Story last updated by Phyllis Fletcher on March 18, 2013 at 4:35 p.m.
A March 6 special hearing by the Seattle City Council was intended to launch the city’s new Community Police Commission. But the meeting became mired in the background of one of its appointees.
Reverend Harriet Walden is one of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn’s 15 appointees to the new Community Police Commission. That group is supposed to be a voice for police reform, as part of the city’s agreement with the US Justice Department.
Walden is the co-founder of Mothers for Police Accountability and a familiar voice on policing issues in Seattle. Until recently she also worked as an optician. Last year KING 5 reported that the state of Washington had sued Walden to recover $600,000 in questionable Medicaid charges for eyeglass repairs.
Last week City Council members asked Walden for an update on the state’s lawsuit. Committee chair Bruce Harrell said the commission needs to be beyond reproach as it wrestles with police reform. “The fact of the matter is, is that there are some fairly serious allegations that were advanced and we have a duty to have some level of scrutiny,” he said.
Walden was never charged with a crime. She said her debt to the state was discharged when she filed for bankruptcy last December. A spokeswoman for the Washington Attorney General’s office confirms that they will dismiss the case because Walden has no assets to repay the state.
The co-chair of the new commission, Lisa Daugaard, said Walden had been reluctant to apply for the commission because of the Medicaid issue. But Daugaard said they needed her.
“The truth is, we would have difficulty doing this work with credibility and legitimacy and the expertise that’s needed without her or an equivalent voice,” she said, “and there really isn’t an equivalent voice.”
Another commission appointee, Seattle Police Captain Joseph Kessler, said Walden is a police critic who has won the respect of police officers.
Walden called the media report a political hit. She said what matters for the police commission are the countless hours she’s spent as a volunteer, advocating for Crisis Intervention Training and training in less lethal methods for offices, to reduce violent encounters. “I stand by the work that I’ve done in this city and Seattle is better because of me,” she said.
Ultimately the US Justice Department required Seattle Police Department to strengthen these programs to address what it said was excessive use of force by police officers.
The Seattle City Council is in the process of confirming the commission appointees. The Community Police Commission plans to start holding regular monthly meetings by May at the latest. The commissioners are volunteers. They were told that taking part could require 20 hours per month, but some say the time commitment will likely be much higher.
UPDATE: March 18, 2013 4:35 p.m. by Phyllis Fletcher
The Seattle City Council unanimously approved commission appointees this afternoon, including Harriet Walden. Councilmember Harrell noted that other appointees rallied around Walden at last week's hearing. Harrell said the intent of the hearing had not been to embarrass anyone, but rather to "have an open conversation about issues that have surfaced."