After six months of intense discussions about race and police relations, Olympia can come to one conclusion: There’s more work to do.
Launched last fall, the all-volunteer Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations has held five forums tailored toward marginalized people in a city where the population is at least 83 percent white.
The five-member committee was formed in response to the May 21, 2015, shooting of two black male shoplifting suspects by a white Olympia police officer who said one of them tried to attack him with a skateboard. The two men — Andre Thompson, 24, and Bryson Chaplin, 21, who has appeared in court in a wheelchair — are fighting charges for an alleged assault on Officer Ryan Donald. The trial has been postponed until Aug. 10.
The strained relationship between minorities and police is a nationwide hot-button issue that has resonated in Olympia since the shooting. The incident has prompted bias training for police and a call for more police accountability.
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However, as the committee has learned, the problem neither starts nor ends with the Police Department.
“It’s not just the police. There are folks dumping all their responsibility for racism on the police,” said Reiko Callner, committee co-chairwoman, at a study session Tuesday with the Olympia City Council.
“This is a very white population,” she said, citing examples of children who get called the n-word. “I don’t think there’s a single black person here who hasn’t experienced overt racism in Olympia.”
The ultimate goal of the forums was to build better relationships between law enforcement and the public. To broaden participation, the committee reached out specifically to the local African American, Latino, youth and homeless communities.
Committee members also did smaller outreach efforts with SafePlace, LGBTQ youths and advocates, Thurston County Needle Exchange, Drexel House residents and more.
The committee’s most recent forum focused on the ethics and complications behind police-worn body cameras, which the Olympia Police Department has promised to adopt once the legalities clear up at the state level.
In the big picture, most people just wanted to be heard.
The conversations centered on personal experiences with police that occurred inside and outside the city of Olympia. Nonetheless, all the experiences had an impact on people’s perceptions — and level of fear — with law enforcement and similar authority figures.
“I could see the anxiety and barriers begin to break down by the end of some of those forums,” said Olympia Police Lt. Aaron Jelcick, ex-officio member of the committee. “This was a relationship and trust builder.”
Nearly 250 people were counted at the five forums. Most of the people who attended, including some who went to multiple forums, were white.
Co-chairwoman Callner noted the committee’s racial makeup was an advantage in these information-gathering forums. She said she is half Japanese and half Jewish, while the other committee members represent the African American, Latino, immigrant and gay communities.
At a study session Tuesday, Callner told the Olympia City Council that some residents are concerned the entire process will whitewash the problem and that things will return to “business as usual.”
“We need to do something now,” Callner said. “We don’t want to be put in a three-ring binder and be put on the shelf.”
Councilman Clark Gilman said he wants to see more transparency and an initiative that strengthens a police officer’s ability to respond.
“I don’t think we need to explain or clear the name of the Police Department,” he said. “We need to take steps to improve the situation and take on racism, starting with organizations we control as a city.”
Councilman Jim Cooper echoed a call for building stronger connections between the public and police. The biggest challenge, he said, is becoming more culturally aware as a community while trying to eliminate racism and social injustice.
“I’m not OK with being told that Olympia is racist, and I want that to change,” Cooper said. “The question is, what now?”