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Tragedy and Renewal: Poulsbo and Stonechild Chiefstick


The Suquamish Tribe has announced its decision to reestablish relations with the City of Poulsbo after a 2.5-year hiatus brought on by the Poulsbo police’s 2019 fatal shooting of Stonechild Chiefstick. The heartbreaking details of that incident are well known by now, and we won’t dwell on them—except to say that the police used unnecessary force and failed to de-escalate the encounter.

It became clear that the Mayor and Council were not equipped with the understanding to communicate adequately with the Tribe about the pain inflicted by this tragedy. After several months, the Tribe broke off relations with Poulsbo. We’re familiar with the silence: we were among the many who wrote letters to our city leaders asking for a gesture, any gesture at all—a forum where people could express their grief, a memorial ceremony, a workshop about race and policing, a statement about what the City would do to improve crisis intervention. We were simply told that Poulsbo’s leaders couldn’t speak during the ongoing investigation. There followed citizen protests, rallies, and calls for Officer Keller, who shot Chiefstick, to be fired. For months after the killing, City Council meetings became standing-room-only affairs, where residents of Poulsbo and Suquamish asked for answers. It was like talking to the wall.

The Kitsap County Prosecuting Attorney’s office concluded, after the yearlong investigation, that the shooting was lawful and that Officer Keller acted within policy in his precipitous use of deadly force.

“Later events added salt to the wound,” declared the Suquamish Tribal Council last week. “Chiefstick’s makeshift memorial at Poulsbo’s waterfront park was repeatedly desecrated, [including] by a Port of Poulsbo Commissioner …  The officer who shot and killed Chiefstick was not criminally charged by the Kitsap County Prosecutor nor disciplined by the City of Poulsbo, and remains on the force.” In fact, he was promoted. In fact, last week the Kitsap Daily News annual poll of the Best of Kitsap included him on the candidate list for Best Police Officer. (Since this was brought to light at the public meeting described below, Keller’s name has been removed from the list.)


Amends and Change

However, the City has made important improvements to make amends and address its shortcomings.

—It hired a new police chief, Ron Harding, who has instituted new policies that require significantly more officer training, emphasizing de-escalation, crisis intervention, implicit bias, and cultural awareness.

—It settled the lawsuit brought by Chiefstick’s family.

—The City has launched programs both in the police and fire departments, responding to people struggling with behavioral health issues. It has allocated more funding for social workers to work along with first responders. This is largely due to the work of Poulsbo’s Housing, Health, and Human Services director Kim Hendrickson, who has also improved communication channels among agencies throughout Kitsap County.

—The City changed its original plan for art and signage at the new Highway 305 - Johnson Parkway roundabout—from exclusively promoting the Nordic theme, to acknowledging the Suquamish presence with Native art and language.


The Government-to-Government Retreat

To promote reconciliation, the City and the Suquamish Tribal Council met together in Poulsbo on July 29. The gathering made an important gesture toward healing on both sides, and we think both groups were as straightforwardly honest as they could be. Chairman Leonard Forsman and Councilmembers Sammy Mabe and Joshua Bagley all invoked the term “wound” to describe what has happened to the relationship between the two governments: there was a wound, and there will always remain a scar. Mabe commented, “There is still a sense of lack of understanding and unwelcomeness … that was highlighted to me today, seeing Officer Keller’s name on The Best of Kitsap: a man who killed one of our own… I’ll admit that stings.”

Poulsbo Council members responded with heartfelt comments, not without labored attempts to look on the bright side.

Chief Harding described his intensive work to change the culture, and he demonstrated the effects of improved de-escalation training of Poulsbo’s police. “The national narrative shows we haven’t been great at that.” We appreciate his reminder that racist policing is a national problem. Police killings of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and so many other African Americans hit the country’s headlines; the killing of a Native man by police didn’t even merit notice on a national level.

Kim Hendrickson’s contribution to the meeting showed her sincere—and successful—efforts to work on both the immediate and contextual issues involving behavioral health and policing. She has gained funding to pair social workers with firefighters (the new CARES program), and to come up with new ideas in the effort to decriminalize mental illness.


Addressing Major Wounds that Remain

Fascinating, though: during the 45 minutes of Poulsbo’s City Council statements and the presentations by the police chief and HHH director—even with the best of intentions, there was no mention of RACE! This struck us as highly symptomatic of white desire to minimize racism, and indicate, as the tribal representatives repeated, the work that remains to be done.

1. The Statement the Tribe issued on June 21 referred to another “important step” Poulsbo has made toward healing: the City joined the Government Alliance for Racial Equity (GARE), a government organization that combats racial injustice and promotes equality and opportunity in municipal governments. Unfortunately, the City of Poulsbo has done little with its membership in GARE since it joined. We must continue to urge the Mayor, City Council, and city staff to actually participate in GARE’s valuable trainings, workshops, and other resources to address the unthinking racism that permeates our town. If you sign up for a dance class but never attend, you don’t learn how to dance.

2. Chiefstick’s family requested that the Council approve the establishment of a permanent memorial in Waterfront Park, to which the City agreed. Nothing has happened since. When the lawsuit was settled, someone (the City, we assume) whisked away the informal memorial of flowers and cedar boughs that had occupied a small area of the park. Where are the plans for a plaque, a sculpture? The City must immediately work with Chiefstick’s kin and the Tribal Council to create the permanent memorial.

3. The other thing that goes wholly unaddressed is the community of Poulsbo, in two senses. First there’s a problem of the city government inadequately communicating with the community. It does a fine job of promoting events like Viking Fest and history walks, but it falls silent on issues of moral and social import. Clearly its official website is not a sufficient channel; much greater effort is required. The second problem is that residents need to become more active in civic life. We at Poulsbo for All are doing what we can to encourage and mobilize community engagement. What can all of us do to be truly welcoming to our neighbors, the original inhabitants of this region? What kinds of hard work might our city leaders encourage us to do to confront our own biases? How can they help to cultivate a more active, aware, and humane community?


Consider this a call to action. Write to the Mayor and Council. Tell them to implement GARE, and hold listening sessions with the public. Gather your neighbors together, read our blogs, watch the video recordings of Council meetings, get informed. Join Poulsbo for All on Facebook and at poulsboforall.com . Run for office! several Council seats will be up for election in 2024. Civic engagement isn’t just another activity; lives depend on your participation.

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