One of the points of contention this week during the protests has been regarding Seattle police officers wearing “mourning badge” bands over their badges, which obscures the badge number and thus makes it harder to identify an officer who is using excessive force or other illegal police practices.
Mourning badges are a tradition among law enforcement agencies, to remember and honor fallen comrades, including those in neighboring agencies. According to SPD Chief Carmen Best, they are worn in the days between the death of an officer and the memorial service for that officer. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many memorial services have been delayed, and so the police have been wearing mourning badge bands for an extended period of time. SPD argues that the requirement for the officers is that their uniform include their name tag prominently displayed, which includes their first initial and last name, and that is sufficient to identify police officers in all situations. The South Seattle Emerald proved earlier this week that this is not the case — first initial and last name does not uniquely identify all officers. We also saw proof of why correctly identifying officers is important, when individuals on social media incorrectly identified a Seattle police officer and attributed the pepper-spraying of a child to him. It’s in the best interests of both the officers and the public to make it as easy as possible to identify officers, and when officers obscure their badge numbers it opens them up to accusations that they are trying to hide their identity while committing illegal acts.
Honoring fallen law enforcement officials is important. Police officers put themselves in harm’s way potentially every day on the job, to protect us.
It’s equally important to recognize that there is a documented pattern of excessive, biased, and militarized policing in the United States, and Seattle has not been an exception to that. Since the 2012 Consent Decree was put in place there has been substantial improvement, but the problem has not been solved. Excessive and biased policing is supported by structural racism in our society; both have done great harm, they continue to do great harm, they take the lives of innocent Black and brown people, and that deeply-felt pain that is carried every day by so many in our society has spilled over into the streets this past week.
We can hold both these truths in our head at the same time: we need to honor police officers who died in the line of duty, and we need to recognize that our law enforcement regime has killed and continues to kill people of color.
Earlier this week Mayor Durkan said that she and SPD Chief Best would work on revising the way mourning badges are worn by SPD officers, so that the tradition could continue but badge numbers would be visible. However, she said that the change could not be made overnight, and SPD officers are continuing to wear the bands and obscure their badge numbers. While she didn’t say why the change couldn’t be made immediately, one can assume that it requires negotiation with SPOG, the police officers’ union.
SPOG has come under fire over the past few years for obstructing the implementation of the full accountability system that the City Council passed in 2017, and that was designed and negotiated with representatives from the community. Through hard-nosed contract negotiations, SPOG managed to roll back some of the system’s provisions. While legally in their right to do so, it undermines the officers’ stated commitment to accountability, transparency, and their motto: “to protect and serve.”
Recently SPOG elected a new president, Mike Solan, who by all appearances is likely to take an even harder line in the next round of contract negotiations that are scheduled to start in the coming weeks. This is in spite of a letter he sent out earlier this week condemning the police’s killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. Words are not enough right now.
Here is my humble suggestion for a simple act that SPD officers can do today. In a few hours there will be a memorial service for George Floyd. Once the memorial service is complete, SPD officers should remove their mourning badge bands.
They can put them back on for the day of the memorial service for their fallen comrades later this year. But today, let us all mourn together, and let the officers of the Seattle Police Department show that they mourn with us and are ready to move forward along a better path.
Mayor Durkan and Chief Best probably can’t make this happen on their own. But SPOG President Mike Solan can show leadership and get this done. It won’t solve over-policing, it won’t solve structural racism, but it will be a symbol that SPD officers want a better system, one not based on centuries of racism and that doesn’t inflict violence on Black and brown people.
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