Centralia Council Removes Riot Gear From Police Budget

Centralia Police Chief Stacy Denham attends a remote Centralia City Council meeting. 

At the Centralia City Council meeting following the Nov. 10 workshop to discuss the police department’s purchase of protective riot gear, the city council heard 20 public comments from citizens regarding the request and related statements by Centralia Police Chief Stacy Denham on the topic. 

The council ultimately voted to remove the $15,000 in riot gear from the 2021-22 budget before approving it on second reading last Tuesday evening. 

A majority of the letters asked that the council hold off on approving the riot gear purchase until a more robust community conversation can occur.

They also asked that the police department provide better statistics about increasing crime rates and an inventory of existing equipment.

During the Nov. 10 workshop, when explaining to the council the need for riot gear, Denham made a statement that ended up being a topic of concern in a majority of the public comments written and spoken to the council: 

“If there’s an officer-involved shooting — and Centralia is not immune to this — especially and sadly if it involves a person of color — Centralia does have a lot of people of color coming to Centralia. Law enforcement doesn’t get to choose who is going to be arrested and we don’t get to choose who is actually going to fight the officer, threaten the officer or end up in a shooting,” Denham said.

Denham said that if someone were to get shot, there could be a potential riot immediately and police officers would need the protective equipment to react to the situation safely. 

On Nov. 13, the Centralia Police Department released an apology and clarification letter written by Denham that stated that “under no circumstance do I believe that ‘People of Color’ are the root cause of the social unrest we have seen this year.” 

He went on to say: “I sincerely apologize if I have offended anyone while attempting to explain the event/social issues, as that was not my intention. I continue to learn how to best navigate the issues by remaining committed to protecting or community’s quality of life through professionalism and integrity.” 

Most of the letters written to the council began with the same three paragraphs outlining their concern with the purchase of the riot gear and people of color being singled out by the police chief as a reason for the purchase of the riot gear. Many of the letters then added personal experiences and other concerns. Councilor Kelly Smith Johnston met with many of the individuals who wrote public comments to listen to the concerns of citizens the week prior to the council meeting.

“On the surface, it may seem that (Denham’s) comments were reasonable but the mindset that people of color equal trouble and more people of color moving to the area equals more problems and is a threat to a peaceful way of life is racist,” Michael Green said in a letter.

Green also said that Denham’s comments make people of color feel unsafe in Centralia.

A majority of the letters called Denham’s comments “tone-deaf and having no merit or statistics to back them up.”

Rachelle Peterson said she felt that any funds used to purchase riot gear would be better spent on de-escalation and diversity training. She also pointed out that the last riot in Centralia was in 1919 — the Centralia Massacre. 

“Respectfully, the Centralia Police Department has already had an officer-involved shooting within the last 18 months, where an officer took the life of a young man by the name of Joshua Flores and no subsequent riot occurred,” many of the letters stated.

Flores, a burglary suspect armed with a knife, was shot and killed by Centralia Police Officer Fredrick Mercer, who was placed on administrative leave soon after while the shooting was investigated. Lewis County Prosecutor Johnathan Meyer concluded that Mercer’s actions were justified and “unavoidable based upon the actions of the deceased,” noting Flores approached both Mercer and bystanders while he held the knife, ignoring orders from officers along the way.

Many of the details of the case were not readily available and there were peaceful demonstrations after the shooting.

“As someone who has participated in many marches and protests including ones for Joshua Flores in Centralia, I can say that not once has it broken out into a riot or even gotten out of control,” Lujan Rodriguez wrote to the council. 

After listening to Mayor Susan Luond read each of the 19 letters and a verbal comment via phone made by Mary McHale, Denham said that his comments at the workshop were not meant the way they came across. 

“The things that were said were not designed to cause fear. Granted I’ll say that some of the things that were said were not meant the way they came out and that’s on me and I accept that. As a leader in this community — we do listen, we do care and I truly believe in inclusion,” Denham said.

He said that the riot gear equipment is often misunderstood and that it is only meant for the personal protection of the officers. He said he welcomes more conversations about the gear and why it was asked for. He also said that the Centralia Police Department already participates in diversity training, which is an unfunded state mandate.

“This protective gear is designed to help my department and my officers uphold our values, and I believe the values of the city of Centralia to keep the public safe, to protect all human rights and to uphold the Constitution for all community members and all who visit Centralia,” Denham said.

Councilor Rebecca Staebler said that the community conversation around race, diversity and the purchase of riot gear should not end at the conclusion of the Nov. 24 city council meeting, and she hopes to hear more from the public.

Mayor Pro-tem Max Vogt said that it’s important to remember that the police officers are members of the community with families who want them to come home safely, and the officers deserve to be protected.

“I think what really hit me in an emotional way as I listened to folks was their sense of feeling excluded and isolated in the community and that’s not what any of us in city council member roles or city leadership roles want to create,” Smith Johnston said. “I think it’s something that we need to work through and address. I think continued community conversations are important. We want to create a city that is welcoming and inclusive.”

Smith Johnston said that the equipment which is designed to keep the officers safe, has made another constituency in the community feel unsafe, and that should be the topic of conversation moving forward.

 

 

 

(13) comments

LRiddell

Thank you

hiccup1234

Classy apology by Chief. Prudent steps by Council. Great job all around!

YourNeighbor

Well, well. This police chief has shown us his character, hasn't he? "People of color", eh? But, you tell us you didn't mean what you said. And, you expect us to believe you. So tell us Denham, when exactly are we to believe what you say when you say it? Your casual turn of phrase has shown us exactly how you think when you feel comfortable. We call that way of thinking racist.

Sandhill

Would love to see you sit in his chair and take on the responsibilities he has. Show a little compassion. Immediately labeling someone a racist is not a very well articulated argument.

drriley

Then share your thoughts further as to what real "motivation" or "purpose" a police Chief... ie: Peace Officer, in a predominately White, Conservative, Trump loving town that allows only a "handful" of people of color to live here, would have for "needing" riot gear? REALLY? I think people need to stop and think about their reasons for thinking this is a legitimate request.

YourNeighbor

Rubbish. I've served my country for a lifetime. Never in 25 years did I request funding for weapons to use against citizens. Don't imagine the requirements to be little Centralia's chief of police are beyond the reach of just about any average human. Regardless, no job requirements justify keeping an openly racist chief on the force. Do you think his racism won't filter to the rest of the department? You can bet the officers will do whatever they are trained to do. Trained that people of color are a distinct danger by the implicit or even explicit actions of their police chief. I'm not the one who railed about the need for hardware to put down riots from people of color, should one of his officers shoot one. Those were his words, not mine. He either meant what he said, or he didn't. And, if he didn't mean what he said then, how are we to know when he actually does mean what he says? Makes him pretty useless as a public servant, doesn't it? He is either a racist, or he is untrustworthy. Which do you prefer?

drriley

Well said. The fact that a Chief of Police (of a predominately White region) is asking for "miltary style" gear to "protect his officers" is so clearly racist it is laughable. Protect from whom? There is not but a "handful" of people of color living in this racist county. If the police haven't needed such kind of gear in over 100 years, to protect "their citizens" from "riots", why now? Is it because we live in area that is hyper-racist Proud Boy country? Yep, I said it out loud... and that the "people" this Chief claims to want protect... is but a ruse to "arm" his "men" further for some kind of Trump style "race war". Lets not forget the race baiting, Proud Boy shenanigans these ravist groups stirred up this summer at the Uncle Sam sign with idiot Sheriff Snaza leading the way. Denham's request for this kind of "gear", the timing, and his motivations are highly suspect in my opinion.

James h.

Well i know living in a poorer.neighborhood in centralia that the local police can be polite and respectful but they also can be very scarey . i recently had 3 homeless families move trailers to a lot behind my land. Lot ownwd by a neighbor. The police have showed up a couple time 6-8 officers deep carrying assult rifles to go talk to the homeless drug addicts. I know when i saw 6-8 men 3 of whom had assult rifles in the arms walking across my property i came out side asked what was happening and got ignored . this was my properrty they were crossing looking ready for war . not looking like they were talking to a couple poor homeless people . i have 3 young kids in my house and own it free and clear . i do not expect to lookout side and see 6-8 armed people walkong around my yard . and when asked whats going on told nothing. I know homeless drug addicts are scarey but if yoy show up with a small well trained armed force i wonder why they react the way they do. The homeless get defensive . run away hide . . not like the police treat them as people . i have to deal with these people everyday the only access to there trailers in from an easment on my land to access there trailers . yes its dirty . yes they make noise . yes i hate having poor drug addicts close to my kids but i do not walk over with my 12 gauge shot gun when i have a proplem . why do the cops show up like its world war three ??? And you think you need riot gear when you have weapons of war and dont even have to follow the geneva convention when using them on the populace that pays your paychecks.

drriley

Thank you James for you considerate post. Too many people forget their humanity. And too many people want to make every human activity, mistake, or condition a criminal matter rather a humanitarian matter. I despise the militarism of our law enforcement. I served in the Army during Viet Nam... we treated our prisioners of war better than we do our poor and people of color. Disgusting.

partsgirl

The police should have riot gear so they are prepared in case it is needed. I am prepared for emergencies and feel it is prudent that the police should be prepared to protect us in case of an emergency. Just because it's in the police department's posession doesn't mean it needs to be used.

Jcm98570

Those officers need that riot gear because the citizens of Lewis county are so heavily armed. When was the last time you heard of an officer reporting a bad cop or refusing to do what the paycheck writer tells them to do?

Exactly, no one has bucked the system. When King Inslee puts this state on a curfew Centralia police are going to need that riot gear to use against it's blue line brotherhood supporting citizens.

00000

WOW you people are crazy !!!!!

RemainingAnonymous

I'm hoping for more People of Color and fewer racists in Centralia. If Centralia Police Chief Stacy Denham is serious, let's start by prohibiting the confederate flags like the one in the window on the 600 block of S Tower Ave.

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