Northwest News

Karen Peterson: Tacoma leaders start conversation before a gun is drawn

Not if, but when.

In the nine short months since a white police officer killed a black man in Ferguson, Mo., one American city after another has erupted in protest or riots after an officer-involved shooting occurred on its streets. It happened Thursday in Olympia.

Lyle Quasim believes it is only a matter of time before it happens in Tacoma.

If you believe that’s true, he reasoned a few weeks ago, shouldn’t we begin now to talk about how to improve relationships between citizens and police, how to handle such an event and how to prevent a subsequent explosion?

It was in that spirit that Quasim, co-chair of the Tacoma/Pierce County Black Collective and veteran leader of many community and government organizations, approached The News Tribune. He asked if the paper would convene a conversation among leaders of the local African-American community and leaders of Tacoma City Hall and the Tacoma Police Department.

We gathered in a TNT conference room on a Thursday evening about two weeks ago.

Along with Quasim were former Tacoma Mayor Harold Moss, the Rev. Gregory Christopher with the Tacoma NAACP, and Pastor Toney Montgomery with the Tacoma Ministerial Alliance. TPD Chief Don Ramsdell and community liaison officer Michael Sbory attended, along with Mayor Marilyn Strickland, City Manager T.C. Broadnax and Diane Powers, director of the city’s new Office of Equity and Human Rights. TNT editorial board members Dave Zeeck, Pat O’Callahan and I, plus local news editor Randy McCarthy, also participated.

We shook hands and chatted as we passed out deli sandwiches and sodas. These people know each other well. They have worked alongside one another, in some cases for decades, serving this community.

Yet conversations among them that evening sometimes grew pointed. Emotions often ran close to the surface.

Our conversation lasted almost three hours.

We talked about police use of force and incident de-escalation. We talked about the need for diversity within the officer ranks and training in cultural competency. We talked about how the department responds after an officer-involved shooting.

The respect for Ramsdell was obvious. He has programs in place addressing many of these issues. He visits regularly with black pastors and calls them when trouble is brewing. He was thanked for leading a peaceful march alongside Strickland through Tacoma a week after riots occurred in Ferguson.

But even with all the department’s work, its reputation can rest on how a single cop treats a single person in a single incident on the street.

Some at the table told personal stories of run-ins with police, of being roughed up or sworn at or disrespected by an officer when they’d done nothing wrong. Of being fearful when a police car pulls up behind them. Of hearing too many similar stories shared by others.

The majority of Tacoma officers do a good job, they said, but “it seems you can mistreat a black man and get away with it.”

Community members said they tell black men not to yell at or run from the police.

“What are you saying to your officers?” they asked Ramsdell. And what does it take to get rid of a bad cop?

Ramsdell clearly wants his officers to be respectful and explained his process for trying to weed out those who aren’t. The city manager and police chief already are discussing a strategy for policing that’s less about confrontation and more about building relationships.

The parties left expressing satisfaction that each was heard and that the conversation produced some greater understanding. They agreed on the need for improvement in relations between the black community and police, but also on the need for action that demonstrated change in the short term and long term.

It’s to Tacoma’s credit that we can have this conversation, that there is enough respect among leaders that they get together to talk and to listen.

Yet, it will be tougher to fix these issues at the street level, where it really matters.

That will require every police officer to be respectful and use only as much force as necessary. It will require citizens to respect officers and the difficult and dangerous jobs they do.

The smallest spark could ignite an explosive reaction, particularly given a national narrative that has all sides drawing conclusions before the facts are known.

The relative certainty that a white Tacoma police officer will shoot a black citizen doesn’t mean our city has to explode, but it does no good to sit and wait for that to happen. Thankfully, Tacoma has people willing to help resolve issues before they become explosive.

We are fortunate to live in the kind of town that begins the conversation before the gun is drawn.