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Polynesian community questions police policies after shooting deaths

Suzanna Caldwell
Loren Holmes photo

Almost a month after the police shot and killed a Mountain View resident, the Polynesian community of Anchorage is still looking for answers.

Their questions have sparked a rally set for Saturday, organized by a newly formed Anchorage nonprofit. The Polynesian Community Center, started June 25, is still in its infancy. But Executive Director Miriama Aumavae felt compelled to speak out against the recent fatal police shootings.

"I don't like to sit still on certain things," she said.

The University of Alaska Anchorage social work student had plans to keep the new center quiet until next year, when more funding was secured. But after the June 9 shooting death of Shane Tasi and the recent shooting of Harry Smith, she felt compelled to act.

The rally, scheduled for noon Saturday at the baseball fields in Far North Bicentennial Park, is billed as "One Voice. One Cause." It's open to "all concerned citizens," not just the Polynesian community. One hope is to revise the Anchorage Police Department protocols on shooting to disarm instead of shooting to kill.

"A life is a life. Once you're gone, you're gone," she said. "We need to put a plan together in case this happens again."

Since Tasi's shooting, many have wondered why less-than-lethal force wasn't applied. Anchorage police officer Boaz Gionson was cleared in the confrontation last week when the state office of special prosecution found that he was justified to use deadly force against Tasi, who was wielding a 39-inch broken broom handle. Some wondered why a Taser wasn't deployed. Gionson, the only officer on scene at the time, was not carrying one of those electroshock devices.

Seeing a need

Aumavae started the community center after studying what kind of resources would be valuable to the Anchorage Polynesian community. While the center focuses on youth, it will also offer resources for employment, language services, health and cultural preservation.

Aumavae took time Thursday to talk to Alaska Dispatch between handing out fliers in Northway Mall announcing the rally. She doesn't think police are responding adequately to the Polynesian community.

Aumavae wonders why there aren't better police protocols in place to deal with certain communities.

"This didn't just affect Shane's family," she said. "This affected us (the Anchorage Polynesian community) as a whole."

Police spokesman Lt. Dave Parker said part of police training involves working with different ethnicities. He said the department recognizes there are certain needs in those communities. Parker said there are two Samoan officers on the force -- a sergeant and a patrol officer.

However, the law is the law.

"We have to police as even-handedly as possible," he said. "Folks need to recognize that we’re all bound by the same laws."

A week ago, police held a media briefing explaining the clearing of Gionson in the death of Tasi. Before that, police met with members of the Polynesian community, including pastors from Samoan churches, the Alaska Native Justice Center and AK Pride leader Mao Tosi.

Details of why Gionson was cleared were presented to the community first, Parker said, out of respect. The purpose was to inform the community and get feedback.

Parker said police Chief Mark Mew will meet with members of the Police Community Task Force and the Polynesian community to continue their original dialogue Friday.

Starting the conversation

The Polynesian Association of Alaska is hoping to create its own dialogue as well. The president of the association, Lucy Hansen, said she is planning a town hall meeting for Friday, July 13 in the Anchorage assembly chambers. It will be open to the public, where those who have any lingering questions can address city officials. She hopes Mayor Dan Sullivan and Chief Mew will attend, but was unsure if they would as of Thursday afternoon.

Parker said police had not received an invitation. The mayor's office said the meetings were on its radar.

Hansen stressed that the meeting is not just for the Polynesian community.

"This is to try to patch things and see who else didn't get their voice heard," Hansen said.

Aumavae knows Gionson, the officer who shot Tasi. She said she sees him as the victim too. But if the shootings keep happening, Aumavae feels like police need to have better plans in place to stop incidents.

There will be handful of speakers at the rally. Songs will be sung. Then there will be a march to APD headquarters.

"This is a peaceful demonstration," she said. "We just want to be heard."

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com