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caption: Critics of the Kent Police Department are circulating an anonymous letter and body cam videos showing recent arrests.
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Critics of the Kent Police Department are circulating an anonymous letter and body cam videos showing recent arrests.
Credit: (Screenshot from Kent PD video)

Kent police promises new policies and data in wake of anonymous campaign

An anonymous letter and videos demanding changes in policing have roiled the city of Kent in recent weeks. Police Chief Rafael Padilla has appeared before the City Council to offer explanations and apologies. He said the department is moving quickly to unveil new policies and training.

Last month Kent officials received an open letter from a group calling itself “No Secret Police.” The letter criticized the Kent Police Department’s lack of policies and training for de-escalation. It also criticized the department’s more frequent use of force in arrests of Black and Indigenous people. And it said the department helped get rid of offensive social media posts by officers last summer.

The letter coincided with two body cam videos of arrests in 2020 by Kent police appearing on Youtube, by an account called, “The Real Kent PD.”

In the first one, officers stop a Black man after they receive a call that he was seen shoving another woman. The man is seen facedown on the ground as the police sit on his shoulder to handcuff him. He says, “I’m not resisting, I can’t even breathe right now.” The video ends with the man being handcuffed and put in a police car. Officers take a photo of a bloodstain where the man’s face was against the pavement.

The second video shows the arrest of a teenage girl last July. An officer finds her sitting on a curb in the middle of the night and thinks she might be someone else, a warrant suspect. She wears a face mask; the officers involved do not. She’s handcuffed, and then officers tie her legs because she’s kicking the door of the police car. She screams, “You guys do not have the right to detain me – for what?”

Officers told the people in both videos they were being arrested for "obstruction," but the charges were later dropped, raising questions about how and why Kent police made those arrests.

Kendrick Glover heads a nonprofit in Kent focused on mentoring youth.

“All I can say about both of these videos — it’s just disrespectful,” he said.

Glover said what’s most distressing is that the girl in the second video tells officers she’s homeless and has been in a fight. Yet when they release her minutes later, they don’t try to connect her with any services.

“Which goes to show that KPD are not in tune with the resources which are right in their backyard,” he said. “We try to reach out to [police] and say ‘Hey, if you ever run across a young person that needs any type of support day or night here’s a resource for you.’”

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Sean Goode heads the youth diversion program Choose 180 that operations in King County.

“In both of these instances what we see is a failure to acknowledge the humanity of the person they’re engaging,” he said of the videos. “The most unfortunate part of these narratives is that nobody is culpable on the law enforcement side for the residual trauma from these moments and these experiences.”

Goode said he wants to see the resources that are put into these police encounters redirected to help the community.

Kent police declined interview requests. But last month the Kent City Council held a meeting where they questioned Chief Rafael Padilla about the first video. He acknowledged that the officers used foul language and held the man on the ground for too long. He said they addressed those issues in training.

“The officers did not violate policy or law, I want to make that crystal clear," Padilla said. "They did a lot of things right, but there are some things they did not do well, and we will discuss that.”

At that January 26 meeting, Padilla also said the man could breathe because he could talk. Many police departments have revised their training on that after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and Chief Padilla later apologized to the council for that statement.

“When I stated that if you can talk, you can breathe, I was absolutely 100% incorrect,” he said the following week. Padilla said the department’s current training states that being able to talk does not guarantee someone is getting enough oxygen.

The anonymous letter cited public disclosure requests that suggest that in 2019 Kent police used force nearly twice as often when arresting Black and Indigenous people compared to other groups (10% compared to 5.8%). It said the department fails to track statistics that could shed light on that disparity. Chief Padilla told the City Council they are planning to collect new data to examine whether racial bias is a factor.

“We have to get more information to be able to make that determination. So it’s, I think, a clear case for why we need better systems, and we’re working on that.”

The letter also said that the Kent Police Department lacks long-awaited policies requiring de-escalation training for officers (as required by Initiative 940 which Washington State voters approved in 2018), and requiring them to intervene when they see potential police misconduct. Padilla told the Council those policies will be implemented in the coming days.

Kent City Councilmember Marli Larimer said she was distressed by another claim in the letter: that Padilla coordinated with the police union to get officers to delete offensive social media posts, including one that stated “The next time you hear someone say defund the police, punch them in the f----- mouth and see if they call 911.”

“We tell officers to see something, say something," Larimer said. "But yet when it comes in the realm of a social media post that is promoting something unsavory, we basically tell them just to hide it."

Padilla responded that he takes department culture seriously, but none of the postings met the threshold for an investigation.

“What I did do is I picked up the phone, talked to the union president, said we’ve received this information, we’re looking into it, I don’t know that it crosses the line in terms of policy violation, but I think this would be a good time or opportunity to contact the membership and remind them of our policies and the potential outcomes," he said.

Kent Mayor Dana Ralph also declined interview requests about the police department, but spokesperson Bailey Stober issued a statement.

“The screenshots that were brought to our attention don’t represent the values of the City of Kent or the Kent Police Department. However, courts have historically ruled that public employees, when not at work, are protected by their constitutional right to free speech, even if we don’t agree with it. The Kent Police Department has made great strides in implementing new policies, in addition to the strong policies we already had in place, to ensure every resident is treated equitably and with the respect and dignity they deserve. These policies will be strongly enforced and regulate on the job conduct,” the statement said.

The new scrutiny of the police department comes as the city of Kent faces a federal civil rights lawsuit over the death of 20-year-old Giovann Joseph-McDade, who was shot in his vehicle by Kent police in 2017. His mother Sonia Joseph said the lawsuit will examine whether the officer who shot her son was in harm’s way as he has claimed.

“We, as community, want to hold officers accountable and that’s the bottom line,” Joseph said.

Earlier this month a federal judge in Seattle determined that the lawsuit can proceed to trial. Craig Sims is the family’s attorney. He said the judge’s recent decision is significant “because it removed the qualified immunity shield that often serves as protection for officers and does not allow families to seek accountability.” Sims said Kent’s policies and trainings will be discussed in upcoming trial, but he said the lawsuit is limited to examining actions of two officers involved and has “never been about being anti-police.”

So far, only the Kent City Council has weighed in about the anonymous letter and body cam videos.

But some residents in Kent say they’re anxious for more public dialogue about policing. Charmaine Boston is retired and has lived in Kent for 11 years. She says she participated in the city’s Black Lives Matter march last June.

“As a police department and as citizens of this community we have to have the conversation," she said. "And we can’t be scared of the conversation. And we have to act on that,” she said.

Boston said she’s tired of worrying about the safety of her 19-year-old grandson and his friends. She said she loves her city, and she’d like see her police department well-trained to serve one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the nation.