As tensions have flared in the wake of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and other officer-involved killings around the U.S., the confrontational narrative has sometimes pitted police forces against mayors.
The most dramatic example took place on America’s biggest stage, in New York City. Mayor Bill de Blasio ran so afoul of the Big Apple’s uniformed ranks in 2014, hundreds of them turned their backs when he spoke at the funeral of two officers who had been shot dead in an ambush.
As a new mayor that year, de Blasio pushed for defensible police reforms, but he also angered cops with some public statements. Reacting to a grand jury’s decision not to indict an officer who put a black man in a fatal chokehold, the mayor gave voice to the fear in his city and said that he had to “literally train” his biracial son to be careful around police.
The head of New York City’s police union responded that the mayor “threw cops under the bus.”
In Tacoma, relations between police officers and Mayor Marilyn Strickland aren’t nearly that bad, but they’re under strain. As in New York, police unions have taken to parsing the mayor’s words for signs that she, too, is throwing them under the proverbial bus.
Now is the time for both sides to get back on the same page. It’s also time for Tacoma police to move boldly into the next phase of their Project Peace plan, so that officers can better address the concerns of local communities of color. And it’s time to get past the distraction of labor bargaining and sign a new contract with rank-and-file officers; the current contract expired at the end of 2014.
Two police unions denounced the mayor recently for public comments she made in the aftermath of the Jan. 28 death of Jacqueline Salyers. The Native American mother of four was killed by a Tacoma patrol officer while he and his partner tried to arrest her boyfriend, an armed-and-dangerous felon. Salyers was shot four times after starting her parked car and accelerating toward one of the officers.
Tacoma City Council members listened closely at their April 12 meeting as a long line of Salyers’ loved ones from the Puyallup Tribe demanded “Justice for Jackie.” The mayor then acknowledged their pain and anger, and promised a thorough investigation. Strickland also said “what happened could happen to anyone, regardless of their ethnic background” but asserted that “95 percent” of Tacoma police are good.
(On May 13, Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist announced his office’s investigation had determined Salyers’ death to be justifiable homicide. He described the shooting as “lawful, though tragic.” An internal police department review is pending.)
The police management union sent a letter to Strickland this month urging her to publicly apologize for her comments. That followed a similar letter from the rank-and-file union last month, asking the mayor to publicly support the city’s 300 officers and openly discuss cuts made to public safety in the last five years.
In an interview Wednesday, officials with the rank-and-file union said contract negotiations “had nothing to do” with their letter. But they also said they won’t be content until jobs are restored that were lost during the recession.
Strickland, in an interview Friday, said she was a little surprised the unions came after her so hard. She described her long-term relationship with them as positive; she received their endorsements before both her terms. But given a national climate in which police feel under siege for everything they do, she said, perhaps she shouldn’t have been surprised.
Both sides can learn some lessons here. Strickland has a fine line to walk, showing compassion to grieving citizens while showing faith in public employees who risk their lives daily to protect Tacoma. She said Friday her statements to Salyers’ supporters in April were intended to keep peace and convey mutual respect.
There is no reason to doubt her. But the mayor might’ve lost sight of how police officers, unrepresented in the room that night, would view a goodwill session full of “Justice for Jackie” T-shirts, including a shirt signed by the mayor and council. As Strickland acknowledged Friday: “You’re going to see the world from the place where you stand.”
At the same time, the unions could cut the mayor some slack. It’s not as if she called out any “bad” cops by name. And if “95 percent good” is an insult, what number would be OK – short of an implausible claim of perfection? Police also should learn from the national narrative, not merely condemn it, and accept tools that could help win more public trust – up to and including body cameras.
The mayor and rank-and-file union leaders sat down together last week for the first time in years. Hopefully, the olive branch will bear fruit.
Now is the time for Tacoma police, elected officials and citizens to listen and face each other. Not turn their backs, New York style.