Anger and frustration over the recent string of police shootings in Vancouver, Washington, came to a head at Monday night’s City Council meeting. It was the public’s first real chance to discuss the issues with city leadership.
Councilors and Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle were met with fiery testimony for more than two hours on the four police shootings that took place over the course of five weeks in February and March. Three of them were fatal and a majority of the people who died were people of color.
“This is what a state of emergency looks like,” said Vancouver resident Karen Morrison.
“For our communities to feel safe and to begin to heal, and for our officers to be more effective in their jobs, we need our police to begin to build community trust,” she added. “And right now, we have none.”
Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain has called the high number of police shootings unusual for the city, but said he doesn’t believe there’s a trend outside of their rapid succession. He said, in recent years, the department has seen periods where there are as many as six police shootings a year and sometimes none at all.
McElvain did not offer testimony at Monday night’s meeting, but attended to listen.
The council chambers were packed to capacity, with dozens of people spilling into the hallway and an overflow room downstairs. At one point, councilors decided to continue hearing public comment beyond the allotted 90 minutes to allow everyone an opportunity to speak.
Dozens of people who showed up to the meeting were friends and family members who had lost people in these recent shootings.
One of them was Pam Hunter, the sister of 43-year-old Carlos Hunter, an African-America man who was shot and killed by officers on Mar. 7 during a traffic stop.
“He was my brother, a father, a son, an uncle, a cousin. And known widely throughout the community as a protector,” Hunter said. “I came here today to let you know that our family only wants one thing, that’s justice for Carlos.”
Hunter thanked community members who showed up to push for transparency and humanity within the Vancouver Police Department.
“That’s something that I believe our family deserves,” she added.
She also called for an independent investigation from an agency outside of southwest Washington. Currently, police shootings are investigated by the Regional Major Crimes Team, which is led by the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
Several friends of 29-year-old Michael Eugene Pierce also demanded answers for his death. Pierce was shot and killed by officers in downtown Vancouver after waving and pointing a pair of guns. Police later learned they were fake weapons.
Joe Lawson was a friend of Pierce’s and witnessed his shooting, which he described as “an execution.”
“That’s all you can call it. Plain murder,” Lawson said. Friends said that Pierce spent time at Share House, a homeless shelter nearby and may have been in a mental health crisis.
Before the meeting, friends of Pierce placed signs outside City Hall that said “Homeless Lives Matter” and “Help, Don’t Hurt."
Others who spoke called for accountability and better relationships with law enforcement, especially around policing communities of color. Demands included an acknowledgement or statement from city leadership, greater de-escalation police training, and that officers begin wearing body and dashboard cameras.
“Since we pay taxes for the police to keep us safe, we demand to be heard and taken seriously,” Ashley Giha told councilors. “Right now, we do not feel heard. Instead we are heartbroken, angry, exhausted, and at times hopeless.”
Chief McElvain had previously told OPB he was not considering body cameras, citing staffing and financial resources.
Since then, public pressure over the shootings has mounted and McElvain has changed his stance. He said he is more open to the idea, recently telling councilors he believes now is the "opportune time" to look into the use of body and vehicle cameras for his force.
Vancouver-based organizers, including SW Washington Communities United for Change, say they will continue to raise these issues to city leadership and are planning a march for justice Tuesday night.