Black Alliance of Thurston County
On May 21, 2015, Olympia Police Officer Ryan Donald shot and wounded two young Black men, brothers Bryson Chaplin, 21, and Andre Thompson, 24. Donald was seeking the two young men after a minor assault and attempted theft of beer at a grocery store. The shooting occurred as Chaplin and Thompson left the area on foot on a dark, semi-rural road a few blocks from the store. Both young men survived, but Chaplin was paralyzed from the waist down. Donald was placed on extended administrative leave while officers from neighboring police agencies investigated the shootings.
The “Egregious” Law on Use of Force
Four months after the young men were shot, Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim found that Donald was “acting without malice” and had a “good faith fear” when he shot Chaplin and Thompson – so no charges were filed against Donald. Tunheim’s statement quoted a section of Washington State Law that effectively precludes prosecutors from filing criminal charges against police, unless they can prove the officers operated with evil intent – a nearly impossible standard to meet. Tunheim also filed assault charges against Chaplin and Thompson, based on Donald’s statement and the evidence gathered. The Olympia Police Department does not use dash or body cameras. No cell phone video of the incident ever surfaced.
We were not surprised by how things unfolded for the officer and for the young men. We don’t know what happened on that dark road in the middle of the night, but we do know our state law. Shortly after the shootings, Tunheim told the community about the high bar our state law requires prosecutors to clear before charges can be brought against a police officer. We knew that whatever the investigation found, it was most unlikely that charges COULD – let alone would - be filed against an officer under our state law. That fact disturbed us greatly and became our impetus for action.
Protests followed the shootings, but were mostly peaceful and largely comprised of White people, including many students from The Evergreen State College. The shootings did not precipitate violence and protracted unrest in Thurston County. Apparently, there was little pent-up racial tension simmering in the area and for that, we are blessed.
Olympia, Washington is not Ferguson, Missouri. The demographics, culture, and history of Olympia, Washington all differ greatly from Ferguson, Chicago, and other cities where police shootings have surfaced deep racial divides. Thurston County has a small and fast-growing Black population of less than four percent with a quarter of Black households newly arrived in the last four years. The median Black household income of $64,828.00 is slightly higher than the overall county median, owing to a high proportion of military households making reasonably good salaries compared to the county as a whole.
Even while enjoying relative quiet and prosperity, Black residents of Thurston County exchange stories of “driving while Black” traffic stops, racially tinged school-yard bullying, and accounts of workplace discrimination in local offices and small businesses. While these realities rankle, there’s a shared awareness that we’re luckier than many Black Americans. We also know that education, wealth, and position provide no guarantee against racial profiling and the added risks associated with simply being Black in America. We understand how implicit bias and institutional racism touch our daily lives. We know that our encounters with law enforcement carry added risks and a simple traffic stop could end tragically for one of us or for someone we love. We know that most existing laws, rules, and policies of government reflect the biases and fears of past generations.
In the context of our shared perspective, nine Black residents of Thurston County came together a few weeks after the May 21st shooting to found the Black Alliance of Thurston County. We agreed that our first action would be to join forces with our neighbors and with local law enforcement to: 1) help with healing and support community dialogue, 2) engage with the Olympia Police Department to achieve a positive outcome from the tragic shootings, and 3) update state law on the use of force to better balance the interests of law enforcement with those of citizens.
We appreciate the police. We are dashed to hear that our work has prompted some to believe that we hate the police. We understand that police do an exceedingly difficult job that sometimes requires the use of deadly force. That’s why we worked closely with Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts following the unfortunate shootings of Chaplin and Thompson.
Our work with Chief Roberts included multiple relationship-building meetings at a local church and at the police station, co-hosted community forums, and countless individual interactions. We met with Prosecutor Tunheim, Deputy Chief Nelson, and other OPD leaders, as well. We supported Chief Roberts’ work to secure additional resources for the department, including new trainings the Chief wanted for his team on de-escalation and Fair and Impartial Policing (based in Implicit Bias research). We also collaborated with the department on several well-attended community forums and conversations about racial bias, institutional racism and a community vision for good police-community relations.
Several members of the Alliance provided direct financial, pastoral, moral, and logistical support to the family of Chaplin and Thompson. Alliance Chair Karen Johnson, Ph.D. responded to convene conversations when Chief Roberts sought to engage the community. Local minister Charlotte Beeler-Petty hosted private meetings and public forums at her church where police officers attended and participated. Her husband Clinton Petty serves on the Ad Hoc Committee on Police and Community Relations convened by the City of Olympia after the shootings. Local businessman Nat Jackson served as spokesman to the press for the Alliance. His wife Dr. Thelma Jackson has reached out to key legislators about our bill. Rosalund Jenkins, Vanessa Underwood and others have brought whatever skills, relationships, and hands-on support they could to the group effort.
Our work is truly grassroots work. We know that professional associations representing law enforcement are poised to oppose changing the state law on the use of deadly force by police. We are undeterred. In fact, we are encouraged by the groundswell of support and press interest arising in response to House Bill 2907.
We are prayed up. We know that there are police of good will around the state who secretly support our effort. We also share the sentiments of anthropologist Margaret Mead who famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”