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.