Matt Driscoll

Tacoma's Project Peace shouldn't let the city explain away what happened to Monique Tillman

VIDEO: Surveillance footage shows officer taking teenager to ground outside Tacoma Mall; Lawsuit alleges brutality

A 17-year-old girl, Monique Tillman, alleges Tacoma police officer Jared Williams's behavior amounted to brutality, when threw her to the ground and used a stun gun on her in the Tacoma Mall parking lot, while working off-duty security there.
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A 17-year-old girl, Monique Tillman, alleges Tacoma police officer Jared Williams's behavior amounted to brutality, when threw her to the ground and used a stun gun on her in the Tacoma Mall parking lot, while working off-duty security there.

Watch the 2014 video of Monique Tillman being dragged to the ground by her hair by off-duty Tacoma Police Officer Jared Williams. She was 15-years-old at the time, riding her bike through the Tacoma Mall parking lot.

Williams, who is white, was in uniform and driving his TPD cruiser while working security at the mall. Suspecting Tillman, who is black, was responsible for a disturbance in the area, he used his stun gun on the girl after taking her down.

It’s not hard to see why a jury awarded Tillman $500,000 in federal court last week.

Tillman’s lawsuit alleged that Williams’ conduct while attempting to detain her was excessive. The jury agreed.

Here are a few things that are more difficult to understand:

How can the city contend that Williams’ conduct was consistent with the police department’s use-of-force policy, given what the video shows? (Williams, it’s worth noting, is still employed by TPD.)

Why was the individualized refresher course on defensive tactics that a supervisor suggested Williams undergo after the incident never carried out?

How on earth can the city even be contemplating appealing the verdict?

And what is Project Peace’s role in all this? If the program’s purpose really is to build trust between law enforcement and the community — and specifically communities of color — shouldn’t it serve as a vehicle to more thoroughly challenge the status quo that allows incidents like this to happen in the first place and then be explained away?

These all seem like fair — and perhaps even overdue — questions.

Let’s start with Williams’ conduct.

City Attorney Bill Fosbre maintained in an interview with KING 5’s Jenna Hanchard this week that the off-duty officer acted within the guidelines of TPD’s use-of-force policy.

To paraphrase, Fosbre said that an officer is permitted to use a range of compliance techniques when dealing with a resistant subject, and the techniques Williams employed were permissible under the agency’s protocol.

I asked Tacoma Assistant Police Chief Ed Wade about that this week. While Wade declined to comment on the specifics of Williams’ conduct, he noted that the agency’s use-of-force policy has been revised four times since 2014.

That policy, he said, is “always evolving and adapting to the current day and age.”

As an example, Wade said the department made what he called “a major change” to its Taser policy in 2014.

Wade stopped short of drawing a “direct line of causation” between this change and what Tillman experienced. He did acknowledge that there “are a number of different things that would cause us to revise our use-of-force policy.”

The response likely feels unsatisfying to a number of people trying to reconcile what the video shows — a 15-year-old girl, not suspected of a real crime, being dragged off her bike and to the ground by her hair — with Fosbre’s contention that Williams’ conduct was consistent with the agency’s use of force policy.

So I asked Wade about whether he understands why people might have a tough time swallowing it.

“I think that the community and the public at large — and I’m a city resident, too — have high expectations of our police department,” he said. “I certainly understand why people want to ask questions. And I certainly understand that as a city and a department we are obligated to answer those questions as best as we can.”

However, Wade said people shouldn’t judge the entire department based on one interaction from 2014.

“I would ask that people look at the totality of what we do,” he said.

Then there’s the not insignificant issue of why Williams never underwent the individualized refresher course on defensive tactics that a supervisor called for after the incident. Wade declined to comment on this matter as well.

Fosbre, in his interview with KING 5, said, “The individualized training was not done, but Officer Williams was provided subsequent training as part of a department-wide training effort in February 2015.”

Again, I expect this answer to be unsatisfying to a great many people. I know it is for me.

All of this brings us to Project Peace, an initiative launched by local leaders and pastors in 2015 in the wake of instances of police brutality and high-profile protests in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland.

Project Peace — which has involved the Tacoma Police Department, the city and average citizens — is aimed at improving understanding between law enforcement and the community. It was created after Monique Tillman’s run-in with Williams in the Tacoma Mall parking lot.

In its nearly three years of existence, the program has notched a number of noteworthy victories.

It led to the creation of a number of important action items for Tacoma police, including a directive to diversify TPD’s ranks, a call for the implementation of police body cameras, providing crisis intervention training for individuals with mental health issues, and efforts to increase officer awareness of things like institutional racism and implicit bias.

Project Peace also has fostered a number fruitful conversations, according to Lawrence Coleman, a senior policy analyst with Tacoma’s Office of Equity and Human Rights, who also serves the project’s coordinator.

“Because of Project Peace, I think a relationship has been established and the doors are open to not only city offices, but the police department and their leadership as well,” Coleman said.

In other words, Project Peace might be helping to prevent the next Monique Tillman incident. That’s a good thing.

Still, watching that surveillance video and then hearing Fosbre describe what it shows as an acceptable police interaction suggests significant work remains.

Asked if Project Peace was equipped and ready to facilitate community conversations about Tacoma police’s use-of-force policy, Coleman didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely,” he said.

Meanwhile, Wade said TPD’s use-of-force policy is always being reviewed and agreed that Project Peace provides a good platform for any member of the community with concerns to raise them in an environment where they’ll be heard.

This strikes me as the perfect time for Project Peace to demonstrate its true value.

Because if increasing trust is what Project Peace is all about, then preventing interactions like the one Monique Tillman had in the Tacoma Mall parking lot and holding officers accountable if they do happen will do a lot more than words ever will.

And if that’s not one of the things Project Peace is about, it raises one last important question:

What’s the point?

Matt Driscoll: 253-597-8657, mdriscoll@thenewstribune.com, @mattsdriscoll

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