The voices were many and varied on Thursday evening as Walla Walla City Council opened the floor to residents at its second virtual Town Hall in a series of three planned.
Dozens were allowed to speak for over two hours on local topics of recent concern from the movement to defund local police to the pros and cons of keeping or removing the statue of Christopher Columbus on the courthouse lawn.
Nearly 60 people filled out a questionnaire online ahead of time and submitted it to the city clerk so they could speak. They were given three minutes to speak Thursday on the Zoom platform, though more than a dozen withdrew their requests, did not attend or speak at the meeting or had technical difficulties.
Council members did not attempt to balance or order the comments on any issue during the meeting. Speakers were not required to give a full name or address, as they usually are at Council meetings. This decision was made due to several calls fearing retaliation.
Results from the speaker questionnaire showed that 26.3% of these residents thought the police were overfunded. In their comments to City Council, they called for leaders to heed the growing national movement to consider reallocating money currently going to police for use in other needed areas such as social services.
The Walla Walla Police Department’s budget is $19.8 million for two years, City Manager Nabiel Shawa said in his presentation at the last town hall. In Walla Walla, police and fire total 38% of the city budget, but that does not include paramedics, Shawa said.
Results from the speaker questionnaire also showed that about half, or 49.1%, believe the police department is adequately funded, and 24.5% said the police department was underfunded.
Some speakers feared that removing money from the police budget would mean an increase in crime and gangs in Walla Walla.
Many credited lower crime rates to efforts Chief Scott Bieber has made for the city and in putting more funding into the police budget over the years.
A handful of business owners said if police funding were cut, the tourism industry would struggle to survive because people do not want to visit areas high in crime.
“Have you consulted with your city’s insurance company and asked them if your insurance rates will increase if the city moves forward with reducing funding to our emergency services?” Kyle Mussman, a business owner asked.
“Can you guarantee that all of us who own homes and businesses that our insurance will not increase as a result of less police and an increase in crime?”
One common ground seemed to be the idea of “differential call responses,” which is something Bieber said at the last town hall his department already tries to do. This involves assessing nonemergency calls to determine if a police response is really appropriate or whether a social worker or other agency should handle the issue.
Many residents in Thursday’s meeting said that police officers should not have to respond to calls for suicidal subjects, nonviolent mental health crises and other situations that do not require highly trained, armed police officers with arrest powers.
They agreed that social workers need to help the police department with responses, but not all agreed that funding should come from police budgets.
Walla Walla resident Victoria said she would like to see 30% of the police department budget be reallocated because more than 50% of the calls the police department answers are differential calls that could be answered by other social services.
Another resident urged leaders to look at using funds for social workers in these situations.
“As a woman, I can say the last person I would want to talk to about sexual assault would be a white, armed, male police officer,” Lindsey Luna, a Walla Walla resident said. “Why should officers be required to conduct these interviews? Differential call response for social workers should be added to conduct these interviews.”
Related to concerns about police funding were comments about changes that could be made to police policy. Some speakers requested that local police wear body cameras.
Luna said, “Relying simply on officer accounts is inadequate.”
Luna, who identified herself as a multiracial Afro-Latina during the meeting and later in a social media post about her presentation, expressed concerns about diversity on the local police force.
“What is preventing the police department from diversifying?” Luna asked. “The police department staff and officers should accurately represent our diverse community.”
Many residents reminded the audience that Walla Walla isn’t Portland or Seattle and that its leaders do not need to take actions that align with those cities’ actions regarding these types of issues.
Some said they fear the current culture will lead to less qualified applicants for the police force, while others called for leaders to meet the demands of the local Black Lives Matter chapter regarding the use of force, representation and accountability.
Mike Casper said they heard from law enforcement that they are now being treated disrespectfully, spit at and called names.
“How many officers will continue in this career path if this continues to happen?” Casper asked. “How many good men will even want to strive for a career in law enforcement?”
He also questioned if there have been any complaints against local officers for racial bias.
The question of a tattoo policy for city employees, related to recent controversy over Walla Walla police Officer Nat Small’s tattoo containing SS lettering memorializing a fallen U.S. Marine Scout Sniper friend, and what to do about the Columbus statue downtown were two specific issues raised in the meeting.
More than half of questionnaire respondents, 57.8%, said Small’s tattoo, which he covers when on duty and announced earlier this month he would alter, shouldn’t matter. About 30% of respondents found the tattoo offensive.
Walla Walla’s former mayor Barbara Clark requested a tattoo policy and suggested amending of the statement of the city’s mission, vision and values to include either fairness or nondiscrimination.
“In a community our size, there are no anonymous city workers, we see each other all around town, on and off the job,” she said. “To create a distinction between on-duty and off-duty display of a tattoo that’s been deemed offensive is to ignore the reality of our lives here.”
Many other residents chimed in with their support of Small as a war hero and a public servant and did not agree with the way many have treated him over his tattoo.
Regarding the Columbus statue, some speakers, including the person who began a petition that now has 2,500 signatures, Samantha Aparicio, requested its removal from in front of the Walla Walla County Courthouse because Columbus was a “savage murderer, a rapist, a racist, who literally started a genocide.”
“That statue is to be placed in a museum, not to be placed in government public land,” she said.
One other lifelong resident and Whitman student, Kaitlynne, said the Christopher Columbus statue needs to be taken down and replaced along with reorganizing other statues in the city.