Olympia shootings point to need to clarify community expectations for police.
So now Olympia adds something to the conversation on police shootings. Our state capital isn’t Baltimore or Pasco with their large populations of marginalized people, and clear issues, but it shares some common challenges related to policing.
As a country we’re being forced to think about certain applications of police force that were largely taken for granted in the past. It’s good that people in leadership positions are having to think about what it is we want our police to do, and how best to do it.
Let’s go over what happened in Olympia. Some of the specifics are bound to change over time, but we do know that an officer shot two men very early Thursday morning.
The officer and several others were responding to a report that two men had tried to steal beer from a Safeway store. The employees intervened and the two men threw beer at them, then fled the store.
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A few minutes after that, Officer Ryan Donald stopped two men nearby, and after a few more minutes, the officer reported he’d been involved in a shooting. There was no video of the shooting this time, at least none surfaced immediately, so early news reports were based on police accounts.
Those accounts say the officer was attacked with a skateboard. Both men had skateboards. He fired at them, and they ran to some woods. The officer gave chase, the men came out of the woods, and he shot one, then the other.
The men were identified as stepbrothers, Bryson Tyler Chaplin, 21, and Andre Damon Thompson, 24, both of Olympia. Both were hospitalized, one with multiple gunshots to his torso.
It’s fortunate that neither of them died, but they could have, and we’d be considering whether a case of beer was worth their lives. Was shooting them the right response?
Or looking at it another way, should an officer put himself in harm’s way over beer? The robbers had already fled without the beer, so the officer wasn’t preventing a crime. There would be value in catching and holding accountable the people who tried to steal the beer, and who did, apparently, commit assault when one of the employees was hit in the hand by the thrown beer.
There is also the matter of the alleged skateboard attack against the officer. I want officers to be able to protect themselves, and I’m sure most people would want that, too.
An investigation will determine whether the officer’s response was an appropriate, but whatever happened in the first contact, chasing and then shooting the men seems to me beyond a matter of self-defense.
At that point, the officer was trying to apprehend two men he suspected of committing assault and attempting to steal beer. Officers do what the community expects them to do, mostly, and I say we should tell them not to shoot people in situations where a reasonable person would not believe lives are at stake.
If I called an officer and told him someone had stolen my bike, I can’t imagine he would give chase, then shoot a suspect. He’d take a report and that would most likely be the end of it. That’s not very satisfying, of course. Police do catch thieves sometimes, but my point is that police make choices just like the rest of us. We should help them make those choices by making it clearer what our priorities are as citizens. I hope those priorities have moved away from a blanket acceptance of force.
There were some peaceful protests after the shootings, and that’s good. Large protests are a fairly recent statement that some aspects of policing need to evolve. (There were also violent protests in Olympia by anarchists, but that’s a different matter.)
We need changes in laws, procedures and training to keep police safe and to allow them to ensure the public safety without the excessive violence we sometimes see now.
I like the approach former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr is taking in her role as head of the state’s police academy, changing the training regimen for police officers to move away from a “warrior culture” to a vision of officers as “guardians of democracy.”
Part of the change is learning tools other than force for dealing with people, and starting out with the understanding that enforcement is a tool, not the entire mission.
Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum said Thursday, “It deeply saddens me that we have two young people in the hospital as a result of an altercation with an officer of the law. “
I hope that sadness translates into an effort to make this particular outcome less likely in the future. Olympia, and all of our communities, deserves better.