BREMERTON — As part of a panel on racial bias in policing Saturday, Rev. Frankie L. Coleman, Sr., pastor of Sinclair Missionary Baptist Church, shared a fear that “every Black parent has” with three area police chiefs on stage with him.
Coleman said he worries his son, or even himself, might get pulled over, and not survive an encounter with law enforcement.
“What assurance can you give me that your department will make sure my son comes home alive?” he asked.
Bremerton Police Chief Tom Wolfe, sharing the stage with Coleman, said law enforcement has “to do better.”
“You shouldn’t be afraid of us. Your children shouldn’t be afraid of us,” Wolfe said to the crowd.
But Wolfe, along with Port Orchard Police Chief Matt Brown and Bainbridge Island Chief Joe Clark, defended their departments as having made progress in eliminating both explicit and implicit bias in their work. Wolfe noted that earlier in his 35 years in the profession, “We had some real knuckleheads who had no business in law enforcement,” but that today, when “the officers in Bremerton and around the county are the highest competency,” he said.
The panel, put on by the Bremerton-based “Up From Slavery Initiative,” founded in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, was intended to ask such tough questions of law enforcement leaders. And there was much consensus among the panel of chiefs, including former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, about engaging with residents they serve before 911 calls come in.
“We haven’t always been on the right side of history,” Best told the crowd at Bremerton Performing Arts Center. “You can’t gloss over it and act like it’s always been perfect.”
On bias, Wolfe told the audience that his department tracks officers’ reports, including use of force, to find patterns that might reveal explicit or implicit bias. He said Coleman’s story affected him to make sure he tells all young officers of such behavior: “If you do this, you’re gonna get fired.”
Christopher Poulous, executive director of the Washington Statewide Re-entry Council, told the audience that who law enforcement targets is part of the problem. He noted that “stop and frisk” techniques are more common in poorer communities.
“Is there really that much more crime, or is there overly aggressive policing occurring in that area?” said Poulous.
The chiefs explained that adding specialized personnel to deal with people met during a mental health crisis has been helpful, but that law enforcement does not have the ability to take on such case management holistically. Further intervention from specialized mental health caseworkers is necessary to ensure law enforcement need not be called again, which may not be happening.
“I don’t think the community wants us to be case managers,” said Port Orchard Police Chief Matt Brown. “The issue we run into is we don’t have that next system (of help).”