To defuse discord over how Tacoma’s police and civilians deal with each other, city leaders on Tuesday announced a series of public conversations with police in what amounts to a two-month listening tour of the city’s neighborhoods.
“We want to build relationships before something bad happens,” Police Chief Don Ramsdell said at a news conference in downtown’s Ben Gilbert Park.
Ramsdell and City Councilwoman Victoria Woodards described the upcoming events – which the city has named Project Peace – as an attempt to keep any police confrontation here from exploding into broad public rancor, as other cities have seen.
At the meetings, 10 or so police officers will come to one of five community centers to converse, in large and small groups, with civilians who attend.
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Riots and protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and elsewhere, rather than any specific event in Tacoma’s recent past, were cited as reasons for an open, proactive dialogue to air out distrust between law enforcement and residents.
“In a lot of cities, as we’ve seen across the country, people avoid the conversation,” Woodards said.
Professional facilitators with experience in social justice and racial-reconciliation issues will be at the neighborhood meetings, The first of the five public conversations is scheduled for Sept. 3 in the Peace Community Center at 2016 Cushman Ave. The series will conclude with a larger event at the Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center on Nov. 9.
Ramsdell and Woodards said Tacoma has uneven levels of trust in authorities across diverse communities.
Woodards, who is black, said she had never had a discomfiting encounter with police, but described a situation in which a friend from church was unnerved by a traffic stop for driving a car that fit the description of one involved in a crime.
Woodards said she left church to call Ramsdell, who contacted the friend for a conversation that eased lingering tensions.
“These are the kind of educational opportunities that we need to have between our citizens and our police,” Woodards said.
No guess was ventured on how many residents will turn out to voice concerns.
Woodards said the Black Lives Matter activist group, which marched downtown on several recent Sunday mornings, has been in contact with the event organizers and is involved with planning the conversations.
Gary Boone, who operates a downtown art gallery, kicked off the citizen-police dialogues earlier than scheduled after Ramsdell opened up the news conference for questions.
Boone, a 10-year Tacoma resident, said his concerns over police interaction include how ex-military members are recruited into the police force.
He questioned whether adequate attention is given to transitioning them from confronting battlefield enemies to civilian interactions that don’t escalate encounters needlessly.
Boone said he had been stopped by one “overzealous” officer in the past and hoped the conversations result in a city where police and residents enjoy a healthy relationship.
“Our community is scared of the police department,” said Boone, who is black. “That shouldn’t be.”
In an extended conversation that continued after the news conference, Ramsdell told Boone in general terms about Tacoma’s screening process for police applicants and said he understands the reasons for apprehensiveness among citizens.
“They’ve seen that a young African-American man can be shot when he’s running away from a police officer,” Ramsdell said.
The chief said he could see why citizens wouldn’t think that’s right.
Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693
Project Peace schedule
Doors will open for the dialogues with Tacoma police and city residents at 4:30 p.m., with the events scheduled to run from 5 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. Each of the meetings, which are free, will include activities for children and light refreshments.
Dates and locations
Sept. 3: Peace Community Center, 2106 Cushman Ave.
Sept. 14: Asia Pacific Cultural Center, 4851 South Tacoma Way.
Oct. 5: Lincoln High School cafeteria, 701 S. 37th St.
Oct. 21: University of Puget Sound Wheelock Student Center, 1500 N. Warner St.
Oct. 29: Centre at Norpoint Cascade Hall, 4818 Nassau Ave. NE
Nov. 9: Greater Tacoma Convention and Trade Center, 1500 Broadway
For more information, go to bit.ly/1WQVYav.