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LISTEN: Tacoma mayor talks about policing in her city amid ongoing protests

A person kneels with their fist in the air at a June 5, 2020, demonstration against police brutality in Tacoma
Parker Miles Blohm
A person kneels with their fist in the air at a June 5, 2020, demonstration against police brutality in Tacoma.

Now that Gov. Jay Inslee has said he will ensure an independent investigation into the death of Manuel Ellis, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards is outlining her hopes for what that will look like.

"That we get a fair, independent, clean investigation," Woodards told KNKX. "That we trust the agency who’s doing it, we trust that they can do it fairly, and we trust that they can get it done in a reasonable amount of time. "

Ellis died in Marchafter being restrained by Tacoma police officers. His death has been ruled a homicide.

While details of the investigation are being worked out, Woodards says Tacoma city leaders are also working on some immediate police reform measures. 

She says the city will review police union contracts and the department use-of-force policies. The city council is also considering body cameras for officers. 

But police reform isn't the only thing on Woodards' mind when it comes to combatting racist systems.Hear her conversation with KNKX Morning Edition Host Kirsten Kendrick by clicking the play icon above. The transcript of the conversation is below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.

Victoria Woodards, Mayor of Tacoma: I've been really contemplating that that is only one place we need to focus because that means we're only focusing on the system that people end up in, as opposed to focusing on the system that puts people in that position to be in the justice system in the first place.

How are we making sure that people have good paying jobs for themselves and their families? How are we making sure that everyone has a safe place to live? How are we addressing those issues so that people don't end up in the justice system that we have to reform?

Kirsten Kendrick, KNKX: And on the issue of body cameras specifically, that would expand the police budget and amid calls for cutting that budget or defunding police, some police accountability advocates say this would be a step in the wrong direction. How do you respond to that?

Woodards: You know, it's really funny. I was talking to someone the other day and we were talking about how important all this reform is. But the other thing that we talked about as mayors is that reform is expensive because all of these things that we want to put in place, like body cams, cost money. I think there's got to be real conversation about when we say "defund the police," what that really means and what things are included in that. I get the sentiment of what it means. But I don't think there's anybody in the country who wishes there were no more police on the street. So as we think about what we mean when we defund the police, I would hope that body cams are not in the conversation. But we'll have to be able to continue to educate our community and do what's right for Tacoma.

KNKX: The calls to defund police seem to be rooted not just in anger, but in distrust. And we've heard from people specifically in Tacoma who are feeling like they can't trust the police, especially in this moment. What do you say to them?

Woodards: We started this work a year ago when finding out that our community survey said that African Americans are three times less likely to feel safe in Tacoma than whites. And that clearly says to me that it is more than just more police. More police do not make every community feel safe.  That distrust also has been passed down from generation to generation. You see it on TV, you hear it. You have people in your family who've experienced situations with police officers. So we've got to focus getting at those other issues, which is why programs like Project PEACE (Partnering for Equity and Community Engagement) were erected in Tacoma.

KNKX: Can you tell me a little bit more about what happens with Project PEACE?

Woodards: Sure. So, Project PEACE happened over — I think it was about an 18-month period — and we came out with a set of recommendations. But it was really based on community conversations where people came together. We had hundreds of people turn out for each of these meetings and have real dialogue about race and police.

So we're going to look back at those recommendations and figure out what we have, what we need to implement and how we revitalize that, or if we need to go a completely different direction than what we did in Project PEACE.

KNKX: Mayor, a lot of people in the region and across the country are having uncomfortable conversations about racism. And many say that's what's needed right now. And I wanted to ask, you're a Black mayor in a city with a white police chief. Have you had to have any uncomfortable conversations?

Woodards: I've had a lot of uncomfortable conversations. But I will tell you this. I say to people, you know, before I became mayor, I was a city council member and I was president and CEO of the Urban League. So when the Trayvon Martin case happened, when Ferguson happened, we held rallies and marches in Tacoma. I helped put those marches together, and one of my proudest moments in those marches was when former Mayor Marilyn Strickland, a Black woman, and my police chief marched from the county city building to Shiloh Baptist Church. The other overlay of that is that we had motorcycle police officers and police officers along the route that helped us get there safely. So when in other cities, they were blocking people, they were stopping people from moving, our police chief was in the march and our police officers were getting us to our destination safely.

But I can tell you in all of those marches, all of those rallies I participated in, and all of those conversations I had, I felt nothing like I feel today.

You can't imagine how many rooms I sit in — or maybe you can — where I walk in the room and I'm the only person of color. But I'm so used to that that it doesn't bother me. Now, when I come into those rooms — they're mostly on Zoom — I feel like everybody looks at me like, "What are you going to tell us? What can you say to us?"  So there's a lot of pressure. I feel a lot of weight on my having to be vulnerable to show what it means and to explain what it means and how that looks to a Black person. I have not felt like in most rooms I've been in, even though I've made statements that they can clearly understand, but I've not felt like I have to carry the Black voice into every room. I feel like I get to bring the voice of the city into the room. I now feel like that I have to bring that voice.

KNKX: How have the conversations been with the chief and other officials within the police department since you have called for the firing of the four officers involved in Manuel Ellis' death?

Woodards: I have not had a lot of conversations with with the police chief since that has come out, and I haven't had a lot of conversations with police officers. I've seen police officers since I've made that statement, police officers that I work with on a regular basis. And although we have not talked about it in any depth, it still appears that we have the same relationship. We still smile. We still have laughed when it's appropriate. So our relationship seems to be OK. But I know that there are some that it may not be OK with.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.