Son of Tacoma cop who drove into crowd pushes to rethink ‘culture’ of police forces

Mar 11, 2021, 12:23 PM
Tacoma officer...
Tacoma Police and other law enforcement officers stand in an intersection near the site of a car crash Saturday, Jan. 23, 2021, in downtown Tacoma, Wash. At least one person was injured when a police car plowed through a crowd of people Saturday night who were watching a downtown street race. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

In January, a Tacoma police officer who was responding to a drag race drove his cruiser into a crowd of people who were blocking his way. No one died, but some people were injured, and that officer has been placed on leave while an investigation is underway.

The incident sparked a debate at the time over whether that was a case of excessive force. Critics called for the officer to be fired, but others say he had no choice because the crowd was aggressive and threatening. Among the critics is the officer’s own son, Andrew Phan, who wrote a guest editorial in The Stranger, arguing that calls to fire his father are just.

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“When I wrote it, I was really thinking about how the police are trained to respond to situations,” Phan explained. “Even in that situation, even if it was excessive and dangerous, I think there were ways to deescalate it that would have been more effective.”

“I really wanted to talk to people about what’s going on in American policing and what’s going on in the minds of police officers,” he added. “And I really want to engage the [Tacoma Police Department] to think about what kind of culture we want to create in the police forces.”

Phan sees himself in a unique position between two worlds, with a number of friends whose families have been incarcerated or suffered at the hands of police, but also growing up with a police officer as a dad.

“So I just wanted to try and maybe open a window between those two groups to kind of understand how we can make a safer culture,” he said.

Phan is a social worker, and says he’s had to accept that people will behave in threatening ways and will say threatening things, but he says it’s his job to “navigate that nuance.”

“When somebody is lashing out at you, often they’re trying to just get a reaction,” he said. “A lot of people have learned over time that you can get a reaction that’s negative from people. And if you’re not getting any reaction, sometimes that’s the one you want.”

He believes the current policing system cannot operate in that nuance.

“I think that they really are trained to respond to threats by eliminating them, which I think is just outdated and doesn’t work for what we need for public safety these days,” he said.

To bridge the divide in our country between law enforcement and the trust of the public, Phan thinks it should start with self-reflection.

“I think that we all actually need to do some self reflection,” he said. “I think the police really need to think about how they’re engaging with the public. Like we’ve seen the Blue Lives Matter camp kind of just continually escalate, the more that they’re critiqued.”

“And I think that the police have not really been subject to this level of scrutiny in a long time, or even ever. The internet has really given us a lot of access to different kinds of information,” he added. “And the police are not the ones doing the main scrutinizing of the community anymore. So I think the way that they’ve chosen to respond to this is just by increasing aggression and being defensive instead of really coming out into the community, and addressing these issues and talking about them.”

He also points out that there’s a number of “naïve leftists” who believe the police could be abolished tomorrow and there wouldn’t be any problem.

“I do think that we have to grapple with some of the realities in terms of public safety before we can really get there,” he said. “And I think that this continual escalation on both sides isn’t really very productive, and it’s just making both sides more extreme. And maybe this is OK for some people but I think that this isn’t really in the interest of public safety.”

Phan does not believe his dad knew he was going to write this editorial. He says he reached out a number of times to engage him, adding that his dad had not yet responded to the piece.

“I really thought that we could use this as an opportunity to come out and show the community what accountability looks like and address the harm, maybe in a way that is different than has ever been done before,” he said.

Phan’s hoping to do this work as a family and build that trust.

So why did he choose to address this so publicly?

“I observed, like in the Manuel Ellis case, all those police officers just kind of laid low and went on vacation,” he said. “I think I do see this escalation happening in all of our communities, and I think there’s really going to be no time but now to kind of come out and address these issues.”

“I also am not super confident that his case is in a lot of danger yet, … but the law doesn’t really seem to bend toward accountability of the police,” he added.

By saying his father’s case isn’t in a lot of danger, he explained that he means there’s been police on camera killing people who have gotten away with it and not faced a lot of charges.

“I don’t think this is the most extreme case of police brutality I’ve ever seen. People could have certainly died, but nobody has to my knowledge. Also it wasn’t a Black Lives Matter protest, like it initially trended as such,” Phan said. “I think this is more just an opportunity to have a really good conversation about police brutality and how the police respond to things.”

Nationally, Phan thinks there’s still a long ways to go to bridge the divide and trust with police agencies. Locally, he thinks there’s an opportunity to model what this could look like.

“Which is why I’m pushing for this, because Tacoma, TPD, is a relatively small department,” he said. “So if we wanted to create different changes and different systems, we could do it a lot more easily than larger departments.”

“I have seen that there’s better ways to deal with things than force, and I think that’s a problem in our country, like we’re always trying to win, all of us, on every side,” he said. “There is no attempt to resolve issues. There’s only attempts to beat the other side, and this is a path to a very dangerous place.”

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He ended with a comment about something else that motivated him to speak out, which was the calls for Black and Asian solidarity, particularly out of Oakland. Phan said one of the calls he often hears is that Asian families need to hold each other accountable for racism within their community.

“I really think the work that we have to do is unpacking what’s happening in our own communities, with our own families first,” he said. “And I want to participate in that.”

Read Phan’s guest editorial in The Stranger online here.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Son of Tacoma cop who drove into crowd pushes to rethink ‘culture’ of police forces