When hands go up in front of a police officer, it often means a suspect is signaling intent to surrender.
On Tuesday morning at New Roads School, however, the situation was decidedly less tense. The hands belonged to middle school students with a wide variety of questions for Santa Monica police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks, who was on campus as part of an ongoing speaker series.
They asked Seabrooks about a variety of topics, including her experience in law enforcement, the shooting at Santa Monica College two years ago, the challenges of police work and common crimes in Santa Monica.
But significant time was spent covering the controversial fatal shooting of robbery suspect Michael Brown, the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, and police brutality in general, which students at the Olympic Boulevard private school have been discussing in their classes in recent months.
Coincidentally, Seabrooks’ visit preceded another surge of activity in Ferguson. Just hours after police chief Thomas Jackson announced that he would resign, two area police officers were shot amid ongoing protests in what officials described as an ambush.
Seabrooks said the anger over Brown’s death belongs in the context of tension between the Ferguson community and a police department that she asserted has a history of racial discrimination.
“Their police chief did not step out and appear to be commanding, and he did not engage the community in a way that made them feel comfortable,” she said. “Rarely when people engage in civil disobedience is the issue truly about what you think it is. This isn’t about Michael Brown being shot and lying in the street. That’s the straw that broke the camel’s back. But it isn’t about that. It’s about the history. It’s about a whole social dynamic behind it.”
Seabrooks tied in her time as police chief in Inglewood, where several officer-involved shootings enraged local residents. She said her former department made an effort to reach out to concerned citizens and ultimately saw a drop in crime figures during her tenure.
“We made sure that we spent lots of time talking to people in the community about our role and their obligations,” said Seabrooks, who was Inglewood’s first-ever female police chief. “People weren’t happy … but they didn’t burn things or throw rocks at the police.”
In Ferguson, Seabrooks said, the police department has suffered from a lack of diversity, an emphasis on generating revenue and a history of involvement with “black people in a way that would not stand the sniff test in any other sophisticated community.”
“Ferguson is not alone,” she said. “They’ve been in the news, but … there are a lot of agencies that struggle with the issues of Ferguson.”
But Seabrooks also stressed that residents — in Ferguson, Santa Monica and elsewhere — have a responsibility to remain nonviolent. She said change comes when protests are peaceful because more people can relate to them.
A longtime police officer in Santa Monica who returned to the city by the sea as chief in 2012 after her time in Inglewood, Seabrooks said her current agency isn’t plagued by the issues facing Ferguson’s embattled department.
“We’re thoughtful about the laws, we’re thoughtful about our values as an organization, we’re thoughtful about the law enforcement code of ethics and our obligation to adhere to constitutional policing,” she said. “We are aware of the importance of diversity and engaging our community.”
Attendees said they enjoyed listening to Seabrooks and came away with new perspectives.
“She’s very insightful,” said eighth-grade student Anaya Beckles, who was chosen to introduce Seabrooks. “She was really great.”
“I thought it was informative,” seventh-grade student Ella Rose said. “It’s important to see that everything isn’t like (Ferguson), that police are on our side to protect us.”
Added eighth-grade student Melissa Pflug: “It’s important, at a young age, for us to learn to better ourselves so history doesn’t repeat itself, so we can ensure that there will be no more discrimination.”
Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.