The recent shooting of two suspects by an Olympia police officer raised uncomfortable questions about use of force, race, the demands we place on police and what steps police agencies might take to more effectively de-escalate conflicts.
A white officer working alone at 1:15 a.m. stopped two young African-American men suspected of an attempt to steal beer from a local Safeway. Things escalated from there. Police say the men swung skate boards at the officer. Both suspects were shot.
A lot of answers won’t come until a full investigation is completed. But it’s already clear from speaking with South Sound police chiefs that their officers face an increasingly complex world. They are expected to be social workers, mental health first-responders and medics, as well as protecting the community from crime.
A case in point: An Olympia policeman responding to a recent stabbing likely saved the victim’s life by applying a tourniquet that prevented him from bleeding to death before medics arrived.
And all these duties come when successive budget reductions have constricted funding for training armed officers who could always use more training in the art of in de-escalation, understanding mental illness, and reducing bias.
It is against this backdrop that the May 21 shootings in Olympia took place. They left the two African-American men wounded and echoed a trend reported nationally last month by The Washington Post: Of 385 police shootings through May, about half of those wounded or killed were white, half were minority, and two-thirds of unarmed victims were black or Hispanic.
And the number of shootings was up sharply from the previous year.
It may be another two weeks or more before lab results are in and detectives from the State Patrol, Thurston County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies reach their conclusions about what happened, and whether force was appropriately or inappropriately deployed.
So our community has largely been patient as we wait to learn all the facts. We’ve been pleased that officers led by Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts have acted with even-handedness to counter street protests that included clashes between critics of police and white supremacists.
At the same time, as Roberts told our board, his agency will not stand for criminal behavior and will make arrests in street clashes where an individual wrecking property or assaulting others can be identified.
Looking ahead, huge questions loom that may not be answered until the investigation is in.
Should Olympia have a citizen review board to review investigations? Should police agencies from further outside the local area be brought in to investigate this kind of incident? How soon should Olympia police start wearing body cameras and what will it cost?
We think the answers will end up being yes to at least one of those questions, perhaps more.
We commend the work of community groups that already have begun to work toward such goals, and we encourage an orderly discussion before the City Council, too.
Review boards are not magic solutions, however; neither are body cameras for officers. But as city leaders take up those kinds of questions during the next few months, the discussion must include more and better training for all officers.
Training, body cameras and accountability — these are all pieces that must be woven together to build the trust which our police need to do their jobs.