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Liberals Mugged by Racial Reality By: Timothy Egan
nytimes.com | Tuesday, July 16, 2002


After the fatal shooting of a black man by a white police officer last spring, community leaders here planned a chain of demonstrations to follow a rush-hour shutdown of the freeway through downtown.

The aim of these "surprise strategic strikes," the organizers said, was to change the way the police treated African-Americans in Seattle. At the same time, city leaders were preparing new regulations for police officers, intended to determine whether race was a factor in whom they stopped and arrested.

But the protests and the regulations were abruptly put on hold by the killing three weeks ago of a white King County sheriff's deputy by a black man who had a history of run-ins with law enforcement. The deputy, Richard Herzog, was shot after he tried to restrain the man, who had been running naked in traffic. Deputy Herzog used pepper spray, but he was knocked to the ground, lost his weapon to the man and was repeatedly shot in front of nearly 50 people.

The killing has generated a backlash against efforts to make officers more sensitive to race, with officers saying they feel inhibited from fully protecting themselves because of fears of racial recriminations.

"We are sick and tired of being nitpicked about decisions we make every day," Sheriff Dave Reichert said at an emotional news conference shortly after his deputy's death. "We are sick and tired of being looked at as racists."

A question that Sheriff Reichert and other law enforcement agents raised is whether Deputy Herzog had feared using his gun out of concern that he might be criticized later.

"I wish I could ask Deputy Herzog that question," the sheriff said.

The highest-ranking black elected official here, County Executive Ron Sims, said in an interview that he believed the deputy had been inhibited from using force because of fears of racial reprisal. "There's no question race probably had an inhibiting effect," Mr. Sims said.

Even after the officer had been killed, he said, the police still showed restraint in arresting the suspect, Ronald Matthews, 44, a convicted felon with a history of violence toward officers.

"The officers did not shoot him, they did not rough him up, and that took a lot of discipline," he said.

The racial wounds stem from two fatal shootings in two years. In one, a black man, Aaron Roberts, was shot by a white officer, Craig Price, as Mr. Roberts tried to drag another officer alongside Mr. Roberts's car in May 2001.

In the second shooting, in April, a white off-duty sheriff's deputy approached a black man parked in a predominantly white neighborhood. The deputy, Mel Miller, said the man, Robert L. Thomas Sr., pulled a gun on him, prompting him to fire.

A number of black residents here said shooting would never have occurred nor would suspicion have been aroused if the person in the car had been white.

At a funeral for Mr. Thomas, black ministers demanded that Deputy Miller be fired and that police officers and sheriff's deputies be required to have racial sensitivity training. Several hundred mourners marched from the funeral to Interstate 5, the main north-south freeway, and blocked traffic in the evening rush hour.

The march's organizers said the protests would continue all summer unless the police changed their tactics. At the very least, the protesters said, the two shootings could have been avoided if the officers had used less lethal force, like pepper spray.

But the shooting of Deputy Herzog, after he had used pepper spray, brought a twist to the debate.

"What we're hearing from the public is a very high level of emotion now," Sgt. Greg Dymerksi of the sheriff's office said. "You have a police officer killed, and many people believe it is because officers are being second-guessed too much."

At a news conference last week, some black civic leaders who had criticized the police expressed support for them, and urged that people not politicize Deputy Herzog's death.

"This is not a black, red, brown or white issue," said James Kelly, president of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. The Rev. John Hunter, pastor of the First A.M.E. Church in Seattle, said, "We are appalled by this tragedy."

The police say that in response to years of complaints they have been trying to use other ways to restrain suspects. Deputy Herzog's death shows that sometimes officers have no choice but to fire their weapons, they say.

"If he'd gotten to his gun first and used it, he would have been vilified by some people for his actions," Tom Umporowicz of the Seattle Police Officers Guild said. "There's no way you cannot think about stuff like that."

Of the tremendous show of support in the county and in the city for the police since the shooting, Mr. Umporowicz said, "When police officers become victims, suddenly everyone loves a cop."

The police said one way to reduce suspicions would be to require every patrol car to have a video camera to record all stops. The union supports that, but elected officials have been slow to buy the cameras.

Mr. Sims, the county executive, said he had been urging black residents to concentrate on race issues like disparity in school testing rather than using shootings as rallying cries.

"There are always going to be altercations between police and people that arouse these emotions," he said. "But race and class are things we can deal with through education. One problem is solvable. The other is not."




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