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Seattle city departments blew off this racial equity work — why?

Seattle City Hall
Flickr Photo/Daniel X. O'Neil (CC-BY-NC-ND)/
Seattle City Hall

In 2014 Mayor Ed Murray ordered all City of Seattle departments to apply a racial equity lens to their work. But an examination by KUOW shows the response was less than robust.

While some departments did the work in 2015, others provided incomplete versions of what are called “racial equity toolkits.” A quarter of city departments didn’t do the work at all that year.

In 2016, about half of departments complied. Missing was the Department of Education and, for the second year in a row, the Seattle Police Department.

Part of the problem was that the city’s Office of Civil Rights, which was supposed to oversee the work, couldn’t tell departments what to do.

“Our role at the Office of Civil Rights is to offer help and support,” said director Patty Lally. “We are not authorized to hold departments accountable for their work.”

On Monday, the City Council approved a plan offered by Councilmember Lisa Herbold’s office to restructure the Office of Civil Rights. This after the department said it’s having difficulty fulfilling its mission.

Civil Rights said its presence within the executive branch has made it difficult for the department to be effective. 

report from central staff presented to council members in September outlined pitfalls and potential conflicts for the office. The document pointed to challenges like potential repercussions for critiquing city leaders and handling complaints between two city departments when both report to the mayor.

Civil Rights also lacks enforcement authority.

So the racial equity toolkits, which Lally called one of the office’s most important initiatives, have fallen short as well.

A racial equity toolkit is a fancy name for the way city departments were supposed to examine race and equity when making decisions or working on a city project. It could include such things as examining input from citizens or businesses impacted by the project. It would also include actions the department intended to take to minimize negative impacts on communities of color, for instance.

Each department was ordered to complete four each year.

Director Lally said — when applied robustly — the process can reveal potential negative outcomes of projects before their implementation.

“The whole purpose of a toolkit is to maximize benefit and minimize harm,” Lally said.

In the case of Seattle police, dozens of emails passed between SPD and Civil Rights discussing intent to do toolkits on projects such as micro policing in Lake City, acoustic shot detection and plans for the North Precinct. But in the end, none materialized.

Lally wouldn’t comment on SPD’s lack of compliance specifically, but she said overall some city departments were less prepared than others to do this work.

When contacted for comment, SPD said its recent federal monitoring ensures that its project work plans address equity concerns, just not in toolkit form.

SPD provided KUOW an undated toolkit report on the department's use of body cameras. The program began rolling out over the summer. It's unclear why the report was never sent to Civil Rights.

“It’s a problem for the city. It’s a problem for the city if we’re not living up to the mayor's vision that departments are not robustly using the toolkit to inform their work,” Lally said. “We’re a front runner in this work. It doesn’t mean that we’ve figured it all out, that there isn’t room for growth.”

In supporting materials provided to the City Council before Monday's vote, the Office of Civil Rights asked for a year to do a racial equity toolkit on its reorganization. 

It seemed to be gearing up for a thorny process. In the final three months of that work the office says it will “engage in a restorative process to address the harm that may have arisen before and during the RET (toolkit) process.”

The bill that passed Monday also requires council approval before the next director could be hired or removed from the position. The change, according to the bill, is intended to remove a potential conflict of interest between the executive branch and Civil Rights over racial equity toolkits and grant some independence from the executive branch.