On Saturday night, Tacoma was trending on Twitter. This was not a good thing.
A graphic video showed a Tacoma police cruiser speed through a crowd and run over at least one person. Others were knocked to the pavement as the SUV accelerated through a group gathered for, of all things, street racing. Two of the pedestrians were hospitalized, according to The News Tribune, but neither suffered life-threatening injuries.
A press release from the Tacoma Police Department said that crowd members surrounded and hit the vehicle when it was stationary, which is backed by a News Tribune video retelling. The officer behind the wheel, “fearing for his safety,” tried to throw the car in reverse before jetting forward, according to the department.
The officer involved was placed on paid leave as the Pierce County Force Investigation Team conducted an independent probe. “I send my thoughts to anyone who was injured in tonight’s event," interim police chief Mike Ake said, "and am committed to our department’s full cooperation in the independent investigation and to assess the actions of the department’s response during the incident.” Ake didn't side-step the incident's severity either, saying, “I am concerned that our department is experiencing another use of deadly force incident."
Emphasis on “another." As protesters on Sunday vociferously noted, the department is still under investigation for its use of force against Manuel Ellis, the 33-year-old who died in police custody last March while walking home from a convenience store. Other cases remain open too.
Of course investigations into police behavior are hardly just a Tacoma problem. It’s difficult to keep track of all the inquiries into the Seattle Police Department these days. In early January, two officers were placed on leave after a colleague discovered social media photos of them in Washington, DC, on the day of the riots at the U.S. Capitol. Police chief Adrian Diaz forwarded them to the city’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) for a review. In an earlier statement, Diaz expressed his support for First Amendment rights but also decried any participation in the “violent mob” that invaded the Capitol. “If any SPD officers were directly involved in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol,” he said, “I will immediately terminate them.”
Since that time, three more of the department’s 1,400-plus officers have come forward to alert OPA that they were in DC on that day (they remain on duty). And a tweet by Seattle Police Officer Guild president Mike Solan has prompted yet another investigation. Solan equated the role of the “far right and far left” in the deadly attack on the Capitol and suggested that Black Lives Matter protesters were part of it. His comments evoked the "I think there is blame on both sides" false equivalence made by Donald Trump following a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. The mayor’s office, city council members, and Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, among others, have called for Solan’s resignation.
This spate of investigations arrived while OPA was still sorting through dozens of misconduct complaints stemming from the earliest days of Black Lives Matter protests this summer. The office recently deemed that officers’ deployments of blast balls and tear gas were improper uses of force on at least a few occasions. “Some blast balls hit people who were not posing a risk to public safety or property,” a report noted. Another examination found that arrests for low-level crimes during the demonstrations led to more disorder but were “within policy.”
OPA hasn't yet started its investigation into a September incident when a Seattle police officer rolled his bike over a protester’s head. Like the Tacoma cruiser’s race car-like trip through the crowd, the violent episode was captured on video, raw and jarring. But The Seattle Times reported last week that the officer likely won’t face criminal charges. The protester didn’t want to press them. “I cannot use a penal system I reject just for revenge, not in good conscience,” Camillo Massagli texted the Times.
The unspoken part of Massagli’s message is that the city (and the country) needs to overhaul the criminal justice system. For its part, the Seattle Community Police Commission will hold an online town hall tonight to discuss potential policy changes to local policing; activists and SPD members are scheduled to participate in a panel.
It's far from a pet topic for activists. Leaders from a variety of different civic arenas have called for a reimagining of public safety in 2021 and beyond. Their solutions vary. But, as the last few weeks of police probes have shown, this isn't anyone's vision of a safe system.