“Bunker” outcry: North Precinct discussions exclude Seattle communities

An artists rendering of the proposed Seattle Police Department North Precinct. Illustration courtesy the City of Seattle.)
An artists rendering of the proposed Seattle Police Department North Precinct. (Illustration courtesy the City of Seattle.)

Komalpreet Sahota told Seattle City Council members that she and others hadn’t received any formal invitation to be part of the discussion on the proposed North Seattle Police Precinct.

That is one of the reasons they felt it was important to come.

“The reason there are so many of us here is that we are the community you excluded when you were talking about community,” she told the city council at a meeting earlier this month. She and others from the movement Block the Bunker filled the room, opposing the proposed $150 million police precinct building that would serve the city’s north end. “We weren’t part of your conversations.”

North Seattle resident Pete Rogerson also stepped up to the mic, a rare voice defending the proposed building at the corner of Aurora Avenue North and North 130th Street. Critics and activists have called the proposed police station the “bunker,” questioning size of the building and its price tag.

Rogerson scolded the protesters for their “hyperbolic” language.

“More than anyone else here, I think I know about this issue,” he said.

It’s true: Rogerson has been part of the conversation for years. He sits on the board of the North Precinct Advisory Council, one of several civilian advisory councils that meet frequently with the Seattle Police Department. But like Seattle’s neighborhood councils, the North Precinct Advisory Council has a troubling lack of diversity.

The membership of the North Precinct Advisory Council skews white and older, and at least one of the groups represented on the council — the University Park Community Club which bans renters from membership — explicitly excludes certain residents. This has the potential of excluding many perspectives from Seattle’s changing north end. The North Precinct Advisory Council also has been the only citizen group to get regular updates on the new station for the past four years, despite the project’s widespread impact.

John Bito, a Phinney Ridge Community Council member who opposes the project, says he got the impression from another council member who was part of the advisory group “that the folks attending were receiving a lot of marketing.

The city’s strategy for outreach outside of the advisory group was to hold three “open houses,” which they publicized through notices in public buildings, on the city’s website and on the neighborhood website Nextdoor. The open houses were sparsely attended and photos of the events show almost exclusively white attendees. Commenters mostly said things like, “Don’t make it ugly.”

Inga Manskopf, president of the North Precinct Advisory Council, is surprised to hear that other groups did not get the information they wanted.

But Manskopf says that the North Precinct Advisory Council “was not tasked with providing a venue for the public to comment on the project.”

The problem is that they were. The group’s mission statement, according to its bylaws, “is to establish a mechanism by which the community may communicate its concerns to the Police Department and City Government, and may do its part in dealing with those concerns.” The meetings of the advisory councils are public.

If hot-topic discussions end when the meeting is over, no such avenue exists. And in this moment of radical disagreement over the purpose of police, groups such as the North Precinct Advisory Council need to host hard conversations.

Backlash no surprise

SPD and Seattle City Council seem baffled that not everyone welcomes a new “community police station.” But that so many are cynical about SPD’s idea of community engagement should come as no surprise.

Seattle law enforcement says it engages communities through its Precinct Liaisons, Community Police Teams and Advisory Councils — and those groups are genuinely friendly and helpful for those who can reach them. But these bodies fail in their purpose because they leave out, in Sahota’s words, “entire marginalized communities.”

In Sahota’s view, Seattle police and Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) “did not want to engage with these communities. FAS did not even think it was necessary to do a racial equity check on the police bunker…. How could they have thought about reaching out to communities of color, and marginalized communities?”

While other police advisory councils represent minorities, those councils all meet in South Seattle with few attendees from the north end of the city. The Seattle Police Department is scheduled to give its first presentation at the African American Community Advisory Council next month, making those plans only after the recent news coverage of the “Block the Bunker” movement.

This belated outreach raises the question of why the city hasn’t made previous efforts to talk about the proposed North Precinct building with the demographic advisory councils — and whether the police councils have become segregated spaces, designed to neutralize potential complaints from some groups and drum up support in others.

It’s easy to judge the North Precinct Advisory Council for its lack of diversity, but it’s the city that needs to do more. With the racial and class makeup of North Seattle changing fast, Manskopf’s council relies on the Department of Neighborhoods to tell them who they aren’t reaching.

But the Department of Neighborhoods also struggles to reach out to diverse communities in the north end. Jessica Brand, who works on an urban planning commission that advises the Department of Neighborhoods, says the challenge in the north end is to visit places where minority groups are congregating already, such as mosques.

One possible solution proposed by police reformists is to preserve the Community Police Commission, a group tasked with overseeing SPD and providing input about civilians’ ideals for police behavior. The Community Police Commission includes representatives of underrepresented communities, and one of the benefits of this diversity is to bring different perspectives on public safety to the table together. This should be the mission of all police outreach bodies as well.

As artist Emily Pothast noted in an open letter to Seattle City Councilmember Debora Juarez, there is a “cultural divide” that makes the new station “seem reasonable to some people, and oppressive to others.”

That divide is currently making itself known in hostile sessions at City Hall. As City Council debates this project, the government must also make the project plans more available for public scrutiny. And if the way to do that is through community outreach, the city and Seattle Police Department must make that outreach more equitable.