Girmay Zahilay: In November, a Chance to Begin Rebuilding Public Safety from the Ground Up

By Girmay Zahilay

On the evening of November 5, 2019, I stood in front of a packed room at Rumba Notes Lounge in Columbia City and delivered my victory speech. I had just been elected to the King County Council and I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I told the audience of family and friends that “we did not come here to start a movement, we came here to build on the work of those that came before us.”

As I spoke those words, I thought of all of the struggling, organizing, and advocating that prior generations had done for our benefit. I saw black and white images of people marching for Civil Rights; I saw Black students being attacked with fire hoses while protesting; I saw Native Americans fighting for their land and sovereignty.

The work of those that came before us weighed on me so heavily that my voice cracked during my speech. How could we ever live up to what our past heroes had accomplished? They had endured once-in-a-generation battles and fundamentally changed society for the better.

Back in November 2019, I could have never imagined that just months later our nation would enter its own once-in-a-generation battle. I had spent my entire campaign talking about affordable housing, zoning policies, and criminal justice reform. But the trials and tribulations of 2020 have made so much more possible than the usual reform-style policies. This year, we have a powerful opportunity to fundamentally improve our society. We have the political will to rebuild our institutions from the ground up and better serve the most vulnerable in our region.

This November, King County has the rare opportunity to begin shaping a fundamentally better system of public safety—one that is rooted in public health initiatives, community-based alternatives, and economic justice for marginalized communities.

Among these powerful opportunities is the chance to transform our vision for public safety. For King County residents, this starts with adopting Charter Amendment 6 in November. This amendment will empower the King County Council to transfer certain public safety functions, such as crisis response, away from the Sheriff’s Office and into the hands of the community organizations that should have been in charge of responding to community needs all along.

The murder of George Floyd highlighted what Black organizers and advocates had been saying and working on for decades: our systems of policing are racist, unresponsive to root causes of crime, and frequently introduce lethal force to situations that do not warrant it.

Here in King County, the police killings of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, Tommy Le, Charleena Lyles, and many others, were preventable. We could have saved their lives and we can save countless others moving forward. We can better serve our neighbors who have been most harmed by state action. We can put people on track to get the support they need. We can accomplish these goals not by reforming the institutions we already have, but by reimagining public safety altogether.

This November, King County has the rare opportunity to begin shaping a fundamentally better system of public safety—one that is rooted in public health initiatives, community-based alternatives, and economic justice for marginalized communities. In addition to empowering community-based organizations, it would give the groups that are already working to keep their neighborhoods safe the resources that they need to do so on a bigger scale.

Our default response to every challenge in our region should not be to deploy officers armed with guns. The future of public safety looks like a diverse toolkit of effective public health solutions. Mental health support teams can respond to mental health crises, rapid response social workers can tend to people in need, and trusted mentors and violence interrupters can help our youth. Unarmed code enforcement professionals can address noise complaints and traffic infractions.

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As our laws stand, however, the King County Council does not have the authority to transfer public safety functions away from traditional law enforcement. Our King County Charter, the local constitution governing our region, says that the King County Sheriff’s Office “shall not have its duties decreased by the county council.” This prohibition, combined with the fact that our King County Sheriff is an independently elected position, insulates the Sheriff’s Office from external policy instruction.

Rising to the promise of this moment requires us to amend the King County Charter and remove the restrictive language that ties the Council’s hands. When King County residents open their ballots this November, they will choose to approve or reject “Charter Amendment No. 6”, which if approved, would give the King County Council the authority to change the duties and structure of our regional system of public safety.

A more effective and equitable approach to safety is around the corner with Charter Amendment Number 6 as step one.

This potential change is one I would have never thought possible last year at my election night party. But in 2020, we have entered an unprecedented battle, and it has brought with it an unprecedented opportunity. Policymakers should use this momentum to go beyond surface level reforms and rebuild our systems from the ground up.

Our federal, state, and local governments have a long history of devastating Black, Indigenous, and communities of color. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it is that our fates as human beings are intertwined. If one group is especially vulnerable to the virus, we will all be less safe. The same holds true for the racist impact of our criminal legal systems. If Black and Brown people continue to be over-policed, criminalized, and incarcerated, with divesting longterm social and economic consequences, we will all be less safe.

Let’s rise to meet this moment. Let’s rebuild our systems to better serve the people we have most harmed, and let’s ensure safety, prosperity, and justice for all.

Girmay Zahilay is a King County Council council member representing District 2, which includes central and southeast Seattle.

3 thoughts on “Girmay Zahilay: In November, a Chance to Begin Rebuilding Public Safety from the Ground Up”

  1. Councilman Zahilay states that the existing independence of the Sheriff insulates it from “external policy instruction.” I infer that he means that it prevents the County Council from giving orders to the Sheriff’s Department. However, there is nothing that prevents the County Executive or the Council from suggesting to or partnering right now with the Sheriff on needed reforms; in fact, that is what we, the public, should expect from our elected officials. He makes no mention here about efforts to reach out to the Sheriff, or what her responses have been. And the Council already controls the purse, providing a sensible check on the Sheriff’s Department, which should be a useful tool as they go foreword. Rebuilding from the ground up is an innovative and bold idea, one that we can expect our elected officials, especially the County Executive and the Sheriff, to partner on achieving. The changes proposed in the Charter Amendments appear to not take effect until the current sheriff’s term is ended, which means that nothing may get done for a couple of years. I lived for many years in the neighborhood in Minneapolis where George Floyd was murdered, and I know the critical need for MInneapolis to break and rebuild their public safety system. Councilman Zahilay lives in Seattle and well understands the challenges being faced by the city right now, including the resignation of the Chief of Police and a mayoral recall effort. Is the Sheriff, herself, the stumbling block to the partnership? Tell us how, and we can recall her. Otherwise, I fail to see how the County Executive (who, according to the amendments, would hold sole power to hire and fire the Sheriff) adding the Sheriff’s Office to his management duties would improve public safety more than the current structure.

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