After White Officer Shoots Black Brothers, Chief Works To Build Trust

Jul 14, 2016

The police force in Washington’s state capital is changing. Fourteen months ago a white police officer in Olympia shot two African-American brothers. The shooting triggered local protests, but not a national outcry -- the brothers survived, although one was paralyzed.

Ultimately, the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing. Even so, Olympia’s police chief says that event was a catalyst for change.

“To me it’s about culture, changing the culture of policing locally,” Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts said. “I think it needs to change nationally.”

Roberts came to the job in 2010 after a long career in Oregon. He said change was coming to his department anyway -- a wave of retirements, a crop of new, young officers. But national events were galvanizing.

“We started to see things starting to unfold with Ferguson and other places and we started sitting down and talking about that as an agency,” Roberts said. “‘What’s wrong with this picture, what’s happening here?’”

‘Race is a factor’

Then came his first true test as Olympia chief. In the early morning hours of May 21, 2015 one of his officers stopped two young black men. They were brothers who matched the description from a shoplifting and alleged assault that had taken place earlier.

Moments later the officer opened fire. Olympia police don’t wear body cameras, so there’s no video. But the officer said he’d been under attack and that one of the brothers wielded a skateboard as a weapon.

At a news conference a few hours after the shooting, Chief Roberts was asked about the “elephant in the room” -- race. The officer was white, the men who were shot black.

This was his answer then: “There’s no indication to me that race was a factor in this case at all.”

Today, Roberts says he apologizes for that statement.

“Because what I know based upon black people in this community and across this nation is that every time they’re present, race is a factor,” Roberts said.

While the officer was cleared, the brothers face trial. Their mother declined an interview but said she doesn’t have faith or trust in the Olympia Police Department.

A model of modern police reform

Since the shooting, Chief Roberts has met regularly with a group of longtime black residents of Olympia. One of them is Rosalund Jenkins, former director of the state Commission on African American Affairs.

Asked to rate the chief Jenkins said, “I’m a hard grader Austin and I would give Chief Roberts a nine.”

She praised him for his openness and thinks the Olympia Police Department could become a national model for police reform. She’s eager for the department to adopt body cameras. But one looming issue could test the relationship: civilian oversight of the department.

“There’s something about having another check, another balance that can actually improve practice, that can increase trust,” Jenkins said.

Chief Roberts knows this conversation is coming and he’s open to having it. But he said his goal is to create a police department where civilian review isn’t necessary.

“What I want to ensure is that the community as a whole that they have a high level of trust in our police department and believe that we operate with integrity and that we’re transparent in the work that we do,” Roberts said. “And if that’s the case then I don’t know that we need civilian review.”

While the chief and Jenkins may not see eye to eye on this issue, they both agree that for all the progress the Olympia Police Department has made, there’s still a lot of work yet to do.

The Susan Boyle test

Olympia Police Officer Shelby Nutter got into policing after taking a class at the University of Washington on disparities in America’s prison system. She thought she could make change from within.

“I was coming from a very naïve college student perspective,” Nutter said.

Nutter said she wanted to police according to the Golden Rule.

“Of treating others how you would want to be treated,” she said. “And when I first came into policing, there was some resistance.”

Now, 13 years later Nutter said, “It seems as though policing is changing in a way that fits my model of policing.

The concept is fair and impartial policing. Nutter was recently trained to train her fellow officers in recognizing their own built in biases -- and not just racial bias. She does it with a bit of help from a reality TV show phenome: Susan Boyle, the frumpy contestant on “Britain’s Got Talent.”

“So here she appears on stage and nobody expects her to be a phenomenal singer,” Nutter said. “And then here she opens her mouth and starts singing.”

“And that exercise really helps drive home to the class that we have these biases whether or not we recognize them, we have them,” Nutter said.

Besides bias training, Olympia officers these days get more scenario-based training where actors play the role of citizens or suspects.

And there’s something else: with some 911 calls they’re choosing not to engage. For instance, recently a man under the influence of drugs was threatening suicide by cop. But he wasn’t an immediate threat to himself or his family, so the police stayed away to avoid a possible deadly confrontation.

The department has also changed its mission statement to focus on community trust.