Tacoma cops, residents begin conversation about race

The first in a series of conversations aimed at improving relationships between Tacomans and the city’s police department filled Hilltop’s Peace Community Center.

In large and small groups, about 100 residents and 10 police officers talked candidly Thursday evening about perceptions of racial identity and the role it plays in Tacoma and the nation.

Police Chief Don Ramsdell said the conversations are intended to help police and civilians minimize the potential for hostile confrontations, and are inspired more by protests and riots in other cities than by Tacoma’s recent past.

Four more conversations are scheduled in neighborhoods across the city this fall, to be followed by a citywide meeting in the Greater Tacoma Convention Center in November.

On Thursday, Ramsdell and other speakers alluded to the city’s rate of gang violence in the 1990s and the heavy-handed police response it elicited.

“Can an incident like Ferguson happen in Tacoma in some of these areas?” Ramsdell asked the group. “Some people say it already has.”

Attendees told stories about how their families and friends, in Tacoma and elsewhere, influenced their perceptions about race. The accounts ranged from societal to personal.

Thrett Brown, 37, talked about how he’d seen people make racist comments after being involved in interracial relationships that went sour.

“The n-bomb would come out towards this person, and I would think, ‘Wow, all this time,’” Brown said.

Facilitator Dustin Washington walked the crowd through a quick discussion of how institutional racism, from the U.S. Constitution’s three-fifths compromise to Jim Crow laws, had lasting effects in American society.

“We cannot create a path forward if we do not have an honest look at our history that brought us to where we are today,” said Washington, after inviting audience members to describe elements of systems that contribute to the troubles of residents in poorer areas.

Assistant Chief of Police Mike Ake, 47, told of how he’d willingly helped enforce zero-tolerance policies on Tacoma’s East Side and in the Hilltop in the years after he’d joined the city police in 1989.

“It was not just the drug dealers or the gang members that we targeted,” he said. “It was everybody who lived in that neighborhood. As a young officer, you didn’t realize the hurt that you were doing.”

Although the conversation was unstructured, several audience members said it left them with better ways to understand Tacoma and some of the tensions among its diverse communities.

Maureen Traxler, 26, who is new to Tacoma from Seattle, said she was especially struck by hearing that half of Pierce County’s homeless people are black, even though that racial group makes up 10 percent of the county population.

“It is really amazing that people are volunteering themselves and their time to come out and have this conversation with each other,” Traxler said.

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. 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.

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