In the weeks since the group’s founding, members of the Black Alliance of Thurston County have already taken steps to make sure Thurston County is a welcoming community for African Americans, and to decrease racial bias — especially in policing.
The Black Alliance hosted its founding celebration Saturday afternoon at Olympia’s Risen Faith Fellowship church. The more than 70 people who attended included elected officials from both the city of Olympia and Thurston County, and representatives of both the Lacey and Olympia police departments.
The prevailing theme of the meeting was change, with speakers taking the stage to talk about the way relationships between people in the community could change, changes that need to occur in police departments, and legislative changes that will be presented to lawmakers in 2016.
A lot has started happening in Thurston County that we need to stop, step back and take a look at.
Thelma Jackson, co-founder of the Thurston County Black Alliance
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Thelma Jackson, one of the Black Alliance’s co-founders, said that she and other members realized the group was necessary shortly after the May 21 officer-involved shooting of two young, black men in west Olympia. She said they realized that the network of African American people in Thurston County wasn’t as strong as it once had been.
“None of us knew the family (of the men who were shot), nobody knew the two young men, nobody knew the parents,” Jackson said.
Following the incident, members of the Black Alliance opened the lines of communication with one another and with officials in the Olympia Police Department and the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office.
“A lot has started happening in Thurston County that we need to stop, step back and take a look at,” Jackson said.
Among those things: racial disparity in education, a state law that allows large numbers of juveniles to be incarcerated, and the state statute regarding police officers using deadly force.
Barbara Clarkson also took the stage and encouraged those at the meeting to connect with their community by volunteering or becoming members of civic organizations. She said that’s the best way to get to know other people and to understand the needs of the community.
“We as a community need to connect with each other,” Clarkson said. “There are things you can do to get involved and interested.”
The Black Alliance won’t work alone to improve the lives of African Americans in Thurston County, said Karen Johnson, co-founder of the group. To achieve change on a large scale, the group will need to continue working with the Prosecutor’s Office, local police departments and lawmakers.
During the meeting, Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts was called to the stage to talk about the impact the Black Alliance has had on his department.
He said that he met with Johnson shortly after the May 21 shooting to talk about the incident and to discuss ways the Police Department could better represent the community. At that meeting, Johnson brought up the concept of implicit bias — bias that impacts people’s actions on an unconscious level.
Roberts said Johnson has held him accountable to that conversation. And as a result, Olympia police officers will soon be receiving implicit bias training. He said $300,000 for the training has been added to the city’s proposed budget for next year.
The Black Alliance and Olympia Police Department are also coming together Dec. 10 to host a “conversation cafe” from 6-9 p.m. at the South Sound Manor. Johnson said that at the meeting, participants will gather to “unpack the myths around living in a post-racial society.”
Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim also took the stage to talk about the state statute for use of force. He explained that law enforcement officers can’t be prosecuted for illegal use of force if they acted without malice and in good faith — they believed they were making the correct decision, and a reasonable person in the same position would have done the same thing.
He said the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys has been discussing changes to the statute for more than a year. Tunheim is co-chairman of the association’s legislative committee.
“This conversation was started with prosecutors some time ago,” Tunheim said. “We are 39 lawyers, and as you could imagine, it takes a while for us all to agree.”
Johnson said the Black Alliance will be involved in making recommendations to the Legislature about how the use of force statute could be improved.