As a national conversation roils around police interactions with people of color, welcome efforts are moving forward in Tacoma that everyone hopes will pay off in a stronger, more equitable community.
After police-involved killings of young black men led to turmoil in other cities, Tacoma leaders decided they needed to get proactive to reduce the chance of anything similar happening here. Their goal: improve relations between citizens and the Tacoma Police Department. Toward that end, they sought concrete proposals for bridging an “us vs. them” gap perceived by many residents, particularly by minorities.
The vehicle they chose is Project P.E.A.C.E. (Partnering for Equity and Community Engagement), which began last September with five meetings throughout Tacoma in which police and city leaders listened to — and, more importantly, talked with — interested citizens. Now we’re seeing the results, and they show promise for change.
At the top of the action plan list that came out of the meetings is a requirement for police officers to wear body cameras. Research has found cameras reduce the number of police-citizen encounters because both parties are aware that their actions could be “caught on tape.”
It would be great if a body camera program could begin quickly, but Chief Don Ramsdell is right that it’s best to see what happens in Olympia before jumping in.
Legislation now under consideration would set up a task force to report back in two years on how to address public disclosure and privacy concerns about footage. However, Tacoma police should take steps to ensure they’re ready to use body cameras as soon as those questions are addressed, and city officials should start considering where to find the money to pay for them.
Another good idea is to have police officers undergo special training to help them better respond to people with mental illness. There have been police shootings in the region of people whose actions appeared threatening because of their odd behavior. Better training might have allowed those encounters to end less lethally.
Less concrete ideas are equally worthy: Build a more diverse police force, expand community policing, and do more outreach to youth and minority communities. Ramsdell notes that a cadet program for middle-schools is in the “talking about” stage.
There is value in all those ideas. But perhaps one of the best outcomes of the project so far has been the improved attitude participants felt after the meetings. Of the 573 participants, 197 completed an online survey; 34 percent reported that their opinion of the TPD had improved, and 38.6 percent said they better understood the challenges facing the department and Tacoma residents.
Sitting down and talking is the first step in making change. Now comes the harder part. Project P.E.A.C.E. needs to make progress reports to the community to assure residents that this was more than a feel-good exercise.