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How One Town Developed a New Way to Police

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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.

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Thanks !

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