Tacoma finds slow going on road to police reform

One year after city leaders announced Project Peace, and six months after a downtown meeting Feb. 8 to roll out more than 30 policing reforms, progress has been slow and all but invisible from outside the department.
One year after city leaders announced Project Peace, and six months after a downtown meeting Feb. 8 to roll out more than 30 policing reforms, progress has been slow and all but invisible from outside the department. MCT file, 2013

Before police-involved shootings sparked protests and retaliatory violence in cities across the country this year, Tacoma officials launched a series of community conversations between the city and its law enforcement officers.

The hope was to head off the kind of city-scarring unrest that emerged in Ferguson, Missouri, in summer 2014 by forging an open, healthy relationship between Tacomans and their police force.

But a year after city leaders announced Project Peace, and six months after a downtown meeting Feb. 8 to roll out more than 30 policing reforms, progress has been slow and all but invisible from outside the department.

Police said systemic approaches — including training officers differently and planning more outreach — are helping the department become more open and responsive to the city it serves. Higher-profile changes, including outfitting officers with body cameras remain, at best, years away.

Asked recently to characterize the pace of city police reform, Gregory Christopher, president of Tacoma’s NAACP chapter, said the department had “lost a lot of momentum” in its campaign.

“Basically, it’s on life support,” Christopher, the pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, said of the process.

Police Chief Don Ramsdell said in an interview that progress has met his expectations so far.

“We want to make sure, particularly when it comes to things like body cameras and training, that we are very deliberate in doing it the right way right off the bat,” Ramsdell said. “And so I want to make sure that we just don’t put something together just to put it together to say we’ve done something. I want to make sure that it’s meaningful.”

Ramsdell said he counts Christopher among his key allies in keeping in touch with the emotional pulse of Tacoma’s black community, and that improving the department’s often-tense relationship with black residents of the Hilltop and other neighborhoods has been a focus of the Project Peace reforms.

Who Project Peace heard from

The effort, which grew out of small civic-leader summits between black ministers and community leaders, kicked off in a Hilltop community center Sept. 8 before four other meetings.

City officials counted more than 800 attendees — half white, half members of other ethnicities — and culled their feedback into 32 “action items” to improve how the city is policed.

Ramsdell and other leaders in and out of city hall said they’re a step toward a long-range goal of making Tacoma a city with a fair, and trusted, justice system.


Tacoma cops, residents begin conversation about race

Police Chief Don Ramsdell and councilwoman Victoria Woodards, along with other Tacoma city leaders, announced a series of public conversations with police aimed at diffusing discord over how officers and civilians deal with one another.

Derrick Nunnally Staff writer

“It is not the end of the initiative, so you can’t treat this first step like we’ve got a completed project,” said Lyle Quasim, the co-chairman of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective.

The results of the first step, though, lack clarity about how soon things will improve, he said. Timetables for body cameras and police training haven’t been clearly stated, even months after the session ended, he noted. He said they were the predictable result of a process that collected a relatively benign set of concerns and left key frustrations unheard.

“When you go to the 800 people who were part of this peace initiative, you will find wonderful folks, every one,” Quasim said, “but the people who are are most impacted by this were there in small numbers.”

Jamika Scott, an organizer with the Tacoma Action Collective, said she attended two Project Peace meetings and concluded the process was “a joke.”

Organizers, she said, had asked frustrated citizens to be impersonal and dispassionate about their problems with police — in her case, how a reported assault was handled. The results didn’t touch the heart of the disconnect between the city and police, she said.

“You can’t tell a historically oppressed group of people to sit in a room with police and not be angry,” Scott said. “We thought this was going to be a place where we could really talk.”

City Councilwoman Victoria Woodards, who helped introduce the Project Peace initiative in August, said she thought its goal of laying the foundations for better police-community relationships has come along as she hoped.

“I know it appears that we’re moving probably slower than some would like us to,” shes said, “but implementing some of these recommendations takes time. It isn’t as though nothing has been happening behind the scenes.”

What Project Peace did

At a July 12 City Council meeting, City Manager T.C. Broadnax gave the council a list of Project Peace’s accomplishments to date. Among them:

▪ A five-week youth academy to start in the fall.

▪ Training of 16 officers for a crisis-intervention team with expertise in de-escalating situations and mental-illness treatment. Another group is scheduled for training in September.

▪ Outreach programs including officer-attended youth events and a citizens’ police academy.

▪ A new departmental study committee on police body cameras.

▪ Discussion of goals for future Project Peace community dialogues.

Also underway are several efforts to help police responsiveness to the needs of Tacoma’s minority communities.

These include forming a community trauma response team to help manage situations that have wide-ranging impact and a focus on diversifying the hiring process of the police force. Since June 2015, Broadnax said, police have hired 16 officers. Of them, nine are white, three are black, two are Hispanic and two are Asian. All but four are men.

Later that month, the council announced another Project Peace achievement: the city is spending $250,000 this year on a program to develop in-house training to reduce bias.

Ramsdell said the department also has added two mental-health professionals “embedded in the department” to help de-escalate potential crisis situations on-scene while an event is unfolding.

“We’ve been able to divert a lot of folks that would have been incarcerated and put in jail,” Ramsdell said, “just by having those mental healh professoinals there and also the resources that go with it, the bedding and that kind of stuff, so that’s been very helpful for us.”

Project Peace aims for better police-community relations

Officials release list of proposed changes as part of community relations effort on Feb. 8, 2016.

Lui Kit Wong lwong@thenewstribune

The reform that remains

Ramsdell said his department’s biggest need comes in having the “difficult discussions” that lead to mutual trust despite the national climate of troubled police-civilian interactions. Those have occasionally become palpable in Tacoma, as with the street protests after Jacqueline Salyers, a 33-year-old Puyallup tribal member, was shot by Tacoma police in January.

Asked for a numerical assessment of how his department was doing, he did not easily settle on a figure.

“I’m above a 5,” he said. “I’m probably 6, 7 or 8, because I know that we’re never going to make everybody happy. ... I would be not being forthright if I said it’s 100 percent, that we have no problems at all. We do have issues, and we have challenges, and we’re working to address those.”

Several observers said they’re waiting for more visible evidence of improvement. Christopher, the pastor and NAACP chapter president, said he wants to see more events where officers and young people interact publicly.

“We need some results,” he said, “because people are discouraged, because they hear of conversations and meetings, but they’re not seeing results.

Quasim said the absence of a visible timetable on body cameras is an example of one way the progress of reform has been vague. He said he has been frustrated as well by the lack of openness about how the department handles complaints against officers. Improving that remains a goal of Project Peace.

Ramsdell said he had concerns the national mood would lead to an increase in unfounded complaints over Tacoma police conduct, but said a preliminary look at the numbers has not borne that out.

On request, he provided a tabulation that showed the department received 208 allegations against police from 135 complainants (which might include the same person more than once), in 2015 and had sustained 19 of them (several more remain pending).

In the first half of 2016, the department received 142 complaints from 64 complainants, and has sustained four of them so far.


Tacoma police look to future of cameras, diversity, training

Tacoma mayor Marilyn Strickland addresses the audience on Project Peace at The Greater Tacoma Convention Center on Feb. 8, 2016.

Lui Kit Wong lwong@thenewstribune.com

He said his data did not track the race of the citizen who lodged the complaint until the start of 2016, and that the data have been only partially recorded since then. This is, he said, partly because some people do not want to state their race when filing a complaint.

Of the 69 people who submitted complaints about police behavior from January to June, he said, 14 came from black people, 24 came from whites and the other 31 complaints lacked racial information. Ramsdell said officers now are instructed to ask for race to help monitor how complaints are handled.

“We haven’t really tracked real consistently up until recently,” the chief said.

As for body cameras, wide-scale implementation remains a distant vision. A planned experiment that would have outfitted up to five officers with body cameras has been abandoned. Ramsdell said it missed a state deadline.

Detective Christopher Tracy, vice president of the Tacoma Police Union and a member of the Legislature’s body camera task force, said the shaping of statewide guidelines over body-camera use — such as how to handle them as public records and citizens’ privacy concerns — is the first step of the process.

That panel’s first meeting will be Wednesday (Aug. 3), with its recommendations expected to arrive in late 2017. After that, he said, Tacoma police leadership and the union will decide issues about how they will be implemented locally.

“These kind of conversations, in the best of communities, tend to take two to three years,” Tracy said.

He said the issue is expected to be contentious and deserves careful study. Potential problems, he said, include officers’ casual conversations about sensitive situations being misconstrued when taken out of context.

“It’s more important to get it done right than it is to get it done quickly,” he said.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

Progress on Project Peace’s 32-point plan

The Tacoma Police Department announced in February 32 reforms it would implement as a result of 2015’s Project Peace community conversations. Here’s the list and the progress police say they’ve made toward each goal.

1. Reach out community-wide to gather problems, build solutions.

2. Implement Crisis Intervention Team for mental health responses.

PROGRESS: The team has been formed with 16 officers throughout shifts who received 40 hours of training; 16 additional officers will receive training this fall. Two mental-health professionals have been embedded with the department to respond to situations alongside officers.

3. Review and enhance the Citizens Academy.

PROGRESS: The Police Department and the Safe Streets Youth Leading Change program are designing a five-week youth academy program to begin in October. For adults who want to learn more about police operations, the department’s 48th Citizens Academy will run from September to December.

4. Develop an interactive presentation of departmental goals and functions.

5. Add community liaison officers to Community Policing Division.

PROGRESS: The department is requesting additional positions in the 2017-18 budget cycle.

6. More proactive units, detectives and school resource officers for quality-of-life policing.

PROGRESS: The department is requesting additional positions in the 2017-18 budget cycle.

7. Build internal and external policies around procedural justice.

8. Conduct an annual survey of citizens’ trust in the Police Department.

9. Recruit, hire and retain a diverse workforce.

PROGRESS: Since June 2015, the department has hired nine white, three black, two Hispanic and two Asian officers. Four of the total are womene. The department’s other diversity recruiting efforts include job fairs, national ads, partnering with historically black colleges and universities and hiring from other departments.

10. Identify issues and concerns of high-risk and immigrant communities.

PROGRESS: Officers attended and participated in Latino Town Hall meetings in March and May.

11. Communicate quickly about high-priority situations (school lockdown, active shooter).

PROGRESS: The department’s rapid-notification alerts now include media bulletins, a Twitter account and Pierce County Alert.

12. Host community forums in next 12 months about departmental practices.

PROGRESS: Hosted “Wheels Up, Guns Down” event June 24 to discuss community issues. The department is working with Safe Streets and other groups to conduct similar events starting in late August.

13. Encourage officers to have more non-enforcement community interaction.

PROGRESS: The department is beginning to track officers’ routine visits to community centers, parks, schools and public events.

14. By end of 2016, post departmental policies, crime and complaints data and response times to website.

PROGRESS: Working with the White House policy and police data initiative on this.

15. Discuss future Project Peace conversations with city officials.

PROGRESS: Working with Project Peace executive committee on this.

16. Expand partnerships with youth groups, schools and religious organizations.

PROGRESS: The Patrol Division informally participates with several organizations, including through the downtown YMCA. Officers attend weekly late-night youth programs. The department and Safe Streets’ Youth Leading Change program is to begin working with high school students this fall. A cadet program with the Tacoma Fire Department geared toward middle-school students is also planned.

17. Recruit community-wide for the Tacoma Police Department Explorer Post (ages 15 to 19).

PROGRESS: The Youth Leading Change and cadet programs will help recruit for the Police Explorer program

18. Work with Tacoma Public Schools on how school resource officers can educate.

19. Build Project Peace conversations with youths.

PROGRESS: Working with Project Peace executive committee on this.

20. Pursue implementation of body cameras within two to three years.

PROGRESS: Convened a departmental cross-section of personnel, looking at bodycam issues.

21. Research use of body cameras and track state legislation.

PROGRESS: See No. 20 above.

22. Get body camera input from Citizen Police Advisory Committee.

PROGRESS: See No. 20 above.

23. Ask community and police labor unions about body camera concerns.

PROGRESS: The department’s officers’ and supervisors’ unions each is represented on the body camera panel.

24. Request funding to implement, sustain body cameras.

PROGRESS: See No. 20 above.

25. Develop a community trauma response team with the Citizen Police Advisory Committee, others.

PROGRESS: This is ongoing, along with culturally appropriate partnerships with community leaders to call on when a major incident occurs.

26. Provide eight-hour crisis intervention training to all officers by the end of 2017.

PROGRESS: This is planned as an addition to the ongoing training about crisis intervention and diversity issues.

27. By June 2016, re-evaluate training about cultural issues and confrontations.

PROGRESS: Working on grants for new projects about youth engagement and bias-free police training. Received money in July to implement new training ahead of January schedule.

28. Communicate better with officers and surveys their concerns.

PROGRESS: A survey of all personnel is planned.

29. Research police best practices on officer wellness and safety.

30. Research how to encourage a healthy work/life balance.

31. Expand social media outreach to share information and build relationships.

32. Request funding to add a community relations specialist.

PROGRESS: This will be part of the the department’s 2017-18 budget proposal.

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