ORTING, Wash. — They were so preoccupied with the volcano shadowing their town, with forecasts and evacuation drills, that few people here noticed the other disaster taking shape around them. Life for Orting’s 8,000 residents depended on predicting what would one day come roaring down the slopes of Mount Rainier, 30 miles away. They had sirens for lava, sensors for earthquakes and alarms for the volcanic mudflow that geologists believed would one day bury the town. Tension was always building inside the volcano, considered the country’s most dangerous, a pressure that intensified with each foundational shift in the earth. The only question was when it would finally blow.
So at first nobody paid much attention in the fall of 2013 when what came winding around the mountain and into the valley was another U-Haul carrying a new family into town. The truck was loaded down with a handmade crib, a living room set and a sign designed to hang on a front door. “Welcome to Our Love Story,” it read. Here came three more people into one of the state’s fastest-growing communities. Here, in the driver’s seat, came Orting’s newest employee, a police officer in a place where crime had begun to rise. Gerry Pickens stopped downtown to pick up his badge, and only then did it become obvious in Orting that this hire was unlike any the town had made before.
The place once known as “The White City,” in part for its lack of diversity, had hired a black police officer, its first since the town’s founding in 1889.
“Congratulations! Welcome to our team,” read a letter that Pickens received with his badge.
Eighteen months later, if Orting can still agree on anything about Pickens’s arrival, it is that his first day was also his best day — the one when questions of race and policing still felt like problems for bigger towns. Pickens, 28, had not yet been suspended for an allegation of stealing that was never substantiated. He had not yet been terminated shortly before the end of his standard probationary period. His car had not yet been spray-painted with a racial epithet and a threat. The NAACP hadn’t yet arrived for a news conference. Residents had not yet fractured into hostile groups as the pressure built, erupting onto hateful Internet message boards and petitions demanding the police chief’s resignation. Pickens had not yet made plans to file a lawsuit unless the town paid him $5 million in damages, nearly twice the annual budget, enough to bury the town.
The one clear thing that first day was that there had been a subtle shift in the foundation, a change in Orting that marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. A local politician posted a message on Facebook: “Not a cow town anymore.” The city administrator called Pickens’s hiring “a proud moment for our modern, growing community.” The police chief said he had made “a tremendous value hire” by filling out his staff of 11 with an experienced officer. Pickens had spent three years policing on the midnight shift in Atlanta, where he had responded to hundreds of the drug crimes, break-ins and violent robberies that were only beginning to encroach on Orting as development spread south from Seattle into the valley.
“So happy to be home,” Pickens wrote to a friend that day. He had gone to high school a few miles outside town, and he had taken a pay cut to bring his wife and daughter back to the Pacific Northwest. He missed its green hillsides, its soft-and-steady rain and its two-lane roads that cut through dairy farms and daffodil fields. He missed the Old West feel of the one-block downtown, where the most prominent structure was a playground and where shops had names such as “Bucky’s,” “Wild Rose” and “Big J’s Outdoors.”
He found a rental house outside town, on a dead-end road with a view of the mountains. The volcano sometimes made his wife uneasy, but Pickens told her not to worry. He had grown accustomed in high school to the evacuation drills and sirens, preparing for a disaster that was always coming, until finally he stopped expecting that it would. He no longer thought about the magma and molten rock churning beneath the trees and glaciers. For him, Mount Rainier was just a landmark, a snow-capped peak visible for hundreds of miles. The view was tranquil and familiar. It meant he was home.
He was already aware of the town’s reputation — a conservative place, an insular place, a white place — and he had heard rumors in high school of police officers intimidating black drivers and of white supremacists meeting in the woods. But they were just stories, everything subterranean and easy to dismiss, because during his teenage years, Pickens had never felt discriminated against or even disliked.
His parents had taught him some guidelines for living in a place that was almost entirely white: Don’t talk about being black. Act grateful. Get used to people staring and always smile back. “Gerry could fit in anywhere,” read an inscription in his high school yearbook, and it was a skill honed from necessity.
His father had been in the military, so Pickens spent his childhood moving every few years. He learned to make jokes in Spanish to Mexican immigrants in San Antonio, dropped his name from Gerry to “G” in a black neighborhood of Detroit and went cow tipping with friends from a predominantly white high school when he moved near Orting in ninth grade. His parents left for Atlanta but he stayed in the Pacific Northwest to work after college, selling Toyotas on straight commission. “Know Your Customer,” was the dealership’s motto, so Pickens jokingly sang Garth Brooks lyrics to farmers looking for pickups and fist-bumped teenagers shopping for something fast. He cleared $90,000 that first year, a rookie record, with little expertise in sales strategy or transmissions. What he knew was how to make people laugh.
So it surprised him when he arrived back in Orting in the fall of 2013 that one of the first jokes he heard featured him as the punch line. A resident had seen Pickens on patrol and called 911. “There’s a police car being driven by a black juvenile,” the resident had reported, and for the next several weeks some of Pickens’s co-workers had referred to him as the “black juvenile.” What he wanted to tell them was that he wasn’t a rookie, and that he had responded to more 911 calls than any of them while working in Atlanta — but maybe it wasn’t meant to be racist so much as it was just a bad joke. He decided to laugh. He decided, then and again, not to blame his experiences on race.
Maybe it was because he had the least seniority that he had been given an older car, with a battery that occasionally went dead when he turned on his police lights. Maybe the police chief was only trying to be thoughtful when he mentioned, in Pickens’s memory at least three times, that Pickens should be vigilant about his self defense because Orting was an old-fashioned place that believed in the Second Amendment, where white supremacist groups remained active and well armed. And maybe Pickens had only himself to blame when his imagination began obsessing about those groups between 2 and 6 a.m., when he was the only officer on duty. He sometimes wondered: If one of those groups ambushed him, would anyone provide backup? How long before help would arrive?
Only when the police chief suspended Pickens for a week in April 2014 did he become convinced that racism was the cause, and that it was no longer enough to act grateful and smile back. Another Orting officer had been able to stay at work while being investigated for using excessive force on a teenager; Pickens was sent home based on an accusation of lifting weights at a local gym without paying for the visit. Pickens decided not to complain directly to the chief or his supervising lieutenant. “I didn’t want to have the race talk with anyone I saw every day,” he said. Instead he called the mayor, Joachim “Joe” Pestinger, and they met at a park.
“I keep saying to myself that this doesn’t have anything to do with my race, but something’s going on,” Pickens said he told the mayor that day.
“We don’t see race here,” Pestinger remembered saying. “That’s not an issue for us.”
“Then why does it seem like I’m being set up to fail?” Pickens said.
“Nobody wants you to succeed more than we do.”
They talked past each other for 10 minutes until the mayor shook Pickens’s hand and walked off, leaving him more confused than before. “I’m just trying to understand . . .” Pickens wrote on his Facebook page, because it seemed to him that so much about race in Orting was cryptic and awkward, a tension so papered over with niceties that in some ways he began to appreciate the handful of residents who talked in the harshest terms about black and white. At least they weren’t afraid to be honest. At least he knew exactly what they thought.
One of them was Tracy Conklin, 43, who remembered telling Pickens once that “black and white don’t mix.” She sometimes called him “mud blood,” but she liked how Pickens issued warnings instead of tickets, and how he played basketball in his uniform with teenagers in the park. “Probably the best officer we have,” she wrote of him once, in a note about his performance, so she started meeting with Pickens to give him information about local fugitives, drug activity and the increasing tension in Orting.
“This used to be a country town with no outsiders,” she remembered telling Pickens. “So when a strange black man comes riding into town in a police car, well, I’m sorry, but that’s very ‘new Orting,’ and people just don’t know how to react to that.”
How much change could one place take? How many shifts before the foundation began to crack? The town of Orting had been built on a base of volcanic material 15 feet deep, evidence of the several dozen times Mount Rainier had erupted. An explosion came every few hundred years and would one day come again: heat and gas upsetting the volcano’s fragile balance, melting Rainier’s 25 glaciers, uprooting trees, unhinging boulders and hillsides, all of it collapsing down the mountain at 50 miles an hour in an avalanche of earth known as a lahar. In a worst-case scenario, geologists predicted Orting would have as little as 42 minutes to evacuate. Then the town would be flooded with 20 feet of mud.
In the psychology of a town at the base of the volcano, change wasn’t merely awkward or even scary. It was the catalyst for a disaster to be held off at all costs.
So for decades, Orting adhered to the tenets of stability and consistency: population always about 2,000; demographics steady at 95 percent white; membership consistent at the Lions Club, the Masons and the Kiwanis; a princess crowned at the Daffodil Festival each spring. Volunteers worked to hold the town in place, raising the levees to prepare for a flood and bolting houses to the ground in case of an earthquake. They practiced evacuations twice each year, filing students out of schools in orderly lines. The same police chief remained in charge for 30 years, parking his car on the main road into town not because he wanted to write tickets but because he liked to honk his horn and wave at every resident who drove past. “The Orting Way,” people called it.
But then the Fords sold their family dairy farm, and the Williamses offered up 100 acres of white-and-yellow daffodil fields to developers in the 1990s. Soon signs on the main road into town announced cheap houses, and buyers arrived each weekend from Seattle. Look at all that empty space! And look at that mountain! The plots sold before construction crews could level the dirt. The first chain grocery store opened in what had been an open field. Chinese investors bought land. Developers bulldozed Christmas tree farms and sprayed out the perennials. Up went Calistoga Place, with its winding streets and cookie-cutter cul-de-sacs. Up went Majestic Estates with its gated entrance. Up went Carbon River Landing, Whitehawk, Village Crest and Village Green as Orting’s population doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled.
“A thriving bedroom community,” advertised one marketing campaign, but longtime residents had another name for it: a town of strangers. Commuters left for Seattle before dawn and returned late at night. The Kiwanis died out. The Chamber of Commerce faltered. The Masons moved from town.
What arrived in their place were mostly young families — a touch more liberal, a few more Hispanics, Samoans, Filipinos and African Americans. The white population dropped from 95 percent to 88 percent. The grind of construction drowned out the coyotes and the rush of two glacial creeks. The two-lane road became gridlocked with commuters, and traffic studies revealed an even bigger problem: The town was growing too big to evacuate. Nobody would be getting out in 42 minutes, not with congestion like this.
Politicians created a plan to build a “Bridge for Kids,” an architectural marvel that would connect the schools to a safety zone in the hills above town. The proposed bridge, more than a mile long, would evacuate all 2,500 students in less than 40 minutes — if only a town with a $3 million budget could somehow raise the $50 million to build it. The mayor trimmed annual expenditures and began saving a few hundred thousand dollars toward the project. A new police chief, hired after the previous one retired, parked on the road into town and started pulling people over, issuing tickets to generate revenue. Sometimes, he found drugs.
Suddenly meth was being produced inside one of the abandoned farms and heroin was coming down from Seattle. Car thefts increased. Home invasions doubled. Then, early last year, a lifetime Orting resident awoke in the middle of the night to a noise in his house, yet another robbery, and when he went downstairs to investigate, he was killed with his own gun — just the second homicide in 50 years, and this one still unsolved.
“Crisis in Orting!” declared the banner of one newsletter after the killing, and on Internet message boards residents began casting blame for the disorder they believed had overtaken their town. It was the teenagers, some wrote. The commuters. The minorities. The gangs. Ten days after the shooting, the city council held a videotaped meeting in the town’s largest room, the school gymnasium, because several hundred people wanted to attend. Some came hoping for a ban on new development. Others wanted a curfew or a citizens’ patrol. They lined up behind a microphone and took turns eulogizing their town.
“Who else misses the old Orting?” one asked.
“Do you even recognize your neighbors anymore?” said another.
“Druggies, dealers and criminals have taken over our streets.”
“Exterminate the rats!”
“I’ve lived in Orting since 1977, and I never had to lock our doors, ever. Our town is different, and I’ve had to learn that. Lock it up. Lock it up. An alarm system is good.”
Bill Drake, the new police chief, stepped to the microphone and stared hard at the crowd. His badge was shined, and his gun was holstered at his hip. He was the vanguard of town, responsible for holding together so many fractured parts, and now he spoke in his Tennessee drawl and warned that he was “coming for” whoever committed the killing. The police department had interviewed dozens of people, administered polygraph tests and identified “persons of interest,” he said. Everyone on his staff was working overtime, including the new officer he’d hired from Atlanta.
“The community of Orting will not go quietly into the night,” Drake said, pounding his fist on the lectern, and the crowd whistled and cheered.
“My city,” is how Drake sometimes referred to Orting, and few people could disagree. In seven years as police chief, he had outlasted a mayor, three chairmen of the public safety committee and 13 members of the city council. His police department controlled 60 percent of the town’s budget. He had a habit of referring to many things in Orting as his — “There’s my school superintendent,” or “my new mayor,” or “my volcano,” or “my toughest drug house,” he liked to say — and if in fact he did have dominion over the town, then most of its residents considered themselves lucky, especially having seen his résumé.
Twenty-two years in the Air Force. Two master’s degrees. He’d scuba dived the Red Sea while living in Saudi Arabia and ridden motorcycles along the Rhine River during a tour in Europe. He’d operated airborne lasers in Virginia, managed ground radar in South Carolina and spent hundreds of hours in the sky above places such as Iceland, Alaska and South Korea, doing international surveillance. Then he had retired to Washington state and become a police officer, working in a big department for eight years before coming to Orting, where he was sworn to protect a nowhere little town tucked against a mountain.
“The smartest, best, most exceptional person we have here,” the city administrator said.
“A worldly man,” one councilwoman agreed.
“A person who is in every way overqualified, outstanding,” the mayor said. “Respect for me is equal to love. I love this man. He brought a sophistication to this city that we hadn’t seen before.”
When Drake became police chief in 2007, the department was operating out of two classrooms in an abandoned school building, with no air conditioning or detention cell. Suspects were held in the back of police cars while officers went into the station to complete their case reports on a typewriter. Drake moved the department into a new building, fought for a budget increase and used some of his own money to modernize the department. He added tinted windows and computer systems to the police cars, rented night-vision equipment and bought a training simulator. He began tracking every 911 call, evaluating officers based on their number of stops and citations. “Going from the 19th century to the 20th, to the 21st,” was how Drake characterized those first years.
But each week at the all-staff meeting, Drake delivered his orders to 11 white men, even as the city diversified. “This is a problem,” he remembered telling the city administrator, and together they advertised Orting’s police openings at job fairs in Tacoma and Seattle, hoping to attract minorities and women. They contracted with a hiring firm that specialized in finding diverse candidates, but by the time Orting conducted its interviews the best minority officers had gone to bigger departments that paid substantially more.
“Everybody is looking for these same officers right now, and we’re always going to be left taking whatever’s left,” Drake said, so it seemed to him like remarkable luck when the city received an application from Pickens, an experienced minority officer who had applied specifically to Orting because he wanted to move home. Pickens nailed the interview. He passed the polygraph, the agility test and the psych evaluation. Drake sent his lieutenant to Atlanta to conduct a background investigation, and when everything checked out the city made its offer. Pickens accepted the same day.
“A crowning achievement for us,” the mayor said.
Then Pickens started — and so, in Drake’s accounting, did a succession of problems. According to a document Drake later provided to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Pickens disappeared from radio contact during his shift, approached a high-risk traffic stop with his hands in his pockets, ignored advice from his training officer and submitted sloppy accident reports that were left two-thirds empty. While Drake’s other officers averaged about eight citations a month, Drake reported that Pickens wrote one or two. Maybe he really was establishing trust with teenagers when he played basketball in his uniform, but in the monthly statistics, that added up to a lot of loafing around. “There are motivational issues,” an officer in charge of training Pickens told Drake, so the chief began devoting time to counseling Pickens himself.
Drake had no children, no spouse and no relatives nearby. It had been months since he had ridden his motorcycle or taken off in his RV. His life was mostly his job, both a purpose and an identity. He came to work early to eat at the senior center — “The seniors here know everything,” he said — and he patrolled with pet treats in the cup holder of his cruiser to pacify dogs. He worked 60 or 70 hours each week, sometimes sleeping in his office, unwinding each night with the classical music he kept on his computer. “It can be a lonely life,” he said, and so for most of his career in policing and in the military, he had considered his subordinates his family — whether they were men or women, gay or straight, black or white. “I take care of my own,” he said. He counseled Pickens about his performance in March, wrote him a letter in April and spoke to him again in August. The two men never discussed race. Pickens never said what it was like to be the first black officer in Orting. Drake never asked.
“Orting is a small town, and nothing goes unnoticed here,” was as far as Drake would go.
“Obviously, my situation is a little unique,” was all Pickens would say.
About a week before Pickens’s one-year probationary period ended, Drake met with the city administrator and the mayor to discuss their options. Firing Pickens would cost the city about $50,000, because it would need to hire and train his replacement. Drake would be down to 10 policemen instead of 11 for several months. The town recently had hired a second black police officer, but the mayor cautioned that firing Pickens might not look good. “It was hard as nails,” the city administrator said of their decision, but in the end it was left to the chief’s discretion. This was his department. This was his choice.
“I regret to inform you,” he wrote Pickens on Sept. 9, and later, in a response to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, he elaborated on his thinking. He stated that Pickens had been given “every opportunity” before being dismissed for “unsatisfactory performance.” Then Drake went on to list his reasons.
“Failed to understand,” he wrote.
“Failed to handle . . .”
“Failed to comprehend . . .”
“Failed to meet . . .”
“Failed to complete . . .”
Pickens’s mother offered to help him find a “bulldog lawyer,” but he declined. His wife said he should file a lawsuit, but instead Pickens began applying for other jobs. “God closes one door and opens another,” he wrote to a hiring coordinator at another police department in Washington state, and he sailed through their exams and interviews until it came time for a background check with his previous employer.
“Now there are things I need to document and discuss with my captain,” the hiring coordinator wrote to Pickens after visiting Orting. “Everything is being evaluated. What’s the status of your lawsuit?”
“I’m not going to move forward with a lawsuit,” Pickens wrote back. “I don’t need to be labeled or black balled from my passion which is policing.”
“I have your story, and I have theirs,” the recruiter said, and Pickens never heard from him again.
Pickens expanded his search and applied for police jobs in Oregon and California. He made appointments with a psychologist and lost 20 pounds, which he attributed to stress. He signed up for unemployment insurance and stayed home with his 2-year-old daughter, taking her to the playground in downtown Orting where he could watch the police cars cruise by as the pressure built in his chest. “They took my manhood, my income, my security,” he said. “They thought I was just some dumb black guy who would take unemployment and kick rocks.” He began writing down all the ways he thought he’d been discriminated against: co-workers who called him a “token black guy,” discrepancies in his vacation time and racial epithets shouted at him by a resident when he responded to a disorderly conduct complaint. He compiled testimonials from supporters until one morning a neighbor came banging on his door. She screamed something about his truck, and he followed her outside. His daughter saw it first. She said somebody had drawn on it with a crayon, but she was too young to read the words. “Nigger,” it read on one side. And then, on the other: “Sue cheif and pay.”
Pickens called the county police and then a lawyer. The lawyer called the Tacoma chapter of the NAACP, and together they scheduled a news conference. “Racism is still alive,” Pickens said, and then he announced that he would file suit for wrongful termination unless the city paid him $5 million in damages.
“Maybe a little low, considering everything I’ve gone through,” Pickens said later.
“An absurd number,” the mayor said. “That’s $700 from every child, student and person in this town.”
The city council consulted with a public relations expert and retained a lawyer. “If this gains momentum, it could crack this town in two,” said one councilwoman, and already that was happening online, hate and bias spilling onto Facebook, where the community forums often revolved around Pickens’s case.
“It isn’t about race but is more about ability,” one person wrote.
“Whoever spray-painted his SUV felt it was about race,” wrote another.
“BIG surprise! Another black guy filing a lawsuit.”
“Orting is a backwater, racist town.”
“Bet he spray-painted his own car to get a pay day.”
“Chief probably told his cronies to go do it.”
“Maybe they should hire Pickens in Ferguson.”
“He’s trying to destroy Orting.”
“Orting deserves whatever it gets.”
By late March, the community had fractured into a series of combative Facebook groups. One was formed to disparage the police department, and another was launched to defend it. One organized a citizens’ patrol, and another protested vigilantism. There was a page to celebrate the traditions of old Orting and a page devoted to Orting’s new families and commuters. There was the “Orting Citizen’s Blotter,” the “Non-Judgmental Citizens Blotter” and the “Open Discussion About the Ugly Truth.” Residents started movements to oust the mayor, recall the council, fire the police chief or even disband the town by turning governance over to the county.
On some days, it seemed all of Orting was arguing about race, and that was when the sirens went off.
There were five of them in all, placed in every section of town, each one similar in pitch to an ambulance but so much louder. The town tested its lahar alarms several times each year, but no matter how well the drills were publicized, the first blaring notes always came as a surprise. Dogs howled. Horses bucked against their stables. Construction crews called for breaks because they couldn’t hear, and restaurants stopped taking orders for lunch.
The entire valley was consumed by noise, one deafening truth, and for two minutes the only choice was to listen.
The mayor sat in his office at city hall as the siren began and thought about his budget for emergencies. “We’re stretched to the bone right now just on basic costs,” he said, and for a town located in the path of disaster, basics never seemed like enough. He wanted to buy emergency radios and survival kits for every citizen. He wanted to hire a full-time detective and two additional police officers. He wanted, most of all, to raise $50 million and build the evacuation bridge in time for a lahar that could come any day.
“We don’t have $5 million to spare,” the mayor said, thinking about Pickens and his demand. Even if the town did have some kind of insurance to help cover it, he had made up his mind. “I don’t want to settle for one dollar, if it’s my choice,” he said. “This is a false accusation, and I don’t want to give it any merit.”
Pickens heard the alarm continuing to ring and turned up the TV volume in his house for his daughter, so the sound wouldn’t scare her. As a police officer in Orting, he had often been sent on patrol during siren drills to reassure residents, and some of those people had written him thank-you notes and testimonials about his overall performance. “Respectful even when he was arresting me,” one woman had written. “Always calm,” wrote another. “A great officer.” “Made me safer at night.” “Brought back a sense of community.”
“There are so many good people in this town,” he said, and yet now he was on one side of a lawsuit, and they were on the other.
At the police station, Drake counted the seconds of the drill as they passed: 57, 58, 59. Halfway through. Part of his job as police chief was to serve as Orting’s emergency manager, which made him responsible for evacuations in case of a lahar. Years earlier, local officials had traveled to Virginia for a simulation drill run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The scenario that day had given Orting residents nearly a two-hour warning before a lahar came, a generous timeline, and still the lahar had resulted in $10 billion in damages and 5,000 deaths. The mountain had won, FEMA officials said.
Drake had spent dozens of hours preparing to win if a lahar arrived on his watch, and no matter the scenario, the basic facts of his task were always the same: Eight thousand people to evacuate. Forty-two minutes to remove them. “Keep moving. Don’t stop. Keep moving,” the town’s emergency guide read. Residents would have to grab their ready-made survival kits. They would need to move by foot and not by car. They had to follow the blue signs down Calistoga Street to the rock quarry until they had made it at least 80 feet above the valley floor. No rescuers would be coming until the lahar ended. Orting would determine its own fate.
“The human instinct is to panic,” Drake said. “We are not by nature always calm, rational people. That’s what we’re up against.”
Everything he knew about evacuations suggested that there was one way to minimize the damage: When the alarm sounded for something other than a drill, an entire community had to move past denial and beyond fear. Old Orting and new Orting, police officers and citizens, minorities and whites — their reality was all the same. They needed to start moving in the same direction, up the hill, and fast.