In two weeks, I will have been doing this stuff for ten years – which is a long time to be doing something that, in many ways, is constantly evolving. The last two weeks have been very interesting, watching the intersection between national tragedy and local policies and events.
Last week was about tragedy – the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were tragic, regardless of whether you believe officers were justified in their actions (and I continue to believe, whether justified or unjustified, different tactics would have meant those two men would still be alive and the police officers involved safe and without the burden of having taken someone’s life). Last week ended with the tragic shooting of many Dallas police officers, five of whom lost their lives.
In the aftermath of that, there are two interesting incidents locally and a lot of interesting conversation.
On Tuesday, I spoke with Sandy Holman at length. Quickly I realized that the incident itself was not the problem. As I understand it, it was a young female officer who pulled Ms. Holman and her husband Mark over for a minor equipment problem with her car. The officer did not give her a ticket but warned her of the need to fix the car.
With body and in-car cameras it is reportedly easy to see that the officer was operating by the book. The problem here is context. First, we have the national backdrop and part of why I wanted to do this story is that, as a white male, I do not get to walk in people’s shoes who have different experiences than mine unless I can use the power of this Vanguard to communicate how Ms. Holman feels when a police officer pulls her over.
I have seen the traffic stop data in Davis. In fact, three years ago on the Human Relations Commission (HRC), we went over it with then-Assistant Chief Darren Pytel. Every race gets pulled over in Davis and, I dare say, every socio-economic group. That’s not the contention here.
The problem is that black people feel singled out by these traffic stops. In fact, a decade ago, the California Highway Patrol acknowledged racial profiling just as police in New Jersey had.
I spoke to both deputy chiefs and Chief Pytel on Tuesday night – it is a challenge for them to figure out the line between safety and doing more harm than good with traffic stops.
I had long conversations on this topic. While these conversations were not on the record – I come away with the following. First, the leadership in Davis understands that policing needs to change. One of the points President Obama made this week was we ask our police officers to do too much.
One of the points that several in the leadership in Davis agreed with is that we have to find good police officers who have the right mannerisms and demeanor to operate in Davis as opposed to Oakland.
But, overall, the profession itself has to change. Change is hard on a lot of levels. Davis has a challenge finding quality police officers who can operate in a low crime, high scrutiny and highly-educated environment. I personally believe that, more and more, we need police officers who are college educated, exposed to a diversity of viewpoints and able to understand things like psychology, de-escalation techniques and other complex concepts.
I am heartened to read the report from PERF (Police Executive Research Forum), which is challenging conventional thinking on police use of force and pushing the profession to acknowledge the need for reforms.
As Chuck Wexler wrote in his forward, “Ultimately, this report is about the sanctity of all human life—the lives of police officers and the lives of the people they serve and protect. The preservation of life has always been at the heart of American policing. Refocusing on that core ideal has never been more important than it is right now.”
He adds, “American policing is at a critical juncture. Across the country, community members have been distressed by images of police officers using deadly force in questionable circumstances. These incidents are an infinitesimal fraction of the millions of interactions that take place between the police and the public every week. Most police officers never fire their guns (except during training) throughout their entire careers, yet they face enormous challenges and risks to their own safety on a regular basis and they perform their jobs admirably. But police chiefs tell us that even one bad encounter can damage trust with the community that took years to build.”
While I am heartened by the seeming widespread support among leadership in police departments, who understand that policing tactics need to change in this world of constant scrutiny – what some call the “You Tube effect” – and heightened sensitivity in communities of color about use of force and officer-involved shootings, I am concerned by what I see as the gap between the leadership and the rank and file on this matter.
My conversations with more street-oriented police officers, both in Davis and elsewhere, suggests that we have a long way to go. And it will be up to the leadership to lead here and change the mentality of those officers who still operate under old-school notions and, if they can’t, they must find new and younger officers who are well-educated and come at the profession from a different vantage point.
It is, of course, highly intriguing that on the very day I ran the Sandy Holman story, my life once again took a turn for the weird and we had another incident of personal involvement with the police.
I hired Sophie Marconi two weeks ago and last Tuesday, July 5, was her first day. Not only did she take on the role as my assistant at 20 hours a week, but she also agreed to do the Court Watch Internship.
I lent her the keys to my van to pick up a small desk for our new office and was surprised when I got a call from a police officer about 20 minutes later. He was asking if I knew Sophie and whether I had given her my keys and what my van looked like. At this point, I was concerned because I figured she must have been in an accident.
Then he asked the oddest question – asking whether I could look to see if my van was still in its original parking spot. To my utter shock it was. At this point the police officer reassured me that her story seemed to be checking out and that he thought everything would be okay.
But I later learned that she was handcuffed in the back of the police car for about 15 minutes as they sorted things out.
The owner of the van believed that Sophie was actually “Sophia,” a former employee who had stolen from her in the past and therefore she, the owner of the van, believed that Sophie knew full well that this was not my van. But the descriptions of Sophie and Sophia did not match and, when I went downstairs to talk with the police officer and try to help sort things out, it became clear that they were talking about a different person altogether.
In the end, I commend the police for their good work. It would have been easy to have concluded that Sophie’s story was far-fetched and to have arrested her and let the system work it out. They didn’t, even though as the chief later told me, the situation was highly unusual.
I know some of the commenters yesterday debated the “what if” question, and someone called me yesterday to jokingly suggest I find an African American employee to do a real world test to see if black people are treated differently than white people in such incidents. The thought was, once we had conducted the experiment, we could get the story run in the New York Times.
I get it. I think Sophie’s experience with the police was probably quite different from Sandy Holman’s, and also will be quite different from those we observe in our courts. She was quite fortunate that we were able to clarify the matter and that the police quickly saw that this was an honest mistake rather than an attempt to steal a van.
I do think it’s fair to ask these kinds of questions – and, in fact, we need to demand answers. I also think that we need to understand that, for many people, they generally have good experiences with the police and therefore they find it difficult to perhaps understand when some people do not.
One story that was brought to my mind is the night three police officers paid a visit to my house. My daughter, then probably three or four, had been at the city gym and they noticed a bruise on her face. For reasons I don’t understand, the employee called the police and they paid us a visit.
They quickly discovered that my daughter had just the one bruise on her, and that it was likely caused, as we said, by our younger boy hitting her in the face with his sippy-cup. They apologized for the intrusion, gave the kids stuffed animals and went on their way.
Three officers came out, likely because it was me, but in the end it was jarring to have police come to my home, even though they handled it well.
But not every encounter ends well with the police, and when people have to interact over and over and over again, they stop being willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
The use of force changes will be easier to enact than changing these kinds of low level interactions with police, which have a chance to escalate into something very ugly. Especially if one side or the other is having a bad day.
This just further illustrates the complexity of dealing with these sorts of issues. Again, I don’t think people understand how much time I spend talking to the police, trying to understand how things look from their vantage point. I really am hoping we can do more stories in the coming weeks from the vantage point of a police officer making a stop.
We’ll see what the world brings us.
—David M. Greenwald reporting