Yakima police chief picks NAACP representative, Latino church leader to help with use of force investigations

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YAKIMA, Wash. — For several months, Yakima Police Chief Matt Murray has been working to find community members to join an independent investigative unit dedicated to examining officers’ use of force in Yakima County.

New state guidelines require — among other things — that police chiefs pick two civilians to help monitor and provide perspective on officer-involved shootings, in-custody deaths and other critical incidents.

“The law says the chief of police in an agency can pick who they want,” Murray said. “I feel personally that it’s important to have representatives of communities who may have had a difficult relationship with the police in the past and distrust and may give it a critical eye.”

Murray chose to reach out to the Yakima chapter of the NAACP and a Latino church leader with a congregation in East Yakima.

He asked both if they’d be willing to be a part of the Yakima Valley Special Investigation Unit, an interagency organization that handles use of force investigations in Yakima County.

Murray contacted the NAACP in January and after a meeting in February, they agreed to help.

“We had a great meeting and they are all in,” Murray said.

KAPP-KVEW reached out to Yakima-area NAACP representatives for comment, but did not hear back from them Friday. Murray didn’t name the East Yakima pastor, who he said is still considering the offer to join the team.

While having civilian involvement is a state requirement, Murray said he feels this is something that’s been missing for a lot of years and is a good step forward for law enforcement.

“With the unique role that police play and the amount of authority and power we have, it’s important that there is oversight,” Murray said. “It’s fair that the community has a voice in that and has an absolute right to know what it is we’re doing and why and to weigh in on that.”

Murray said the community representatives will be involved from the very beginning of an investigation, getting called to the scene in the moments after a critical incident.

“They have access to the entire investigation, to observe the entire investigation,” Murray said. “They’re free to make whatever comments they want to make and input that they want to make.”

KAPP-KVEW asked Murray if he had any comment on the recent excessive force incidents across the country, particularly the in-custody death of George Floyd, an African-American man in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Minneapolis police have said Floyd was arrested Monday after he allegedly used a counterfeit bill at a convenience store. A video showing an officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck has sparked outrage and protests across the country.

“On Minnesota: it’s really difficult. There’s a lot of people asking chiefs around the country to weigh in and make a decision,” Murray said. “I am absolutely troubled by the video. It’s disturbing. Certainly, I would be reacting strongly here if something like that happened.”

Murray said he’s not in favor of excessive force at all and has spent his career working against it; however, he said he doesn’t think it’s fair to weigh in before seeing the case make its way through the judicial process.

“This country is founded on the principle of being innocent until proven guilty and having a process take place,” Murray said. “So I don’t think it’s for us in Washington state to be trying to determine what should be happening in Minneapolis.”

Murray continued, saying “We all need to step back and be careful to let the process take place. Certainly, be a part of it. Make your voice heard. But burning down the city? I don’t understand how that furthers a cause.”

“I also don’t want to ignore the anger. It’s clear that there’s a lot of anger,” Murray said. “I do think that’s a result of a bad relationship with the police department.”

Murray said that’s part of why he’s worked to develop a better relationship with Yakima residents; he’s walked almost every street in the city in the past year, trying to get to know the community.

“Every day, you have to make those deposits in the community; you have to have those conversations,” Murray said. “You have to allow people the opportunity to express their frustrations and if you don’t, you end up with rage.”

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