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The shooting of two young African-American men is a plane crash

Letter to the Olympia City Council

22 June 2015

Dear Honorable Mayor and Council Members

I read where one of the recent Safeway shoplifting suspects was likely shot in the back by a law enforcement officer employed by the City of Olympia. I’m writing to plead with you not to view this as a challenging exercise in damage control, or an opportunity for a community airing of feelings. This is a plane crash. It needs fearless investigation followed by courageous action based on discovered flaws. I am not blaming you all. I’m beseeching you to see this horrific incident not as a fluke, or actions of a bad apple, or as a tragic accident, but as a stark system failure.

Indulge me my metaphor—planes are meant to fly. When they crash it indicates collapse of safety designed into the system; planes are not designed to crash. Police are meant to keep the peace; policing is designed to keep people safe. When a law enforcement officer shoots an unarmed someone in the back, it indicates failure. We have miraculously safe air travel because after a crash, a third party steps in to investigate—the National Transportation Safety Board. They are not airlines and they do not regulate airlines. They are not friends of the parties involved, they do not know each other, and they review data and make recommendations without regard to who looks bad. We need a third party to investigate everything that created this near killing over attempted petty theft.

The investigation needs to be far-reaching. Questions include:

Is police training adequate?

  1. Does the training include de-escalation techniques?
  2. How can we help police feel safer?
  3. How can we encourage police to keep a cool head when compliance is not immediate or they are being provoked with harsh words?
  4. Were drugs involved?
  5. Is there any system of drug testing officers involved in a firearm discharge? Illegal use of anabolic steroids may cause short tempers (called ‘roid rage).
  6. Painkillers may impair judgment.
  7. Are we hiring the most suitable officers?
  8. The officer involved in the shooting has done two tours in wars that are hallmarked by urban warfare. In that environment, survival depends on split second decisions. Was this person triggered in some way when pursuing two suspects?
  9. Veterans are given preference in police hiring. Do we want most of our officers to be trained as warfighters or are we just following a national example more appropriate for high violent crime rates of large cities?
  10. Is the on-the-job culture of police serving the community?
  11. Does the police force perceive they are not supported by the community?
  12. Are community members viewed as citizens, civilians, or even enemies? This is the grit of the problem—does policing mean control of citizenry at all costs, or does it mean keeping the peace through means other than physical control.

There is a systemic problem. We have had other crashes in Olympia in the last few decades. Danny Spencer was killed by ‘positional asphyxia’ when he was cuffed for non-compliance, placed chest down in the back seat of a cruiser and ignored while pleading for air. Stephen Edwards, another shoplifting suspect, died of multiple taser shocks in front of Bayview, while being taken into custody. Witnesses to both deaths were not able to understand why these people died. I cannot.

The city council needs to create a system to investigate the failure of the police to keep the peace. This has to be done now. The city manager will not lead this. The chief of police will not ask for this. The police guild will fight this. A year-long investigation that concludes the officer was in fear of his life so it was appropriate to empty most of his clip into the back of unarmed shoplifting suspects will not help Olympia. It may avert lawsuit judgements, it could keep officers feeling safe, but it will not help us as a community.

I am not dismissing the challenges officers face in dealing with the public—they are called upon to render assistance one moment and be adversaries the next. But I know we can do better in Olympia. Perhaps we as a city can create a new national model of safe policing—safe for the officers and safe for the community. Somebody has to do this, why not us? We must start with data. Data gathered by a third party experienced with investigation, but not necessarily law enforcement investigation. We need to sift through this wreckage and find out what metal fatigued, what procedure failed, what checklist was not followed. This is Olympia; there is no justification for two deaths and at least one unarmed shoplifter to be shot in the back.

Thank you for reading this far and giving my plea consideration.

Respectfully, Jim Cubbage


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