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A year after taking over, Tacoma police chief talks violent crime, morale and officers awaiting trial

The exterior of a building with a glass and off-white brick exterior.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press file
The headquarters for the Tacoma Police Department is shown Thursday, May 27, 2021, in Tacoma.

It’s been more than a year since Chief Avery Moore moved from Dallas and took over the Tacoma Police Department. Since then, he has hired more officers and launched a phased plan to address violent crime.

But concerns from the public remain, among them the stalled internal investigation into three Tacoma officers charged with killing Manuel Ellis.

KNKX South Sound reporter Kari Plog talked with Moore at Tacoma police headquarters last week, about his first year on the job and what work still lies ahead.

Listen to their conversation above.


Note: This transcript has been edited for brevity. It is provided for reference only and may contain typos. Please confirm accuracy before quoting.

Kari Plog: So back when we first talked, you told me that your officers welcomed your leadership and were open to doing things differently. What do you think this department is doing differently now and how do you think it's working?

Tacoma Police Chief Avery Moore: The way we police is different. We have a crime plan that we do hotspot policing, which is not a new concept. The way we do it is new and different. It's less invasive. And the evidence tells us the day we're supposed to be somewhere, the hour we're supposed to be there, and what I require is 15 minutes on those — whatever respective hours there are — an officer is there, at that location, with their headlights on and being highly visible.

Tacoma Police Chief Avery Moore
Tacoma Police Department
Tacoma Police Chief Avery Moore

Plog: And those high visibility policing spots that you're talking about, that's dictated by the rate of crime in those areas, is that how you choose which spots to to do this hotspot policing?

Moore: It's specific crime. So what we're looking at is homicide, aggravated assault, robbery. So that's how and what dictates where we're going to be.

Plog: What is the data showing right now?

Moore: A lot of improvement.

Plog (narration): He points specifically to data from May 2022, when violent crime had spiked by 81% compared to the same time period the year before. By late December, those same crimes were up by 19%...with overall crime up 13% citywide. Basically, crime is still higher in Tacoma, but not as high as it was at the beginning of last year.

Plog (interview): In recent months, the police union had said that this data was a little misleading. And I was curious if you could respond to that criticism.

Moore: No.

Plog: Are you saying it's not misleading?

Moore: No, I'm not going to respond. People are going to have their own opinion. What I gave you was the facts.

Plog (narration): It’s clear he’s frustrated with the pushback from the union…but he credits his officers with the progress.

Moore: And to go from 81[%] to 13%, I couldn't be prouder of the men and women that make this police department. Because that is commendable. Because they could have said, you know what? Forget it. And then it goes up to 100[%], 200[%]. But they didn't.

Plog: And I know there have been some experts before... and like like you said, hotspot policing is not a new idea. And there have been some experts who have said that it can lead to over policing in certain communities. But earlier you said that it sounds like that's not what's happening in Tacoma. Can you elaborate a little bit on how this is different in Tacoma?

Moore: Yeah. So I've done it both ways. Right? Where I come from, hotspot policing really meant zero tolerance policing. You stop every car for every violation. You write tickets, you make arrests, etc. Typically, you go to the high crime area, wherever that is. So it's all subjective policing. That's what gets complaints. This is evidence based, meaning that has nothing to do with ethnicity, gender. It's strictly violent crime.

Plog: Your department still employs the police officers who are awaiting trial for felony charges in the death of Manuel Ellis. And last year, you told me that you could feel the weight of that case before you took over, and you said that was because it hadn't been resolved yet. And that case still isn't resolved. How is that case weighing on you today?

Moore: The same still. Have you still felt it and probably will feel it until it's resolved.

Plog: You do have some level of control over that resolution. You get to decide if those officers get to keep their jobs or if they will face any discipline for any potential policy violations. Do you know when you anticipate making that decision?

Moore: I have no idea until it goes through the criminal trial. I have no idea.

Plog: So to ask a more basic question, what is the status of that internal investigation right now?

Moore: There isn't one. We don't do the internal investigation until after the criminal [investigation].

Plog: Is that a policy within the department?

Moore: That's pretty much a national standard because you don't want to jeopardize the criminal case. There are certain things in an internal investigation that you can actually compel an officer to give a statement where in criminal, you can't. So to keep them separate, we do the administrative investigation after the criminal investigation.

Plog (narration): That appears to be inconsistent with other deadly force cases that led to charges across the country, including the police killing of Tyre Nichols in Memphis earlier this year. It's worth noting that the internal investigation in Tacoma already started, nearly two years ago, when the charges were filed by the state attorney general. Officers Matthew Collins, Christopher Burbank and Timothy Rankine have been on paid leave for nearly three years. That's where they will stay until a verdict is reached in their trial, which starts in September and is expected to last at least two months.

In the meantime, Chief Moore says he is focusing on running his department.

Moore: I want us to be the safest city in the country. That's my hope. But I recognize we can only do that together. Our officers are working hard to do the best job they can do. There's a lot of harm that's been done. Both sides.

Plog: When you say both sides, what sides are you talking about?

Moore: Police and community. You know, police have felt abandoned, have felt devalued. Many agencies suffered defunding. And that's basically had a huge impact on morale.

Plog: And to be clear, there hasn't been any defunding in Tacoma. Right? I know we've had the hiring incentives that you put into place. There have been raises for rank and file. So it's, and body cameras cost money, so there hasn't really been defunding in Tacoma per se.

Moore: My officers believe there have been simply because there was a time they weren't allowed to hire.

Plog: But in terms of money, in terms of the budget, is the budget higher than it had been in the past, since...

Moore: This year's budget is higher than last year's budget, yes.

Plog (narration): In fact, Chief Moore says that someone on the city council told him that if they could hire 100 officers tomorrow, city leaders would find the money. Right now, the department is down 31 commissioned positions. That’s compared to 53 in May last year. Moore says hiring is the key to everything he wants to do: reinstating the violent crime response team, creating a drug unit, addressing youth violence, improving response times. Moore knows the public doesn't really care about the reasons they aren't getting the response they need when they are victims of crime. They just want it fixed.

I ask him how he feels about the relationship between his department and the community now:

Moore: You know, I understand that policing, not just in Tacoma, has caused harm on communities because that's just the truth when you look at it from a historical perspective. So daily, just working on strengthening the relationship. But I think, overall, we're better today than we were when I first got here.

KNKX Special Projects reporter Mayowa Aina helped with production of this interview.

Updated: April 12, 2023 at 10:16 AM PDT
Included updated photo of Tacoma Police Chief Avery Moore.
Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.