An APB for Tacoma, state to act on police reforms

From the editorial board

A Tacoma police officer keeps an eye on protesters as they march in downtown Tacoma in March to protest the shooting death of Jacqueline Salyers. Tacoma police are trying to reach out to disaffected members of the community with their Project Peace initiative.
A Tacoma police officer keeps an eye on protesters as they march in downtown Tacoma in March to protest the shooting death of Jacqueline Salyers. Tacoma police are trying to reach out to disaffected members of the community with their Project Peace initiative. The News Tribune file photo

Call it a broken record of the most essential kind. Countless Americans have preached the need to bridge the growing divide between minorities and law enforcement, a chorus comprising members of the public, police, prosecutors, poets, priests and politicians.

The refrain was recently taken up by U.S. District Court Judge James Robart, the overseer of court-ordered police reforms in Seattle. In remarks at the end of an Aug. 15 hearing, he observed why bias, hatred and excessive use of force must be uprooted everywhere.

"Black people are not alone in this. Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans are also involved," Robart said. "And lastly, and importantly, police deaths in Dallas, Baton Rouge, Minneapolis – and let's not forget Lakewood, Washington – remind us of the importance of what we are doing."

For all the well-meaning words, however, the deeds needed to build trust on both sides of the badge are too often held hostage by bureaucracy, union dogma or simple inertia.

Two examples this summer – at the state level, and in Tacoma – point to a slow-burn exasperation among would-be reformers.

A state task force was appointed by the 2016 Legislature to advise lawmakers on how to quell clashes between the police and public. But the elephant in the room – Washington’s stiff standard for prosecuting cops for improper deadly use of force – looms over the debate.

Washington is the only state where officers can't be held criminally responsible unless "malice" (i.e., evil intent) is proven. It's an impossibly high bar singled out for criticism by the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International, a 30-year-old standard that means even cops who maim or kill a suspect in a blatantly wrongful way are unlikely to be convicted. (None ever has been.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Minnesota's legal standard says deadly force is justifiable "only when necessary to protect the peace officer or another from apparent death or great bodily harm.”

The task force has two scheduled meetings left before it reports back to legislators. Leaders ought not continue avoiding a robust discussion about changing the law; this will only further inflame citizens who are poised to change it by initiative.

If the "malice" wording were dropped while retaining the clause that protects officers who act in "good faith," the state's vast majority of ethical law enforcement professionals would have nothing to fear. Moreover, as Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim told the Olympian recently, it would make “a significant public policy statement."

Meanwhile, the Tacoma Police Department's year-old Project Peace initiative has left some community partners restless for serious progress.

“Basically, it’s on life support,” Gregory Christopher, president of Tacoma’s NAACP chapter, told the TNT last month.

On the bright side, TPD has taken steps to engage young people in positive interactions, such as a five-week youth academy set for this fall. It’s also made headway training some officers in crisis intervention to deal with volatile populations such as the mentally ill.

But it has a long way to go to train the entire patrol force in de-escalation, diversity and bias-free policing skills. It also should move faster to establish a community trauma response team; enlisting resources outside the police department can only fortify public buy-in.

The 32-point plan that grew out of Project Peace includes nary a nod to citizen oversight, nor a clear mechanism for blowing the whistle on bad cops. That should be corrected.

The plan does include five points related to police body cameras. It calls for research, input collection and pursuing implementation of cameras in two to three years. But Tacoma is footdragging while other large police forces have overcome union recalcitrance. Seattle cops may go live with body cams this year. Spokane’s finest already have. A hundred Boston officers will be outfitted with cameras next month.

TPD also has been stuck in first gear with regard to information sharing. Its pledge to post policies, response times and crime data online by the end of 2016 could be filed under “better late than never.”

Compare that to Dallas, whose police chief has instituted some of the most radical reforms in the country. His city opened one database that indexes all police-involved shootings, and another that records incidents of drawn weapons and suspects being physically restrained.

It would be naive to think adopting an attainable state use-of-force standard and progressive city police reforms will end the violence. (See above: Minnesota and Dallas.) They surely wouldn’t have stopped Maurice Clemmons from senselessly slaughtering four Lakewood officers the morning of Nov. 29, 2009.

But they can build equity that may help keep the faith when tragic confrontations, such as the Tacoma police shooting of Jackie Salyers in January, inevitably happen.

In Tacoma, it’s reassuring that both sides at least have kept their doors open. Christopher said the NAACP and other black group representatives will meet with the city manager this week. “We are willing to step up to the plate and help drive this,” Christopher said in an interview Thursday.

Only with perseverance like this will broken-record words be translated into bold deeds.