith said, smiling and shaking her head affirmatively. “I think I would.”