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Seattle activist learns police reform requires more than yelling from streetcorners

Teri Rogers Kemp once stood on a corner with a sign and yelled at cars. Over time, she has found more effective strategies.
KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols
Teri Rogers Kemp once stood on a corner with a sign and yelled at cars. Over time, she has found more effective strategies.

Local activists want to make it easier to prosecute police who use deadly force. They’re gathering signatures for an initiative that would eliminate a common defense used by police: That they acted “without malice.”

We bring you a profile of one of the people organizing support for the initiative.


Teri Rogers Kemp is a criminal defense lawyer. She had been following the news of police shootings, and she noticed a pattern written in laws all across the country: It’s really hard to hold police accountable when they shoot someone.

One night, she had been listening to the news coverage of the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida. It didn’t involve a police officer, but it followed the familiar pattern.

Kemp: “I remember springing full awake and screaming in the dark, 'Isn’t anyone going to do anything about this?'”

Kemp decided it would have to be her.

Related: 'Is there a problem?' That scary brown man and white privilege

The police shootings in the news continued. Kemp zeroed in on the law that protects police officers from prosecution in Washington state. 

She made a big protest sign.

Kemp: “So I went and stood on the street corner of 23rd and Union by myself and I held up the sign for about three hours. And I screamed at the top of my lungs what was on this sign: We have to change RCW 9A.16.040.”

KUOW: “That’s what it said on your sign?”

Kemp: “It did.”

It was the kind of sign only a lawyer could love.

Kemp: “I know, I looked crazy.”

It’s hard to get the public excited about something so technical sounding as “RCW 9A-point-whatever.”

And the law seemed to be doing something important; police have to make split second decisions all the time. They’ve argued they need some legal protection just to do their job effectively.

Kemp felt like she was fighting an uphill battle. And then a black man named Che Taylor was killed by police in Seattle. The death galvanized Che Taylor’s brother, Andrè.

Kemp saw Andrè at a public event shortly after the shooting, where he spoke about organizing for police reform.

Taylor: “We have to give them hell. That’s what we have to do as a community. To make them have pause. Restraint. Because right now, they have none. Because they haven’t seen us galvanize together as a people. But this time — this time, we will.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Andre Taylor (left), Davitta Briscoe (center) and Brenda Taylor - all members of the late Che Taylor's family - appear at an NAACP news conference in February.", "fid": "124405", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201602/20160224-che-taylor-family.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW PHOTO/PAIGE BROWNING"}]]Kemp: “I ran Mr. Andrè Taylor down. I had to find him.”

Kemp saw in Taylor a way to connect with people. Together with Taylor’s sister, they’ve grown a broad coalition across all races in support of the initiative. 

Related: A man shouts racial slurs in a Seattle Starbucks. The silence is deafening

On Wednesday night, the group met to hear from a big player in police reform: Anne Levinson. She's one of the people in charge of police oversight in Seattle. 

As chair of the state Public Disclosure Commission (another office she holds), she can't endorse the initiative. But here’s what she did say about the energy in the room.

Levinson: “It’s just tremendous, I have a lot of hope after seeing the folks in this room tonight. And the diversity of people here is really quite remarkable. So this gives me a lot of hope for our ability to successfully affect real systemic change.”

We reached out to the Seattle Police Officers Guild and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to get their views on the initiative. Nobody got back to us in time for this story.

One thing is clear: A lot more people are paying attention than when Kemp was out on that street corner yelling at traffic. And she says she owes much of that to Andrè Taylor.

Kemp: “I could not do this without him. Together, we are a force.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "A crowd listens to Anne Levinson at Not This Time, Andre Taylor's police reform group.", "fid": "127877", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201607/crowd.jpg", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols"}]]

Kemp and Taylor’s group must gather 250,000 signatures to send initiative 873 to the Washington state Legislature. The Legislature can act on it, or it can kick the measure to the voters on a ballot.