Olympia shooting needs scrutiny

Two fateful events took place in Olympia on Thursday. First, an unthinkable shooting by police. Then our community, assisted by clergy, began thinking aloud about what it means and how to move forward.

Heartache, then introspection and calls for justice, whatever that turns out to be.

Clearly, something went deeply, terribly wrong when an Olympia police officer confronted two young men in west Olympia whom he suspected of shoplifting. In the ensuing altercation along Cooper Point Road, the patrolman shot and wounded both subjects, who were apparently unarmed but carrying skateboards.

Police said shots were fired after an assault on the officer with one of the boards.

As with many other police shootings of citizens across the country in recent months and years, both victims in this shooting are African Americans; the police officer who pulled the trigger is white.

That sets a certain train of thought rolling. Our hearts go out to mothers and fathers of young men of color, for whom this incident may bring home the fear that their sons are at risk during encounters with police in this country.

It is unfair at this point to draw conclusions about what role race might have played in this case, or what role the shooting victims could have played. The officer was working alone on a dark night at about 1:15 a.m. when he drew his weapon.

But clearly questions about race and excessive use of force were on the minds of about 200 people who went to Temple Beth Hatfiloh Thursday evening to speak out about their fears, worries, anger and – inevitably – to point some blame. Police Chief Ronnie Roberts sat quietly, listening.

Earlier in the day, Roberts handed over the investigation to a team of detectives from four other local agencies – the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office, Lacey Police, Tumwater Police and the Washington State Patrol.

Roberts’ agency also showed sensitivity in the evening when about 400 people marched from West Olympia to City Hall for a rally that shut down the Fourth Avenue thoroughfare.

Now we must wait for the investigation to take its course. Olympia police do not wear body cameras, and there is no auto dashboard camera footage to shed light on what led up to the shootings of step-brothers Andre Thompson, 24, and Bryson Chaplin, 21.

Both men were hospitalized, one in critical condition; their conditions were soon upgraded and we are grateful neither died.

Officer Ryan Donald, a three-year veteran of the force who had no formal complaints on his record, was placed on administrative leave, which is standard practice in officer-involved shootings. Regrettably there were reports late Friday of threats against the officer; police put armed officers at his home.

This brings us to our community’s next steps. We expect the shootings to revive interest in use of police body cams. We also expect our city leaders hold meetings to share what they know.

We hope this tragedy renews support for something Chief Roberts has showed interest in – an approach to law enforcement that trains officers in de-escalation of events and community policing. He has worked to change the culture of policing and win community trust.

In a May 3 guest column published on these pages, Roberts wrote:

“Policing is not easy in 2015. Events that occur across the county are used to paint all law enforcement agencies. The expectation for officers is constantly changing, officers feel pressed between those who want every law enforced and those who want no laws enforced. We have few dollars available for training yet officers are expected to be experts on many issues that have not been a traditional issue for officers to solve. One moment they are arresting violent offenders and then quickly shift gears to address behaviors by the mentally ill on the street. They are expected to be at their best when they are working with people at their worst. All of this is done under the microscope, evaluated at every turn by internal policies and external expectations.”

It is too early to say what happened here, but Roberts’ team – and our city – cannot shy away from a central, troubling question: How does a seemingly petty-crime incident escalate into the use of deadly force?

Let’s try to be patient and thoughtful as a community in finding that answer. Olympia is moving toward that path.