Who was the victim? Activists, police disagree over incident at Tacoma street protest

  • In US
  • 2022-10-01 07:00:00Z
  • By Tacoma News Tribune

Two stories have emerged about what happened at a Tacoma street protest last month where a community organizer was hit by a car, according to interviews and police records obtained by The News Tribune.

In one version, the injured organizer is the victim of a hit-and-run that a police officer witnessed but didn't investigate. In the other, the organizer obstructed traffic then punched the driver of the car in what police characterized as an assault.

City prosecutors have declined to press charges against the driver or the organizer, but the case has highlighted a rift between some advocates for the city's BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) community and Tacoma police.

"We don't have a relationship with the police, and it's because of things like this," Tacoma Action Coalition co-founder and spokesperson Jamika Scott told The News Tribune. "They cannot be trusted. They do not see themselves as peacekeepers and mediators in the community. They see themselves as people who wield power."

The Tacoma Action Collective, or TAC, is an organization focused on confronting systemic racism and excessive use of force by police. Founded after the 2014 fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, TAC developed a larger following in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and, locally, Manuel Ellis.

It was an organizer associated with TAC who suffered a sprained wrist and other injuries after reaching inside the car Aug. 14 at a Hilltop intersection.

TAC didn't sponsor the demonstration, but the group drew attention to the collision by posting video the day after. The police department began looking into the case two days later.

Tacoma police officials declined to respond to criticisms from TAC about how officers handled the case. The Tacoma Police Union also declined to comment and said interviews with the officers involved would require the police chief's approval.

City spokesperson Maria Lee told The News Tribune via email that police department leadership "always welcomes the opportunity to (meet with TAC) as it would broaden and deepen community conversations around public safety."

Records detail Hilltop protest incident

Surveillance footage from St. Joseph Medical Center provided to The News Tribune through a public records request shows about a dozen demonstrators attempting to stop traffic at South 19th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Way just before 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 14.

The group danced and chanted for about two and a half minutes, with people shifting to plug spaces where several cars zipped through, some very close to the pedestrians.

The demonstration was part of a larger community event sponsored by Truth Movement Innertainment that started with an informational walk embarking from McCarver Park and ending with food, music and community resources in People's Park.

Development of the Hilltop in recent years has displaced historically Black residents and businesses, and demonstrators sought to make a point by "taking up space" in communal areas, including the intersection where they stopped traffic, according to the event organizer.

The driver who would later be at the center of a police investigation was stopped in her Subaru when she heard protesters yelling about "equity" and "freedom," she later told detectives. She was on her way to a Sunday afternoon appointment.

After the car in front of her flipped around and with a green light ahead, the Subaru drove into the intersection, video recorded from a tower on St. Joseph Medical Center shows.

One of the event organizers, who uses they/them pronouns, hopped to the side to block the Subaru and backpedaled a few steps when it didn't stop.

Arms outstretched, the organizer bent forward when the car made impact, video shows. They braced against the hood of the car as it stopped briefly and then drove forward again.

The organizer then walked from the front of the car to the driver's open window and reached inside, video shows. The organizer ran alongside the Subaru with their arm inside as the car accelerated through the remainder of the intersection.

The separate video posted by TAC, which was recorded by one of the demonstrators in the intersection, shows the driver gripping the wrist of the organizer who was hit.

Sgt. Jeffrey "J.R." Smith happened upon the protest while on patrol and watched the incident unfold from inside his patrol vehicle on the other side of the intersection behind three other cars, according to the TAC video, which was shared with Tacoma police and provided to The News Tribune in a records request.

"We have a group of protesters, 19th and MLK, that are obstructing traffic. Can I get units here, please?" Smith said over the radio, according to recordings provided to The News Tribune.

"Just send everybody here. We have an assault in progress now. I need priority," Smith said over the radio.

Smith said in a body-worn camera recording that the organizer punched the driver of the Subaru, according to police documents.

"Same subject has now assaulted multiple people," Smith added shortly thereafter.

Surveillance footage showed the organizer punch the closed passenger window of an SUV that followed behind the Subaru that hit them.

After the struggle between the motorist and organizer, Smith drove his police SUV toward the intersection, according to police records.

Because the Subaru immediately drove away, Smith told other officers sent to the scene that there were no victims to interview, according to dispatch records. Smith told other officers they would have probable cause to arrest the organizer if the motorist returned, according to investigative documents that cite audio from his body-worn camera.

Multiple patrol cars followed as the group of demonstrators then walked in the northbound lanes of Martin Luther King Jr. Way, according to police records and video footage. Tacoma police sometimes block traffic to keep protesters safe from cars if resources allow, according to spokesperson Wendy Haddow.

Smith told other officers he wanted to make sure the demonstrators "don't assault anybody else," according to radio recordings.

When a dispatcher asked what the group was protesting, Smith replied, "They're shouting Black lives matter. I think it's Manny Ellis-related, but I'm not entirely certain," according to radio recordings.

The police sergeant did not write any formal reports about the incident, records show.

Tacoma detective follows up

TAC posted the video a demonstrator recorded the following day, Aug. 15. Scott, the TAC leader, said the group shared the footage online in hopes of identifying the driver for insurance purposes and thought police might follow up on the case.

Two days later, the video drew the attention of Haddow, the department spokesperson, who shared it with police top brass.

Later on the morning of Aug. 17, the department announced it was "looking into" the incident. A detective got the case the next day, Aug. 18.

A 911 recording from Aug. 18 provided to The News Tribune shows the organizer said police could come to their workplace for an interview that day. They reported the incident as a hit-and-run.

The detective, Ryan Larsen, called the organizer shortly after the 911 call, according to police documents.

The organizer told Larsen they received treatment for a sprained wrist at the hospital due to the Subaru driver holding it as the car continued moving, according to police documents. They said they reached inside in an attempt to stop the car.

Larsen wrote that the organizer admitted to punching the driver, "but only after she hit me with the car," police documents show.

The organizer, a 24-year-old Black activist, later told The News Tribune that wasn't a fair characterization of their comments. They requested anonymity due to fear of harassment.

"I said, 'I struggled to get out of her hands,'" according to the organizer.

Prior to speaking with police, the organizer described the incident and their injuries, which required a splint and sling, to The News Tribune last month.

During the police interview, they said the detective asked leading questions.

"Just right off the bat, it was very clear that they were trying to paint me in the wrong," the organizer told The News Tribune.

The organizer did not show up for a recorded, in-person interview at police headquarters the next day, Larsen wrote. On the phone, the detective said he would read the organizer their constitutional rights beforehand.

The reference to a "Miranda warning" indicated to the organizer's lawyer that police might take them into custody, and he advised them not to go to police headquarters, according to the organizer.

Lee, the city spokesperson, told The News Tribune that officers are required to "Mirandize" people held in custody or questioned in relation to a crime. They might also do so to protect the civil rights of someone who has said or might say something incriminating.

"It would not be typical to Mirandize a victim of a crime unless there are facts known to the officer leading them to believe the victim may incriminate themselves by their statements," Lee wrote in an email.

The organizer said the detective did not contact them again.

The following week, the driver, a white, 74-year-old Federal Way woman, responded to a message left at her home by Larsen, according to police documents.

The woman told Larsen that the organizer ran out in front of her car, "bumped" the front end and tried to reach for the steering wheel while cursing at her. The driver said she tried to pull the organizer's wrists away from the wheel, then the organizer yanked her hand into the partially open car window and punched her in the side of the face.

The driver told Larsen that the side of her face turned red and the back of her left hand was sore but that she suffered no bruising. The woman's name is redacted in police documents, and The News Tribune was not able to reach her.

Larsen watched video footage from St. Joseph Medical Center three days later, records show. In his synopsis, the detective wrote that the car and the organizer made "light contact" and the organizer appeared to lose their balance. He also noted that demonstrators did not approach police vehicles at the scene.

In comments to The News Tribune a week prior, TAC criticized responding police officers for not interviewing the demonstrators. The organizer who was hit told The News Tribune they felt the collision was obvious to police at the scene.

"The last thing I wanted to talk to was a cop after one of them just watched it happen," the organizer said during an interview last month.

On Aug. 30, the driver called Larsen again to say the incident frightened her and she was just trying to get out of the area when she drove away, according to police documents.

Larsen said he was preparing to submit his investigation for a charging review, and the driver replied that she would cooperate with any prosecution of the person who punched her.

Distrust heightened

The organizer who was hit by the car told The News Tribune they felt disregarded at each step they took to get help.

"I'm the person who got hit. I reached out to you and now you're investigating me," they added later. "It makes me absolutely sick."

Scott, the TAC leader, told The News Tribune she called Mayor Victoria Woodards after learning police might arrest the organizer. Scott, who wasn't at the protest but knows the person who was hit, wanted to be sure city officials were aware of the case.

The mayor told her Police Chief Avery Moore offered assurances the investigation would be handled properly, according to Scott.

In response to an inquiry about the discussion between Woodards and Moore, Lee, the city spokesperson, wrote in an email that the mayor "has requested high level updates" about the case.

Woodards also gave Scott the police chief's phone number and encouraged her to call him, according to Scott. She said she didn't feel the need to rehash her concerns with Moore.

Other times she's weighed in on police decision-making, Scott said, she's felt her advocacy didn't impact the outcome. She said TAC members also have participated in community-engagement efforts focused on policing at the request of city officials but walked away feeling unheard and used.

"We have been in conversation with city officials, with police leaders, and nothing has changed," Scott said. "The system needs to reach out to us and show us that it's changed, or at least that it's trying."


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