Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Last week’s fourth meeting of the Public Safety Task Force was largely engulfed in the aftermath of the violent killing of 19-year-old Humboldt State student David Josiah “DJ” Lawson in the early morning hours of April 15.
The subject on everyone’s mind was first raised during public comment, when African-American Humboldt State students urged the task force to take quick and meaningful action.
“I feel unsafe in Arcata,” said one young woman. “We need change. We don’t need it tomorrow. We need it now.”
Another student agreed, stating that “the community does not embrace us, in general.” She further mourned Lawson’s loss. “He was an amazing young man that was stolen from all of us,” she said.
Police Chief Tom Chapman, who serves as staff liaison, reviewed other notable crime activity since the task force’s last meeting, on March 22. These included several violent incidents – a Valley West barricading situation, an unprovoked hammer attack on the Plaza, an armed robbery and pursuit at the Craftsman’s Mall, and the nightmare on everyone’s mind – the killing of Lawson. Chapman’s review included an unsparing self-appraisal of APD’s responses to each incident, noting successes and deficiencies.
What went right, Chapman said, was peaceful resolution of the barricading and threatened self-immolation of a disturbed person. But he faulted his department for not putting Arcata Elementary School on lockdown during the pursuit of suspects at the nearby Craftsman’s Mall.
Committeemember Darlene Spoor expressed confidence in APD, but further noted alleged shortcomings in APD’s response to Lawson’s death, and asked that the department review its procedures.
“Everything’s on the table; everything will be scrutinized,” Chapman said, but he added that comprehensive reviews of the Lawson case’s handling will have to wait until the investigation is further advanced, since all department resources are presently engaged in meeting court and other deadlines.
Committeemember Corliss Bennett-McBride wasn’t satisfied with the pace of APD’s review, and questioned its handling of the Lawson killing. “I feel like nothing is being done,” she said.
She said questions about APD’s responses were undermining public confidence, which could trigger a public reaction comparable to that which followed the 1992 acquittal of police officers accused of beating Rodney King almost exactly 25 years earlier. She urged that Chapman call in additional resources to do a timely review.
“You’re just pissing people off more and more,” she said. “Folks will roll up here and they’re already going to be pissed with the 12-hour ride. When they get here, you all thought you saw something when Rodney King went off, ironically on April 29, 1992 … that will come here in a heartbeat because of the unjust pieces that are getting out because the true stories are coming from the people who were there, and how that’s not parallel with what the police are saying.”
Bennett-McBride said that numerous students had told her that APD officers spoke only among themselves at the hospital and didn’t interview the many students present there when Lawson was being treated. She also wondered why the students' cell phones weren't subpoenaed until 11 days after the killing occurred.
Chapman offered no detailed response at the time. Later, he said the department’s priority was doing a thorough investigation and creating a solid court case.
He said the three APD officers on duty that night had their hands full securing the crime scene, preserving evidence, getting the coroner to respond, identifying the witnesses and taking initial statements. With regard to the hospital scene, he said, “It’s not a sound investigative step to do detective interviews in a moment of crisis, in a loud setting with people fired up, pissed off and sad. That doesn’t happen at the ER at 4 a.m.”
He called the perception of inaction “frustrating, but at the same time, I understand that where there is a vacuum of communication, people will fill it in with conjecture.”
“Our responsibility is to do a thorough investigation, getting admissible evidence that will stand up in a court of law with a burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” Chapman said. “That’s where our emphasis is.”
Chapman said he was open to drawing in outside assistance, and has discussed doing so with City Manager Karen Diemer. “As we evaluate it, a decision will be made,” he said.
After a break, the task force briefly discussed routine business, including safety corridors and a community resource guide. Members of the committee plan to participate in a May 8 meeting focused on Valley West issues.
Even before the Lawson killing, the citizen-led group had been foundering over its charge to improve public safety in Arcata. With so much to do across Arcata’s many neighborhoods, and with 12 opinionated members to hear out, it has struggled to gain focus. Further hampering progress is continuing difficulty for task force members and the public to hear each other around the large table, no one among them being professional orators.
Some of those issues will be addressed at the next meeting. Chapman said he was trying to get microphones and amplification, and it was also suggested that the members use the City Council dais, with additional tables, so as to be able to face the Council Chamber audience rather than have some sit with their backs to attendees.
Perhaps most significantly, the city has hired a professional facilitator to help direct the task force’s discussions, beginning with its May meeting.
Chair Anjali Browning said that despite frustrations, the task force had succeeded in giving citizens something it never had before – a crime-focused public forum in which to air issues.
“Part of our service is to become a clearinghouse where people can go to get things stated on the record,” Browning said. “Offering that hub, where people can create dialogue, is a critical role that we play.”