On Monday, January 11th, nearly 50 people gathered at the University of Utah’s Neighborhood Partners-Hartland Center on the west side of Salt Lake City to explore police/community relations in the community.

IMG_20160111_190433642Alongside 6 members of the Salt Lake City police force, there were 41 community members – 88% of whom were non-white.  At least 10 nationalities were represented in the room – including participants from Iran, Iraq, Mexico, Guatemala, Columbia, Burma, Somalia, South Sudan, and the Republic of Congo.  The group also included three leaders of Village Square, Utah – Ross Collier, Casherie Bright and myself, Jacob Hess – alongside our wonderful community partner from Utah Humanities, Jodi Graham.

Salt Lake City Chief of Police Mike Brown attended, with a deputy officer and a number of other people on the squad, including a victim’s advocate. Dr. David Parker, head of a community advisory group for the department also participated – with Dr. David Derezotes, head of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Utah, acting as moderator.  Dr. Dave invited Village Square Utah to partner with them in this event – and help spread the word about it to the local community.

During the first part as people were arriving, participants mingled over brownies, cookies and chips (for the wicked among us) and fruit (for the righteous).  After everyone was seated, Dr. David invited everyone to introduce themselves briefly, with the police guests asked to tell us “what they would first buy after winning the lottery.”  David then began by asking the police representatives to comment on some questions of particular interest in the audience (which included social work students at the U) – domestic violence and child abuse laws.  IMG_20160111_190648271

In an audience that also included many refugees and immigrants, one of the predominant themes across the conversation was a fear of the community members at the consequences of interacting with police.  Two different fathers expressed concern, given significant cultural differences, that their children would call authorities simply because parents were not giving them everything they wanted (fearful of an over-reactive arrest).  Police representatives detailed what arrest was – and clarified that not anything led to an arrest.  Even so, the fear was still quite palpable.  One man said, “even if I have a problem, I’m not sure I want to go to police, because I’m worried they will misunderstand and I will get in trouble.”

Having moved recently from Pennsylvania, Dr. Parker acknowledged differences in Utah laws – and how it made him nervous not to understand them:  “I understand 99% of rules and still feel new. Thinking of many of you here, if I didn’t know the rules, I would be nervous.”  He asked the group, “How can people better learn the rules?”

This prompted some productive conversation and quite a bit of laughter as different participants shared scenarios from their families – and one African woman telling one of the police officers, “you are under arrest!”

Several people spoke of creating opportunities (like that evening’s conversation) to cultivate relationships where people were not intimidated – what one man described as “something besides just police and community.”  David Parker illustrated by describing the turkey bowl they do every Thanksgiving – bringing together community and police in one part of Salt Lake City.

The police chief, Mike Brown, acknowledged that even while police vehicles and technology had progressed in leaps and bounds over recent decades, they hadn’t seem the same growth in community relations:  “we haven’t done a good enough job investing in the community.  The [police-community] trust is flat with Caucasian – and has dropped with minority groups.”

Brown added, “there are two things police hate: change and the way things are.”  He went on to say that for a group that is required to respond almost immediately to very high conflict situations, it’s true they can get rigid.  He admitted that police sometimes can act like, “warriors in the community instead of guardians.”

He also spoke of a training in Washington D.C. that made it very clear how much we all operate out of biases: “I’ve got my biases – and we all do.  The important thing is being aware of them.”

Although the conversation stretched beyond the allotted 90 minutes, we only scratched the surface.  There were more questions than we had time to address.

One participant commented after the conversation that she was “bothered by no mention of local police tragedies” and talk that only mentioned other locations like Ferguson, “rather than acknowledging that harm has happened here and the steps the force is taking to prevent and reprimand abuse of power.”  She also hoped to see more discussion about a “legitimate community fear of police and how to systematically improve” as well as conversation about “how to help community feel safer and actual crime rates, community policing, etc.”

While appreciating the police chief’s humility, I was also curious about whether they got frustrated in today’s media environment where very often the police are unilaterally portrayed as “the bad guy.”  Although some of the changes to police tactics have been hailed for improved safety, I wanted to ask the squad whether they perceived some of the changes happening across the nation as making communities less safe (e.g., police fearful to engage – in a way that encourages crime).  [My gut tells me that both are happening – good changes that are improving safety, alongside other changes that might have an ironic effect…curious at others’ perceptions?]

Despite innate limitations, there were definite positives about even just the evening’s simple conversation.  David Parker concluded with a hope that “everyone leaves today with slightly different attitude about everyone in the room – including those who are always wearing a different color” (motioning over to the blue-clad law enforcement officers in the room).

The evening ended with Chief Burbank gave out his phone number to everyone in the room.

If you’d like to support involved in more of these conversations in the future, contact us or add your thoughts in the comments below. This is not just a one-time event – but something Dr. David(s) hope will be a continuing and unfolding process over the months ahead.  To find out more – contact David Derezotes at David.Derezotes@socwk.utah.edu or David Parker at d4avid@gmail.com

If you’d like to do something sooner than later, there’s no need to wait!  Here is some guidance on conversation you can do in your own neighborhood and home.