Native Americans confronted city officials on Tuesday evening with their frustration over the acquittal of an off-duty Spokane police officer who shot a young American Indian man.
Mayor Mary Verner and police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick attended a forum at the NATIVE Project and health clinic in the West Central neighborhood.
“This does not feel like a safe community to me,” said Shelly Boyd, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “The system cannot bring us justice. It scared me to know police officers were cheering that verdict.”
On March 13, a Spokane County Superior Court jury found suspended Officer Jay Olsen innocent in the shooting of Shonto Pete after a chase two years earlier in which both men were drunk.
Pete spoke at Tuesday’s forum about the need to bring pride back to Native people in Spokane.
He and his family were among about 100 people gathered in two concentric circles in the NATIVE Project’s great room. They spoke one at time and were moderated by Raymond Reyes, Gonzaga University’s associate vice president for diversity.
They stated the problem as seen from a Native viewpoint. There is racial profiling by the police, they said. Many do not trust the officers paid to protect them. The city lacks cultural awareness, which they said is not taught in the schools.
“I am no stranger to violence or death,” said John Dressler, a Coeur d’Alene tribal police officer who fought as a Marine in Iraq. “It would be morally offensive to me to clap for someone who did what Olsen did.” He referred to Spokane police officers present at the verdict in Olsen’s trial.
Before the forum, Breean Beggs, of the Center for Justice, who was invited by Native leaders to attend, summed up what he saw as the community’s central complaint. Lawyers have come to expect that jurors will make a decision based on reasonable doubt, he said.
“But it appeared police endorsed what happened” based on the officers’ response to the verdict, on a detective’s letter to the editor in The Spokesman-Review and particularly to Kirkpatrick’s remarks reported in the newspaper.
Beggs said residents are looking for police leadership to tell them it’s not “us against them” but got was a different message.
Tuesday night, the Indians stated their grievances. They admitted shortcomings among many Natives, including epidemic drug and alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
But these did not mitigate the injustice they felt as a result of the Olsen case.
“This remains unresolved,” said Deb Abrahamson, a Spokane tribal member. “We need an independent, an objective investigation.”
Verner and Kirkpatrick praised the dignity of the forum and the respect they were shown at it. But they did not respond directly to the call for an independent investigation.
Stepping to the center of the circle, Kirkpatrick said that she was proud to be chief of Spokane police. With her job comes responsibility, she said.
“This investigation is not over,” she said, adding it will be hers to conduct. “And I will not be compromised, and I will not be bullied.”