Digging into what it means to feel safe in Tacoma

A student sits in the grass across the street as officers respond to reports of a shot fired at Oakland High School in Tacoma last year.
A student sits in the grass across the street as officers respond to reports of a shot fired at Oakland High School in Tacoma last year. News Tribune file photo, 2018

Do you feel safe in Tacoma? The answer is not as simple as yes or no. It differs depending on where you are, who you’re talking to and how they define safety. Everyone wants to feel safe and be safe, but the question becomes: What does safety in Tacoma look like?

To get at the heart of this, we, along with fellow graduate student Takaaki Shinohara, gathered data to answer this research question:

According to people of color residing in Tacoma, what is the confidence level in the Tacoma Police Department as it relates to their safety?

Our motivation for this research stemmed from two things. First, we are both people of color and longtime residents of Tacoma. Second, we were able to build on the work done by the City of Tacoma’s Project PEACE.

We gathered data from 197 Tacoma residents through a 21-question survey, two community focus groups and seven interviews. Our research had challenges. Throughout the process we assumed participants would view safety in relation to police, but that was not the case.

Several participants shared that they do everything possible to ensure their safety and that calling the police is a “last resort.” When asked why, the responses included that police are busy with serious incidents and they don’t always show up. Some residents expressed fear that their immigration status or race may result in a negative police encounter.

When asked the question, “Do you feel safe in Tacoma?” 67 percent of participants responded with “somewhat safe” – meaning there are times they feel safe and other times when they don’t – while 18 percent said “very safe” and 14 percent said they felt “unsafe.”

We wanted to explore what it would take for individuals to move from feeling “somewhat safe” to “safe.” The first step was trying to define what safety in Tacoma means.

We did this through interviews with the Tacoma police chief, nonprofit leaders and young men of color from various neighborhoods.

From those discussions, we learned that regardless of age, race, gender and role in the community, several factors are crucial to perceptions of safety in Tacoma. They include the ability to walk around the city without hesitation; the community working together to establish trust and compassion for one another; and law enforcement’s ongoing efforts to be present and build positive relationships.

All of us have a responsibility in making Tacoma safe, but to do that we have to ask ourselves: What does safety look and feel like in your home, neighborhood, school, place of work and community? What are you willing to do to achieve that safety?

Soon, it will be summer; school will be out and the days will be longer. This is a perfect opportunity to engage family, neighbors, city leaders and other members of the community in a conversation about safety and what it means in Tacoma.

These conversations can happen anywhere – the dinner table, in line at the coffee shop, on the sidewalk, at church or by participating in the City’s Project PEACE community dialogues.

We encourage City of Tacoma officials to continue talking to residents, and to go out to neighborhoods whose voices haven’t been represented. Partner with those who serve these neighborhoods, including churches, grassroots leaders and elders who have deep roots and respect.

It is our hope that we can develop and adopt not only a citywide definition of safety but also objectives to strive for in our quest to move from “somewhat safe” to “safe.” This hope can only be realized if we as a community work together.

Holy Chea and Melody Rodriguez are graduate students in the Masters of Public Administration program at The Evergreen State College, Olympia. They will graduate June 14. They are graduates of Foss High School and Clover Park High School, respectively.