Kardel Arnold was nervous when he and some friends passed an intersection where police cars were parked with flashing lights.
There was no confrontation with the police, but the 15-year-old said the teens worried that trouble was possible if they made any “wrong moves.”
Race relations in Olympia, however, go beyond the police. Arnold, a sophomore at Olympia High School, has attended the city’s schools since kindergarten. And every year, he says, he has been the target of a racial slur.
But he has hope that a new committee can foster more positive relationships and understanding between African Americans, Olympia police and the city as a whole.
The Ad Hoc Committee on Policing and Community Relations had its fourth public forum Thursday at Olympia High School in an effort to connect with youth. This time, the forum focused on youths and their interactions with police.
Arnold was among a handful of African American students who attended. They said that despite their generally respectful encounters with Olympia police, many still harbor some fear of law enforcement. That fear is swayed by statistics and media coverage related to police shootings — specifically shootings that involve African American men.
In fact, the shooting of two black shoplifting suspects by a white Olympia police officer in May was the primary impetus behind the committee’s public forums. The shooting has galvanized the community into holding difficult conversations about race, power and privilege in Olympia.
“It’s really cool that the community is speaking out,” said Arnold, noting how the shooting finally “got everybody’s attention.”
About 24 people attended Thursday’s forum, which included group discussions about ways the Olympia Police Department can build trust and help people feel safe during their interactions.
Antonio McClinon, a paraeducator at Olympia High School, said the police department needs to have more diversity among its officers to better connect with young minorities — and to make them comfortable with seeing an authority figure who looks like them.
“I would like to see more people of color on the police force,” he said. “It’s that whole perception of what cops are supposed to look like.”
Olympia High School Principal Matt Grant praised the forums for bringing racial issues to light, especially in schools.
“Race is frequently an issue or challenge for any student of color who comes to our school,” he said, calling for more community dialogue on the subject. “We can always do more.”
Attendees and committee members acknowledged that it will take time to see meaningful progress.
“This is work that is just a step in a direction,” said committee member Kerensa Mabwa, who encouraged attendees to feel safe about raising sensitive topics. “We won’t have closure right away. This is a journey.”
Olympia police Lt. Aaron Jelcick, who oversees the downtown walking patrol, also serves on the committee. During one breakout discussion, Jelcick noted the changing landscape for police departments and the public’s perception of police.
“For police officers, this is a time when there’s never been more accountability,” he said. “Right now, there’s a very big drive across the country to build trust in the communities they serve.”
The committee will have another community forum at 5 p.m. Feb. 18 to address the implementation of police body cameras. Co-chairwoman Reiko Callner said the goal is to provide basic information on body cameras along with issues related to privacy and public records.
After that, the committee’s next step is to report its findings to the Olympia City Council, likely in early March. Callner said the committee will have more planning meetings in the coming weeks to review and compile all public comment. The committee’s previous forums have been geared toward the African American, Latino and homeless communities.
“It’s a mass of information,” Callner said, “and it’s pretty diverse.”
To contact the Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations, email firstname.lastname@example.org.