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Tacoma leaders respond to fatal shooting outside ICE detention center

Northwest Detention Center
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
Northwest Detention Center

Tacoma's mayor and city manager have called Saturday's fatal shooting by police outside an ICE detention center a tragedy, and linked the death to "increasingly divisive national rhetoric" and intensifying actions by immigration authorities. 

Willem Van Spronsen, 69, was shot and killed by police outside around 4 a.m. Saturday outside the Northwest Detention Center.

The facility, which holds up to 1,575 people as they go through deportation proceedings, is operated by a private company, the GEO Group, under a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Tacoma police said Van Spronsen, a Vashon resident who was carrying a rifle and flares, threw "lit objects" at buildings and vehicles outside the facility. He set one vehicle on fire and tried to ignite a propane tank, police said. 

Four officers involved in the shooting have been placed on administrative leave, Tacoma police said. 

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has joined Tacoma police in investigating the incident, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and City Manager Elizabeth Pauli said in a statement Tuesday. 

"The news of Saturday’s tragedy at the Northwest Detention Center has rapidly spread around the world, raising many questions, and reflecting that community members here in Tacoma care deeply about each other’s safety and well-being," Woodards and Pauli said. 

"Regardless of the circumstances, every loss of life in our city is cause to grieve," the statement continued.

The activist group La Resistencia, which has staged numerous rallies calling for the detention center to be closed, called Van Spronsen a "protester."

"His actions sadly reflect the level of desperation people across this country feel about the government’s outrageous violence against immigrants, which includes the use of detention centers to cage migrants both currently living in the U.S. and those seeking asylum," the group said in a statement.

Tacoma's leaders also tied the shooting to national events.

"Increasingly divisive national rhetoric, reports of intensifying U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement actions, and the presence of a detention center in Tacoma that is privately operated under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement create tensions that impact us all," Woodards and Pauli said.

The Northwest Detention Center, one of the largest holding centers in the U.S. for people facing deportation, has been a source of rising tension in and around Tacoma during the Trump presidency.

Rallies outside the center have grown more frequent. Last year, Tacoma police arrested 10 people after reports of protesters blocking a road outside the facility. Weeks later, protesters stood in the road and blocked a bus from entering the facility's gates for about two hours before dispersing. 

Shortly thereafter, police raided and disbanded an encampment that protesters had set up outside the detention center. Officers arrested one woman for "malicious mischief." 

Tacoma's leaders expressed support for police Tuesday. "As part of our responsibility for public safety, we continue to have the deepest respect for the difficult job of our law enforcement officers as they work each day to keep all community members safe," their statement said. 

City officials also called on residents to "come together" in "honest communication." 

"As you continue to use your voices to elevate matters of local, regional and national significance, including those issues relating to immigrant and refugee families, please know that we continue to listen," Woodards and Pauli said. 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.