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Bellevue PD holds forum to explain use of force

In some encounters, police officers have limited time to decide how to handle a suspect. Depending on the situation things can deteriorate quickly, and use of force may become the only option.

A forum hosted by the Bellevue Police Department on Tuesday sought to educate the public on the department's policies on when and to what degree force should and can be used by officers. The event also focused on the influence of media coverage of police.

Bellevue Police Chief Linda Pillo said at the event, held at the local non-profit Circle of Friends, that Bellevue Police officers used some type of force in 102 of 3,470 arrests by patrol officers, or 3 percent of these cases. In most of these cases the arrests were made with "plain" actions such as attempting to secure the hands of a resisting suspect. Nonetheless, incidents in Seattle and around the Puget Sound region between police and suspects have made headlines.

"Community members have lost some of the trust in their police departments," Pillo said. "So tonight is really a step towards building trust through listening and learning from each other."

The forum also included discussions on the influence in the media. John Hamer, president of the Washington News Council and a Mercer Island resident, spoke of how media coverage can both help and hurt police departments. He pointed to the Seattle Times' coverage of the Maurice Clemmons case as an instance of the media and law enforcement working together to catch the suspect. He talked about the rise of "citizen journalism" that can be both informative and dangerous. In all forms of media, from TV, to print, to citizen bloggers, factual errors and unsubstantiated takes can spread like wildfire, he said, so extreme caution must be taken for anyone who publishes information.

"A lie gets around the world a thousand times before you reboot your computer," he said as a modern take on a famous Mark Twain quote.

Bellevue has not been the subject of excessive force complaints by citizens or the media, but Pillo wanted to hold the forum as a proactive measure to create a dialog between citizens and officers.

The audience of about 50 community members broke into small groups to discuss the department's policies on use of force and interactions with officers.

Pillo and the officers told the community members that department policy is split into three levels. At the very top of the first level is the use of force policy. In any case that force is exerted, the incident must be documented and reviewed by the department. It goes all the way to the top of the chain of command, and if anything appears inconsistent, to the Department of Professional Standards.

From that point, discussion at the tables began to delve into dealing with people in different situations. Several tables began talking about the incident in which a Seattle woodcarver was shot by a police officer last August. John T. Williams reportedly had mental health issues, and may have failed to understand the officers' commands to drop a knife he was reportedly holding. Bellevue police officer M. Wolff told one of the tables that the underlying story of the Williams case is the lack of care options for those with mental disorders. Officers are given training at the academy, but such a situation it remains unpredictable. Something that can be seen as an innocuous comment to one person could set another off, Wolff said.

"Mentally ill people are very much human beings who deserve equal respect," she said. "But a lot of mental illness is beyond their control."

Situations can become less tense, Wolff said, when citizens are calm and prepared to speak with officers. For many, the only time they encounter a police officer is when they are being pulled over for one reason or another. This can lead to a negative attitude towards patrol officers. To combat this, Pillo said, more emphasis on walking the beat has been instituted at the Bellevue Police Department. Some officers are relieved from the duty of having to respond to calls immediately, allowing them more time to get to know community members.

"We encourage them to stop, get out of their cars and introduce themselves," she said.

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