Suggestions offered to State Justice Training Commission ahead of I-940 implementation

Article in The Columbian

By Jack Heffernan, Columbian breaking news reporter


Bill Langfitt, whose son Billy Langfitt was shot and killed by a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy in March 2018, has called for better police training since his son’s death.

“If we’re going to encounter police officers as judge, jury and executioner, we must demand exceptionalism,” Langfitt said.

Langfitt also recognized that “the days of the ‘Andy Griffith Show,’ ” featuring an affable small-town sheriff as the lead character, are over.

“There are positive interactions with police officers, but we don’t always hear about them,” Langfitt said.

Langfitt’s comments came during a two-hour discussion Thursday night about how agencies can best train police under Initiative 940 mandates. Notes from the discussion, hosted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and De-Escalate Washington at Bridgeview Community Center, will be presented to the state Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Two representatives from the commission, along with Vancouver police Sgt. Pat Kennedy, were some of the roughly 50 people present. Other than to answer a couple of questions, they mainly took notes and heard from representatives of various social groups.

Much of the discussion wrapped around how police can better approach different groups of people in high-stress situations.

“Different cultures express fear and anger in different ways,” said Ophelia Noble, executive director of The Noble Foundation, a social justice organization.

Braunwynn Franklin, whose family grapples with mental illness, added to that.

“It’s not just cultural competence. It’s trauma-informed training,” Franklin said.

Franklin also said certain communities speak in different tones that can be perceived as threatening. She said she has younger male nephews that are afraid to speak with police.

“Black people, we do speak loudly,” Franklin said. “They’ve been uncomfortable speaking with their hearts because they fear for their lives.”

Jovian John, representing the Chuukese community, referred to the Feb. 19 Vancouver police fatal shooting of 16-year-old Clayton Joseph. Police say Joseph was brandishing a knife at the time of the shooting.

John mentioned that in Micronesia, where Joseph was raised before moving to Vancouver, it’s not uncommon for young children to wield knives and that it’s not necessarily seen as a weapon.

“Just because the behavior is not what you’d expect because of your bias doesn’t mean it’s threatening,” John said.

Ren Autrey, director at Outsiders Inn, a Vancouver-based homeless advocacy group, mentioned that most of the interaction between homeless people and police are some version of “move along.” When police arrive, tensions are usually already escalated, she said.

Some at the meeting were parents whose children regularly encounter police due to mental illness.

Angela Daniels’ 23-year-old son, Damian Daniel Rodriguez, has schizophrenia and encountered police 40 times in the last three years. She mentioned times when officers’ presentation, like elevated voices, have triggered the disease, while other officers have spoken to him more calmly. Some, she said, have asked open-ended questions to calm him down, such as inquiring about his favorite pizza.

“It makes a world of difference the way the officers talk to them,” Daniels said.

Jerri Clark, director of Mothers of the Mentally Ill, had a son, Calvin, diagnosed with bipolar I disorder. Roughly two years ago, Calvin, 21 at the time, miraculously survived after jumping from the Interstate 5 Bridge into the Columbia River. Calvin did, however, die by suicide March 18, Clark said.

While not referring specifically to either incident, Clark agreed that dialogue is crucial.

“Certain individuals who may have developmental or intellectual disabilities may have no idea what you’re asking them to do,” Clark said.

While the training commission and social justice groups were on opposing sides before I-940 passed, they’re currently engaged in a productive conversation, said Monisha Harrell, board chair of Equal Rights Washington.

“This will not be our last conversation,” Harrell said. “Progress is just that. It’s progress, and we don’t expect to get everything in the go-round.”