According to a report by Amnesty International in 2004, an estimated 368,000 people in Washington State had been victims of racial profiling by law enforcement authorities. This report helped to highlight a growing public perception of unequal treatment of minorities by police officers.
The city of Bellevue and its police department are holding a forum next week to create a better dialogue between officers and those they're bound to serve.
"The police and community need to be in the same room together and start a conversation," said Kevin Henry, cultural diversity coordinator for the city of Bellevue. "With the growing diversity of Bellevue, the community needs to connect with the police who are there to serve their needs."
The meeting, titled "The Police and the Community - Building Bridges of Understanding and Collaboration," will be held Wednesday, Sept. 17 at the North Bellevue Community Center.
Bellevue Police Chief Linda Pillo and King County Superior Court Judge Steve Gonzalez will be speaking. The program is designed to have participants voice their opinions and have the city's leaders listen.
The city of Bellevue is an increasingly diverse suburb, where minorities account for over 25 percent of the population and the foreign-born population is growing.
"More than anything else, this [program] is to make sure that the community has a voice, feels comfortable and knows that we are serving their needs," said Pillo.
The program is part of the Eastside Conversations on Race and Culture, a series of forums seeking to facilitate discussion among people in Bellevue on various issues.
"Pillo approached me shortly after becoming police chief and said she really wants to connect with immigrants and minorities of color," said Henry.
He said he was interested in a program on police and the community for two main reasons. One was Pillo's interest and the other was his experience with a similar forum in Seattle. That program helped to create positive results in Seattle and Henry wanted to base his off of it. He met with those people in order to have an "Eastside version" of it.
Pillo took over as police chief in 2007, first as the interim chief and now as the new head of the police department. She took charge of a force of 174 officers, of whom only 13 percent are minorities. Pillo says wants to create a bureau with a good reputation among local residents.
"I want them to know that I will respond honestly," said Pillo. "The hope is to make the police force as transparent as possible."
One of the ways officials decided to build trust in the community was to have an open line of communication between the police department and the community at large.
"This program is definitely proactive, to make sure we don't have any major issues," said Pillo. "[We want to] build trust, especially among those who came from countries where their police could not be trusted."
In addition to the meeting, Pillo speaks with minority leaders who serve as an unofficial "advisory board" in order to help her better serve the community's needs.
While police departments often initiate community outreach programs after a particular incident, this program is hoping to address the issues before a major problem arises.
"Nearly one-third of Bellevue is foreign born," said Pillo. "This meeting is to help ensure good bridges are built for our diverse community."
At the meeting, which is expected to last about 90 minutes, Pillo said she would encourage the attendees to start a conversation in order to educate both sides, to "increase understanding of different values, communication styles and patterns of behavior due to racial and cultural differences."
"We want to encourage people to peel back the layers on these issues," said Henry.
Past programs in the Eastside Conversations on Race and Culture focused on similar pressing issues such environmental justice and the media's role in shaping perception of race. Previous programs were received very well and had an average attendance of around 55 people.
"If anything, there wasn't enough time to fully explore the depth of these issues in an hour and half," said Henry. "But it motivated people to start smaller groups."