Tacoma leaders try to determine next steps for wounded city | KNKX

Tacoma leaders try to determine next steps for wounded city

Jan 26, 2021

10:40 a.m. Wednesday: Updated with statements from the Tacoma City Council and Tacoma Police Union Local No. 6.

Street racing, protests and a police officer driving through a crowd and running over one person: These issues were the focus of two back-to-back meetings Monday night in Tacoma. 

On Saturday night, an illegal street-racing event near Ninth Street and Pacific Avenue turned to chaos when a Tacoma police offer responding to the scene drove his patrol vehicle through a crowd of people. At least one individual was run over, and another was injured.

The officer then stopped to call for medical aid.

In a written statement, the Tacoma Police Department said 58-year-old officer Khanh Phan feared for his safety as a large crowd surrounded his vehicle. Phan is a nearly 30-year veteran of the department and is now on paid administrative leave. 

Then, on Sunday, people protested the police incident. Many were peaceful, but some protesters started lighting fires, smashing windows and spraying buildings with graffiti. One man who was arrested had a handgun. A second person was arrested carrying double-bladed knives. 

On Monday afternoon, Tacoma City Council members, along with City Manager Elizabeth Pauli and Mayor Victoria Woodards, met for over an hour. Interim Tacoma Police Chief Michael Ake was also in the meeting. He went over the timeline of the events and took questions from councilmembers. More than 190 members of the public tuned into the meeting, which was not open to public comment. 

At the beginning of the meeting, Pauli said she was horrified to see a police vehicle drive over a person. Pauli said she and Ake are committed to investigating the incident. 

From that point in the meeting forward, most councilmembers, such as Lillian Hunter, turned their attention to street racing. These are illegal gatherings of people who like to show off their skills handling cars in tight spaces. They often do burnouts, doughnuts and drifting. 

“I would ask that the time is of the essence to respond to this before we have several other episodes of it [street racing], and it becomes an issue of where Tacoma is known as a place that you can come and do this thing, and there's no repercussions for it,” Hunter said. 

Hunter went on to say that street racing “facilitated a number of really heinous actions afterward that could have been totally avoided if we'd had a handle on the street racing.” 

Councilmembers also expressed concern about Tacoma becoming a draw for protesters from outside of the city. 

Councilmember Conor McCarthy asked Ake what the police department’s plan will be for the next time hundreds of people come to Tacoma to protest and to destroy property. 

“I think the expectation in this community is that we're going to enforce the laws in the city of Tacoma, and we look to the police department to lead that effort,” said McCarthy.

It was more than 50 minutes into the meeting when Councilmember Keith Blocker expressed discomfort that no substantive discussion was happening about the fact that a city police officer drove through a crowd of people. 

“We've gotten off track in terms of why we're actually having a special council meeting on a Monday evening, which is because of the fact an officer ran over a human being,” said Blocker, who serves as deputy mayor and is the only Black councilmember. “That's what this conversation should be centered on. Transformation and transformative policing should be the center of this conversation.”

This incident comes at a time when city leaders are working to reform the Tacoma Police Department to address charges of systemic racism. The department is also being investigated by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office for how police handled the arrest and death of Manuel Ellis last year. Ellis was Black.

Councilmember Catherine Ushka said everything that happened this weekend shakes people's trust in the city’s reform efforts. 

“And so I hope that as we go through this will continue this level of transparency and really work to make sure that people's voices are escalated and heard and talked through, no matter how uncomfortable those conversations might be, because that's how this reform work is going to keep going and not otherwise, in my humble opinion,” Ushka said.

Right after the council meeting, Tacoma's Police Advisory Committee also held a special meeting.

Louis Cooper, an at-large member of the committee, expressed disappointment in how police officers handled Saturday’s situation. 

“This is outrageous. There is no excuse for this to have happened. Why wasn’t there backup called in before they even moved in on the crowd? That’s one of the questions I have. Why was he there by himself? I don’t get it. I don’t get any of this,” Cooper said. 

Cooper says he wants to observe the use-of-force training that officers go through. 

At the end of the City Council meeting, Mayor Woodards told people watching that she and other councilmembers are working to change inequities in Tacoma. She equated peoples’ frustration about the slow progress on this front to a wound needing time to heal. 

“We have a wound. We get a Band-Aid on it or stitch it up, and just as we're ready to take those stitches out, something happens again, and we come back and say, 'OK, we need your patience, and we need your trust, and we need you to be resilient yet again.' And at some point, you want to say, 'I’m tired of being patient. I'm tired of being resilient. I want change, and I want it now,” said Woodards, who choked back tears at one point. 

Many videos taken Saturday night by onlookers were shared to social media. Investigators would like to hear from anyone that witnessed the incident or might have video. Please contact the Puyallup Police Department through its tip line at 253-770-3343 or tips@puyallupwa.gov.

The Tacoma Police Department does not have dashboard cameras, and body cameras are just starting to be assigned. Phan is in the group scheduled to receive body cameras next week.

UPDATE: The Tacoma City Council issued a statement after its Tuesday night meeting. 

"As our community-led antiracist transformation work continues, and as we institute some of the more immediate shorter-term structural and organizational changes recommended by 21st Century Policing Solutions, know that the safety of our community continues to be of paramount importance to us and we have directed our City Manager and Police Chief to ensure full accountability of everyone involved in this and other use of deadly force incidents involving our Tacoma Police Department,” the council stated.

You can read the full statement here.


UPDATE: Tacoma Police Union Local No. 6 released a statement Wednesday morning. It says, in part, "The involved officer – a decorated 30-year officer and member of the community with a stellar record who hails from Southeast Asia – is not a racist criminal. He is a human and a dedicated public servant who reacted to a violent mob trying to do him harm.”

The full statement is below.

 

A statement from Tacoma Police Union No. 6.