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Town hall plan to be formalized at Wednesday's Walla Walla City Council meeting

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Walla Walla City Hall

A “tsunami of emails” over law enforcement practices during the racial crisis and an officer’s tattoo is prompting the Walla Walla City Council to move forward with plans for a public town hall meeting or series of them.

On Wednesday, the Walla Walla City Council will decide how best to move forward with meetings that will allow concerned residents to hear directly from Walla Walla Police Chief Scott Bieber on the questions and issues raised to law enforcement recently. City Attorney Tim Donaldson is also expected to participate.

The path forward is expected to be determined during Wednesday’s 6:30 p.m. Council meeting.

Among the decisions: whether to host sessions virtually or in person.

If the choice is the former, Council will discuss when and how many public meetings will take place, as well as the format.

Initially the idea was to wait until health and safety measures allowed in-person meetings. But due to the sense of urgency, and what Mayor Tom Scribner described as a “tsunami of emails,” Scribner presented a new plan to Council at its work session Monday. He suggested instead holding a few virtual meetings in July and possibly August.

“I think doing these Zoom meetings with the public is very important, and timeliness is, of course, an issue here. We’ve received so many emails that it’s virtually impossible for us to respond to each individual one,” Council member Myron Huie said at Monday’s work session.

Questions and rallies began in Walla Walla after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests nationally, as well as outcry for changes in law enforcement practices.

Protesters have been advocating for local leaders to reconsider police funding and divert some to the mental health services pool and other community services.

Some have also called for restricting the use of police force to reduce killings by police and save lives.

In Walla Walla tension sparked over a double lightning bolt “SS” tattoo on Officer Nat Small, a former Marine whose “Scout Sniper” memorial tattoo uses the same symbolism for Nazi white supremacy.

Many have expressed support for the officer’s service as a decorated veteran of the U.S Marine Corps who got a tattoo for his fallen friend. They have also expressed gratitude for his service to the community as a police officer.

Others call on removing the tattoo or his resignation, saying they feel unsafe with an officer wearing this symbol.

A protest over the tattoo is planned in front of the police department Wednesday, 5:30-6:30 p.m., directly before the City Council meeting.

A rally of support for local police will be held in the same location Wednesday, 4-6 p.m.

Scribner said Council takes its responsibility seriously and understands there are strong feelings on a variety of issues going on now.

The Council’s goal is to facilitate, as quickly as possible, a meeting to hear from constituents and take the appropriate actions, he said.

Scribner met with the city manager, Bieber and Mayor Pro Tem Steve Moss to discuss the logistics of the town hall and presented their plan to Council at Monday’s work session.

The plan draws out two to three virtual town halls.

In the first town hall, Bieber would give an overview of the police department, addressing the process used to hire new officers, the training they go through, police practice and procedure and more.

Scribner said the Council would draw upon the emails received and come up with a series of questions for Beiber to answer in addition to his overview.

The meeting would also have the city attorney talk from his perspective about legal issues related to police practice, police liability and the subject of the tattoo.

Scribner emphasized Council cannot fire city employees, with the exception of the city manager and city attorney. Council members do not have the authority to fire a police officer. The chief will make decisions regarding the tattoo issue, he said.

“We want to give him an opportunity, as we’ve talked about the virtual town hall meetings, to explain the process and what he is considering, what he’s looked at and what he is planning to do relative to that issue,” Scribner said.

The second town hall would be a week or two weeks later after everyone has had an opportunity to hear from the city chief of police and attorney. The next meeting would allow for public comment for those in the community wishing to voice their concerns about law enforcement in Walla Walla.

A third town hall potentially could be planned to have the attorney and police chief respond or roll out a plan on how to address the tattoo and other issues regarding police practices and procedures.

Many have called for defunding the police department in Walla Walla, and others have voiced concern against this idea. These questions will be addressed in the town hall.

“I think we have to have that conversation in response to the whole question about how big the police budget is, should we defund it or reduce it?” Scribner said.

He said the police chief could discuss funding from the city’s budget for the police department and how those expenses are justified.

That discussion could also include input from the city manager or finance director.

Chloe LeValley can be reached at chloelevalley@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

Chloe LeValley covers the cities of Walla Walla and College Place as well as agriculture and the environment in the Walla Walla Valley. She is a graduate of San Francisco State University and joined the Union-Bulletin's team in October 2019.