Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor’s office is on the first floor of the County-City Building downtown. From inside, through a lengthy row of windows, you can see the constant flow of people coming and going.
Most are there for court dates or other legal matters.
I’m there to talk to him.
I’m intrigued by Pastor. Over the last year, I’ve often found myself contemplating the thoughts he’s shared in writing in his regular “Sheriff’s Log,” taking on issues of race, policing and trust. They’re subjects the nation has grappled with as well.
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Pastor, 64, has the air of an academic, with two master’s degrees and a doctorate from Yale. In conversation, he’s more like a well-read college professor than a top cop. He quotes literature and fancies large words. And while some desire more bluster or outward fire from him, and beat journalists would probably appreciate more concise quotes, there’s a reflective, big-picture quality to the Pierce County Sheriff that makes him interesting.
“There are probably aspects that I am too open about,” he confides, early in our conversation.
“Like what?” I ask.
“Most people won’t say to you that America’s not a post-racial society.”
There are certain topics that get people a little squirrelly, and race is certainly one of them.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor
That’s not entirely true, of course. But this is an elected official in charge of a law enforcement agency that serves a largely rural county, not Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Right or wrong, his position makes his directness on matters of race less expected.
And more notable.
Having led the Sheriff’s Department since 2001, early this year Pastor announced intention to seek re-election.
“There are certain topics that get people a little squirrelly, and race is certainly one of them,” Pastor says. “America is not a post-racial society. If that makes you comfortable, or uncomfortable, or whatever, it’s true.
“Now, it’s certainly different than it was when I was growing up. I can remember the Civil Rights movement. I can remember my mother … pointing to a sign that said ‘colored only’ and saying to me, ‘There’s something wrong with that,’ ” he continues. “(America) is post-racial in regard to drinking fountains. But it goes beyond that.”
That last statement is entirely true. But, as it relates to policing, it’s also the type of declaration that’s easier to make from behind a big desk. Pastor oversees 311 field officers, responsible for protecting people across the county, including roughly 400,000 in the unincorporated parts alone. But the agency isn’t responsible for cites like Tacoma or Lakewood, and many of the areas it serves aren’t exactly known for racial diversity. “My biggest crime problem is white people out of control,” Pastor tells me.
The real challenge for Pastor, when it comes to race and policing, is making sure all those weighty ideas, ethics and high-score Scrabble words translate into meaningful action.
So far, we’ve been lucky. There hasn’t been a Ferguson, Missouri, here, or an unrest like Baltimore experienced after the death of Freddie Gray. But even Pastor admits such a thing is unfortunately possible.
“You know what most policing boils down to? It’s not car chases and gun fights. It’s making complex moral decisions, in a very short span of time, with insufficient information,” he tells me at one point. “And you’re processing strangers as you do it.”
The common denominator is fear. There is a fear factor in minority communities about police. And there’s some fear in police communities about minority communities. We’ve got to get over that.
Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor
Pastor says trust, “a two-way street” between police and the community, needs building. He tells me agencies like his must take the first step and that more can be done on this front. Specifically, he says he’d like to hire more black cops and that continued funding cuts have made it difficult to meet high expectations.
The trust part of Pastor’s platform, however, is where things get tricky. In a position he admits might not be politically correct, Pastor tells me minority communities also have a responsibility to help improve it. Lyle Quasim, co-chairman of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective, who worked with Pastor during his time as chief of staff for Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg, agrees — with a substantial caveat.
“Yes, the minority community bears some responsibility, but it’s discussed as a false equivalency,” Quasim says when I bounce the idea off him. “The question of trust is maybe a 10 percent issue with the black community, or people of color, or poor people, and it’s 90 percent on the criminal justice system.”
Mathematical arguments aside, both men agree it’s law enforcement’s duty to lead the way.
“The first move is ours. And we have to probably shoulder more of the responsibility. But let’s not downplay the dual responsibility,” Pastor says. “This is a pretty basic kind of thing to have a righteous community. We need to trust one another. … That puts a burden on me, and it puts a burden on minority communities as well.”
“The common denominator is fear. There is a fear factor in minority communities about police. And there’s some fear in police communities about minority communities. We’ve got to get over that,” he continues.
“Let’s not talk about going back. Let’s make sure we get beyond it.”
“That seems a lot easier ... ,” I start to say.
“For a white guy? You’re absolutely right,” he adds.