Pierce County faces reckoning as report shows Black people arrested disproportionately

Pierce County faces reckoning as report shows Black people arrested disproportionately

Hundreds gathered for a Black Lives Matter rally and march in Seattle.

TACOMA, Wash. — The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department needs body and vehicle cameras, bias training that includes the community, and officers that reflect the population, the Pierce County Council was told Wednesday in a report by senior staff.

Those were just some of the recommendations presented following a review of Pierce County’s criminal justice policies and practices that found Black people are arrested at a disproportionate rate.

Along with the Sheriff’s Department, the review covered the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Department of Assigned Counsel and Medical Examiner’s Office.

Content Continues Below

The review was directed by a County Council resolution in June. In response, Sheriff Paul Pastor, Prosecutor Mary Robnett and County Executive Bruce Dammeier formed the work group.

The report focuses on policies and practices that disproportionately affect people of color, according to local and national groups which monitor those subjects.

To review the report’s findings and make recommendations, the County Council on Tuesday approved a Public Review Committee made up of two citizens from each district. The resulting action plan hopefully would ensure equity for people interacting with law and justice, council spokesperson Brynn Grimley said.

Retired Superior Court Judge Frank Cuthbertson, who is Black, will act as the facilitator. The committee will hold its first meeting Sept. 23.

Council member Marty Campbell, who is white, said he knew that there were disproportionate arrests based on race.

“Seeing that Blacks and African Americans were disproportionately arrested by every measure in cities across Pierce County so starkly painted was tough,” he said. “There has to be a re-establishment of trust.”

All racial groups had arrest rates in 2019 which were lower or closely matched their population level with one exception: African Americans. Black people account for 5.6% of Pierce County’s population but made up 17.4% of arrests.

City by city comparisons found varying arrest rates for racial groups.

Asians make up 4.2% of the population of DuPont yet accounted for 9.1% of arrests. In University Place, Asians are 10.8% of the population but made up 4.2% of arrests.

Latinos had arrest rates (4.5%) in Gig Harbor that were nearly twice their population (2.3%) while in DuPont, Latinos had less than half the arrest rate (3%) of their population (7.1%).

In all of 2019, 20,400 people were arrested in Pierce County.

Whites accounted for the majority of Pierce County jail bookings (58%), followed by Blacks (25%), Latino (9%), Asian/Pacific Islander (6%) and American Indian (3%).

Whites make up 74% of the county population, according to U.S. Census Data.

By percentage, Black people had the highest number of bookings at 75 per 1,000 residents. Latinos had the lowest rate of any racial group at 15 per 1,000 residents. The white rate was 58 per 1,000 residents.

The report found virtually no racial disparities between bookings which resulted in no charges filed and bookings in which charges were filed.

SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT

Use of force by law enforcement officers has been a flash point in the U.S. for decades. Its use against minorities led to civil unrest across the nation following the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis May 25 and Manuel Ellis in Tacoma earlier this year.

Critics argue that police are too quick to use force on suspects, particularly potentially lethal practices like chokeholds.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department does not allow the use of chokeholds unless human life is in danger. Vascular neck restraints are allowed but were used in only 0.005% of arrests, according to the report. Still, the Sheriff’s Department uses them more than any other law enforcement agency in Pierce County.

The report suggested an outreach program be created for citizens who want to know more about the restraint.

The report also recommended that sheriff’s personnel begin wearing body cameras. Vehicle cameras were also suggested.

Use of force by law enforcement officers has been a flash point in the U.S. for decades. Its use against minorities led to civil unrest across the nation following the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis May 25 and Manuel Ellis in Tacoma earlier this year.

Critics argue that police are too quick to use force on suspects, particularly potentially lethal practices like chokeholds.

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department does not allow the use of chokeholds unless human life is in danger. Vascular neck restraints are allowed but were used in only 0.005% of arrests, according to the report. Still, the Sheriff’s Department uses them more than any other law enforcement agency in Pierce County.

The report suggested an outreach program be created for citizens who want to know more about the restraint.

The report also recommended that sheriff’s personnel begin wearing body cameras. Vehicle cameras were also suggested.

Funding for the six co-responders will end in 2021. The program would cost $800,000 annually to maintain, the report said. Continuation and increasing the program was recommended. Funding for additional co-responders would cost $155,000 each.

Pierce County Sheriff’s Department personnel are 78% white as of mid-2020, according to the report. Black people make up 6% of the department while Latinos are 5% and Asians are 4%. Two percent identify as two or more races. Pierce County has one of the highest percentages of multiracial people in the U.S., according to census data.

The report suggested the recruitment of personnel who can reflect Pierce County’s diversity.

Pastor has announced his retirement and two internal candidates are running for the job in the Nov. 3 election: Lt. Cyndie Fajardo and sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer, who carries the rank of detective.

PROSECUTING ATTORNEY

The Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, led by Robnett, employs 144 deputy prosecutors and about 100 other staff members. It has an annual budget of $35.9 million.

The racial makeup of its employees is 75% white, 5% Asian, 5% Latino, 4% multiracial, 3% Black, 3% Native American/Pacific Islander. The staff is 34% male, 66% female.

The report endorsed proposed policy changes that are aimed at increasing alternative criminal court alternatives for African Americans charged with minor offenses. Those alternatives include drug, mental health and veterans treatment courts.

The report also endorsed recent changes aimed at reducing or eliminating fines imposed on low-income citizens that make it harder for them to re-enter society.

MEDICAL EXAMINER

New policies implemented this week at the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office have changed the way names are released to the public. Now, the press and public seeking the names, cause and manner of death must file a request via e-mail. Names will be released within 48 hours of the request.

Previously, names and other information was released over the phone after next of kin had been notified.

The report endorsed these changes.

This story was originally published by the Tacoma News Tribune.