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What to do about the police? A conversation with Seattle's new police monitor

Antonio Oftelie

What to do about the police? That's a question being asked across the country right now, as protesters push for reform and sweeping change. It's been an issue in Seattle, too, and not just since this summer.

Since 2012, the Seattle Police Department has been under federal oversight, under an agreement with the Department of Justice, which had found a pattern of excessive use of force. Merrick Bobb served as the court-appointed police monitor for seven years, but he resigned last month, saying SPD’s use of force against protesters in recent months had cost the department goodwill.

Antonio Oftelie has now been appointed by U.S. District Judge James Robart as the new police monitor. Oftelie is the executive director of Leadership for a Networked World at Harvard University, which looks for reforms that can fix complex problems in a variety of fields, including policing.

He spoke to All Things Considered host Ed Ronco on police reform and his personal history with the police, as a kid growing up in Minneapolis.

Listen to the full conversation above or read a transcript of it below. Both have been edited and condensed. 

Antonio Oftelie, Seattle Police Monitor: I grew up on the south side of Minneapolis. It's a relatively working-class neighborhood in many ways with pockets of families experiencing poverty. And so the police were always a major presence.

Growing up as a child — exactly at the Third Precinct that was burned down in the George Floyd protest — was just three blocks from my house growing up. And so I do (know) that precinct quite well for good and bad. I was, actually, as a child very, very happy many times to see police. We had multiple challenges in our neighborhood and our family. And at times, police were there to help. But I could also see from time to time how they would kind of ride rough on our side of the city… they would target certain people and demean certain people. And that was always hard to see growing up. But I knew that they played a vital role. And so as a child, essentially, I didn't know really know what to think about police sometimes. Sometimes I was happy and sometimes I maybe wasn't happy to see them. As I've grown and started to study it more, you know, it's become much more nuanced.

Ed Ronco, KNKX: How did the killing of George Floyd resonate with you?

Oftelie: It struck me very deeply. How I found out about it was from my son who sent me a text message that day and said he's never been so sad. And, you know, my first gut instinct was, wow, I have to protect my son. And then secondly, I thought this is the world that he's growing up in. And he is a brown man now living in Minneapolis. That has to interface with this world and with policing going forward with his entire life. Then thirdly, I thought about what's happening here… how could we get to this point where someone's life was taken in such a malicious way?

KNKX: In early August, you wrote a piece in Crosscut specifically addressing Seattle's attempts at reform. And you said lasting changes won't come from blind budget cuts or feel-good funding shifts. What did you mean?

Oftelie: I was addressing the issue, of course, of the term "defunding," trying to in one way better articulate what that means in the real world. I think, oftentimes, we'll talk about defunding or reimagining policing and whatever type of description you want to have. And it feels good to say it in the moment. ... All of us have angst about policing. I have angst about policing. You do. Every person listening to this right now is wondering what does the future look like? Many times we're just mad and we're frustrated. And, you know, how do we want to break things, right?

When we take a step back from that for a moment and say, OK, how do we actually do this in the real world? We have to take a look and say, if you completely abolished, for example, a policing organization, the next second you have to stand up a new one... a new organization, a new institution that we’re charged with protecting and ensuring our civil rights and public safety and all the equity that should be involved in that. And that requires infrastructure. It requires people. It requires organization. And it requires technology. And so you're in the same position you're in.

And so if we're going to design and a system, we have to think it through very intentionally and put the right time and effort into it. So in the case of Seattle, I'm not going to say that I'm an expert on what Seattle should do. I think it's the citizens of Seattle at this point really need to dig deep to work with SPD and all the stakeholders and the rest of the city to look at what the future of policing should be for the city and start designing that. That really means that we have to take some time and allocate money and resources to that new design, whatever it may be. And acting rashly and just with quick defunding strokes, it's probably not the best way to go.

KNKX: You've said Seattle can be a national leader in police reform. What do you see?

Oftelie: Seattle and SPD has made substantial progress on the consent decree. If you look at really the past decade and even in policing in general across the nation, Seattle is in many ways far ahead of many other cities. It could get better. Trust me, it could get better. But they've tried. And so there's this really good foundation in Seattle of a modern, effective, efficient and progressive policing organization that needs to just be taken to the next level.

And the next level really is making sure: 1. That public safety, Seattle citizens define it. And the mission of that is met operationally, effectively, efficiently and transparently. 2. How does SPD become innovative and adaptive and ready to take on the future challenges that it may face, whether its future challenges of different forms of crime, but also what policing might look like and being able to be agile with that and collaborative effort with that? And then 3. This area around culture and policing and the values and the attributes of that culture of the rank-and-file up to the police chief and to the stakeholders around policing. How that culture develops over time is going to be extremely important to Seattle, and to make Seattle really a model for the rest of the nation.

I do believe and one of the reasons why I decided to say yes to this position was that as I scanned the nation and looked at policing organizations, I think Seattle is exceptionally positioned to be one of the best and brightest spots around the country. And if we get this right — and my only job is to get this right for the people of Seattle, for the rank-and-file officers, for other stakeholders in the city — if we get it right together, it will be a model for the rest of the country, but also for the rest of the world.

KNKX: You've described yourself as unapologetically bullish on the future of this world, and you've said that you've never seen an unfixable problem. Where do you draw that optimism?

Oftelie: Yes, I tend to be a realist first. I'll say that. But I do drive a lot of optimism right now from all the people I see working on the toughest issues we have. You know, when I'm at Harvard and I walk through the hallways and the labs, there are people working 24 hours a day on everything from climate change to policy around to drive better equity in the world, health issues to enable people to lead healthier lives. Any problem we have, they're working on it. You can go to any university around the country and see the same thing. ...

And so I have a lot of positive energy from the people who are really working on problems. I think every problem we have is fixable. That being said, we're human. And so it's going to take time. We have a lot of adaptive challenges that humans face. And sometimes to get to a better future, we're going to have to stop doing certain things. We're going to have to unlearn things that we've learned over a long period of time and do new things. And that takes time. It takes energy. But I think we can get to the end of that in a positive way. I am bullish on the future. I'm bullish on the future of Seattle being a model for public safety.


Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.