One of my favorite bloggernacle series of all time was BCC’s Police Beat Roundtable posts which showcased actual descriptions of cases that the BYU campus police responded to. Man, were those hilarious! But they also show a stark difference between the experiences of some communities dealing with the police, and how the police interact with other communities. Here’s just one of these precious morsels for your head-scratching entertainment value.
June 16: A man reported property theft of his bicycle near the JKB. He said the thief took his rear bicycle tire, gears and disk brake mechanism. The thief then replaced these items with a different tire, gears and disk brake and it was of comparable value.
Watching Brooklyn Nine Nine on Hulu the other night, an ad came on  in which a scared elderly white woman calls 911. You can see a shadowy home invader in the background. She’s being robbed, but thanks to Joe Biden (who did not actually say he would “defund the police”), there’s nobody to answer her call, and she’ll probably be killed by this dangerous suburban-infiltrating intruder. I actually laughed out loud. It was such a transparent, fear-mongering straw man, and it was so clear what Trump and/or his campaign thinks of the reality of Americans and the suburbs, and he must think elderly white folks are stupid and easy to manipulate. To me, it revealed an administration that has no respect for the intelligence of the American people, one that thinks frightened old white people can be terrorized into overlooking the fact that we are all stuck at home during a self-inflicted terrible pandemic response.
A few years ago, I called the cops. I was standing near the front of our house, and we have this large double door that’s made of cut glass, so you can kind of see out (Ring wasn’t a thing yet). I had never been home during the day before, but I had taken severance and moved back to the US, so suddenly I was home a lot more. Someone in a hoodie that was pulled down so his face wasn’t visible came up to the front door, just 10 feet away from where I was standing, tried the door, then walked back down the walk toward the street. I was standing there wondering what had just happened. Why was someone wearing a hoodie in 100 degree weather? Why did he jiggle the door handle? There had been two reported break-ins in the neighborhood over the time we had lived there that I had heard of, although I didn’t know the people, and we had been out of the country for 3 years. Although there was no imminent danger, I called it in. Within about 15 minutes, a cop car was parked out front, and two officers asked me what happened. I told them what I saw, and that I didn’t know why someone would do that. One officer reached around to the front of the door and found an advertisement hanging from the handle which he then handed to me. I felt like an idiot. Was I one of these paranoid suburbanite Karens who scans everyone in the neighborhood to see if they look like they don’t belong so I can harass them and chase them off?
Setting that aside, my interaction with the police wasn’t scary. It was pretty dull, all considered. They came in, were friendly, tried to make me feel less like a dolt than I was, and laughed about the door hanger, even saying they’d patrol the neighborhood extra for the next few days which I pointed out was clearly not necessary since it was nothing. They saw me as a non-threat, a peer, a potential donor to their fundraisers, a valued member of the community. What I thought mattered. I was a person to them.
Since George Floyd’s murder, I’ve listened to many interesting podcasts about police training, how policing works today, the dysfunctions of the system, the inherent racist problems, and the structure of the police force that leads to negative outcomes in poor communities. When the pro-Trump ad depicted the frightened old lady in affluent suburbs, what was not portrayed are the communities where policing isn’t working, where reforms are needed and have so far been ineffective. Here are a few things I’ve heard discussed in these various podcasts:
- Broken windows theory has never really been tried. Instead of applying appropriate penalties to small crimes like vandalism, police have used these “small crimes” to apply outsize penalties or to find (or invent) larger crimes. Instead of cracking down on petty crimes, police employ stop and frisk tactics to try to “minority report” crimes that haven’t happened yet or that have no complainant because it’s easier than waiting for a criminal complaint.
- Housing voucher fraud was a concern for a while that was raised (e.g. sub-letting an apartment or having too many people living there using the voucher), so police were told they could do random home checks where voucher users lived to see if housing fraud was happening. Eventually, this became a legal way for police to enter homes and use whatever they saw in plain sight as grounds for arrest, even when there was no criminal complaint!
- In one case, a man had a furniture dolly in his apartment that said “Property of USPS” on it. With no proof and no complaint from the USPS, the police purported it must be stolen, and he must be the thief, so they arrested the housing voucher user on the spot; despite no proof that this item was stolen, this man was eventually convicted and jailed for four years. Using a housing voucher put him in the line of random searches by police officers who needed easy cases to prove their worth to the department and secure future promotions. It ruined his life. By contrast, I had a boyfriend once who had a full on stoplight in his dorm room that he and his friends had taken. Nobody considered him a criminal for it, just a normal college kid doing dumb things with his friends.
- Policing is strongly tied to segregation. When people of color are in the suburbs, they are often treated as if they are suspicious and potentially criminals.
- Even fellow police officers are not immune to this as one black officer found. Even after showing his badge, he was savagely cuffed, head slammed into a cop car, and beaten when he was pulled over on a DUI check after having three drinks and passing a sobriety test.
- Even when people of color make the same amount of money or have the same job titles as white colleagues, they often choose to live in worse neighborhoods with worse schools to avoid the constant racist assumptions and harassment that they “don’t belong” in whiter neighborhoods. As a result, their children often have fewer opportunities and worse outcomes than the outcomes of their white peers. Even if they do live in these affluent white neighborhoods, their experience is often very different from their same age white peers.
- Police brutality is hard to prove and hard to hold officers accountable for.
- Due to the hierarchy involved in policing, if the brutal officer is higher ranking, the others don’t have authority to oppose his or her actions and will face retaliation.
- Because policing can be dangerous, having your fellow officer’s back is trained as the highest priority, not protecting the public, particularly not in neighborhoods considered “dangerous” (poorer neighborhoods where more people of color live).
- Conservatives like to counter “What about black on black crime?” as if to imply that there is something inherently wrong with black culture that leads to crime. The truth is that crimes are disproportionately committed between people who know each other (white on white crime is an equal problem) and that poor communities (where people of color have disproportionate representation) have higher crime levels and are treated as criminal by police departments. Additionally, crimes in poor neighborhoods against others in those same neighborhoods are not policed with the same vigilance. Police forces were originally instituted by the wealthy to protect their property from the poor, laborers, and in the south, to prevent their “property” (enslaved people) from escaping.
- There are fewer murders now than ever in recent times (about half as many as 40 years ago), but fewer murders are actually solved (about half as many). A murder is “cleared” if there is an arrest, even if that arrest never goes to trial.
- If drugs are found on a victim, the murder is chalked up as being “drug-related” which gives the cops a pass for not solving it.
- The war on drugs has created a situation in which conflicts are often resolved through violence. Many murders involving drugs were related to theft or fraud (e.g. someone sold the other person fake drugs), and to get justice, because drugs are illegal, the only way to resolve it was through violence or threats, often involving guns.
- Tip lines are valuable when community trust is high. When police departments are dismissive of the tip line, it indicates that trust is low or that the department hasn’t established a win-win relationship with the community.
- Murders being solved are greatly affected by whether cops have a car assigned to them vs. have to go to the station to get the car. If they are on the scene within 15 minutes, they can talk to witnesses before the witnesses leave and before the witnesses start talking to each other (which often changes their memory of what happened through the power of suggestion).
- When police brutality goes up, informants clam up.
- In communities where police brutality is a known problem (e.g. Minneapolis), citizens stop reporting crimes, including rapes, domestic violence, theft, and even murders.
- 8% of all homocides are committed by police officers. When we say they clear only half of the cases, that includes the 8% they commit.
- Gun culture breeds police gun violence. When anyone cops encounter may have a gun, cops carry guns and act as if anyone they approach does have a hidden gun. In most other countries, cops can carry a baton instead, which is less likely to result in a use of deadly force, even if brutality is still a problem.
- Cops are trained to see every encounter with the public as a possible life-ending threat, which is far more true in poor communities due to the lack of resources in those communities for dealing with conflicts.
- In training, recruits are shown videos of cops who were killed in the line of duty and then shown how the death could have been prevented if the cop had been more vigilant and wary of the public. The focus is not on de-escalation, being conciliatory, listening, mediating or any of the other things we know can reduce violence. The focus is on their duty to protect themselves, their partner, and other cops.
- Cops are trained that camera phones are their enemy and to get around them, they must shout “stop resisting arrest!” even when the person they are handling is not resisting arrest, even as they approach the person. Shouting this is offered as a justification for their aggressive actions, a get out of jail free card that will prevent them being charged for “use of force.”
- Throughout history, police forces have essentially been used to quell any discontent among the poor, those who perform labor, and they have done this using violence. Police have been used to violently break employee strikes when workers felt they weren’t paid enough. Police have been used as personal protection for the wealthy who can use them against those laborers or employees they’ve exploited. And as we all probably know by now, in the South, the original police force was a slave patrol, attacking any Black person who didn’t have a hall pass from his or her master, lest the enslaved people fight back against plantation owners, including using dogs to hunt them down, maul them, and often kill them.
It’s popular in conservative circles to portray police brutality as a problem of a “few bad apples” in an otherwise excellent police force, full of cops happy to die for you who don’t have a “racial bone” in their body.  The problem with this thinking is that the police systems often create and reward bad apple behavior rather than allowing good apples to flourish. Every organization has bad incentives that need to be re-evaluated constantly. With the police, there are bad incentives associated with how we look at departmental performance, how we train, how we handle misdeeds and bad actors, and how police departments are taught to view different communities. Because of these incentives, trying to fix the police system from inside is an exercise in futility. The training, the systems, the hierarchical structure, the performance metrics, the rewards and penalties of the system–all of these things carry more weight than the influence of a single person. In order to have influence, you have to work within those constraints, which are the exact things that make it impossible to change things. If you fight against those constraints, you will simply not have enough influence to make any change.
People in the suburbs, like me, can call the cops if the neighbors are having a loud party or some rando is leaving a door hanger advertisement behind. We have no reason to assume that the cops will come to our house, kick in the door, and start looking for things in plain sight that they think we stole or illegal drugs or a handgun that they think might not belong to us. If I were a person of color, thanks to redlining as well as casual racist attitudes in many suburbs, I might live in an area that the police consider “higher risk” to them. I might not call the police with my complaint. Instead, maybe I would walk over there to tell them to turn the noise down. Maybe I’d bring the gun I keep for personal protection because there has been violence in my neighborhood. Maybe my loud neighbor also has a gun and doesn’t like me asking them to keep things quiet. Maybe one or both of us hasn’t had great role models in how to handle neighborly conflict and rather than being passive-aggressive, maybe the situation will escalate to violence. I, as a neighbor dealing with a loud party house in the neighborhood, would have to evaluate whether the police or the neighbor are the greater threat. That’s a tough call to make in some neighborhoods.
So, how do we reform policing in the US so that they really are protecting our communities and citizens from crime or just protecting wealthy neighborhoods from inconvenience while terrorizing poor ones? If I were running things, here are the suggestions I would pursue:
- Create new performance measures that include community-driven metrics such as number of complaints.
- Publish police statistics that are meaningful to the public, including number of complaints, number of arrests (tied to those complaints), and number of convictions (tied to those arrests). Close off loopholes that allow police to boost arrests through search and enter or stop and frisk when there is no complaint.
- Evaluate every use of deadly force with body cam footage (where possible) and a review by a panel of citizens, not just an opaque internal affairs investigation.
- Treat drug addiction with government-subsidized medical programs. Decriminalize drugs. Allow drug disputes that are criminal in nature (e.g. fraud or theft) to be handled as crimes at that level rather than escalating to murder.
- Eliminate homelessness through free housing immediately, including meds for those who need them. We already know this is less expensive than the alternative.
- Create firewalls around poverty programs like housing vouchers that prohibit using them as a criminal fishing expedition. Protect information about poverty programs like HIPAA laws protect health related privacy.
- Hire officers from in or near the neighborhoods they police.
- Weaken police unions to make it easier to fire bad actors and to hold officers accountable.
Looking at the Church, like the police, it’s an organization that includes good incentives and bad ones. In my mission memoir, I talked extensively about the bad incentives for missionaries. If the worth of souls is great in the eyes of the Lord, the worth of numbers is greatest in the eyes of the missionary program. It leads to “promotion” for elders who perform well. In my mission, if you were a leader who didn’t baptize for a month, you would likely be “demoted” in the next transfer. This meant you would do whatever it took, including baptizing drunks or stealing a baptism out of someone else’s teaching pool if you had to.
As adult members of the Church, there are still incentives and pressures. For example, if your temple recommend lapses (or going back one more step, you miss paying tithing), they will attempt to proactively schedule you for a new one which means you will be asked questions about your beliefs and behaviors. If you decline this, you’ll be deemed unworthy to hold a calling and may be made a special project. You will fall into a less trusted category. Your influence will be diminished. This is just one of the incentives as Church members.
Another incentive with negative outcomes is similar, the BYU ecclesiastical endorsement. If a student’s belief changes, the student’s academic future may be in jeopardy. This motivates students (and possibly faculty) to lie to obtain the requisite endorsement.
- What other types of incentives do you see within the Church?
- Do some of these incentives lead to undesirable outcomes? If so, what?
I wrote this post a week ago, and was shocked/not shocked to see Council Member Tali Bruce’s 38 minute footage of the police brutality that was rained down on peaceful protesters in Cottonwood Heights. Dozens of people were walking and dancing in the street after a memorial for Zane James, a young man who was shot in the back two years ago by Cottonwood Heights PD. The police wrongly told protesters that they could not walk in the street, that they had to walk on the sidewalks (which weren’t large enough to accommodate them). They were told that they were blocking traffic when there wasn’t a car in sight except about a dozen huge police vehicles. Police then “kettled” protesters onto private citizens’ lawns and driveways where they began pepper spraying them, zip-tying them and arresting them after some girls threw water on them from their water bottles. The police had clearly come armed to the teeth and ready to fight.
Police chief Russo’s defense of their actions was filled with lies and segregation thinking. When police see their mandate for “nice neighborhoods” one way (the people who cannot be inconvenienced and who shouldn’t have to see anything that makes them uncomfortable), and their mandate for the “dangerous class” another way–a hunting ground for “criminals” whether they have done something wrong yet or not–(which is in fact how police districts work), we get outcomes like this.
Within conservative Christian groups, segregation thinking of “good neighborhoods” and “bad neighborhoods” links directly to prosperity gospel thinking. If you are poor, you deserve to be poor due to your own moral failings, your own lack of character, your own inability to work hard and pull yourself out of poverty. If you are rich, that’s due to blessings you received from God for your righteousness. The fact that race and poverty overlap so much in the US is bolstered by ideas that people of color just want hand-outs (e.g. “welfare queens”) or have inherent moral failings making their communities broken, not recognizing the impacts of segregation itself, that for multiple generations, people have been forced into poverty. Conservative Evangelicals, whose movement originated in the South, have a well documented history of segregation thinking.
What was even more chilling about the Cottonwood Heights incident was listening to the homeowner who came out to look on. His hostile demeanor changed immediately when he realized the woman addressing him was a Council Member. He could not have been less concerned that officers had slammed young teen girls face down onto his lawn where they were using zip-ties to constrain them after blinding them with pepper spray. These people weren’t his fellow citizens deserving of respect or having their rights protected; they didn’t belong in his affluent neighborhood. They were outside encroachers.
To me, this incident perfectly encapsulated what’s wrong with policing, and a big part of what’s wrong is what affluent white people want it to be. The next day, white pride hate groups assembled to “back the Blue” in a counter protest that would make me utterly ashamed if I lived there, sporting Confederate flag gear and Trump 2020 signs. What are the odds that many of them are Church members in good standing? Given the kinds of things I’m seeing Mormons posting on social media, odds are pretty good.
I’ve seen a new meme popping up among Church members that they will greet those exercising their First Amendment rights (free speech) with their Second Amendment rights (open carry of guns). Is that intended to intimidate people into silence? Absolutely.
- What would you do to reduce police violence?
- How do we establish a police strategy that protects all citizens, not just the upper middle class ones?
 Yes, I’m too cheap to pay for ad-free Hulu.
 Apparently, that’s where racism is housed.
 See also trying to change the Church from within. You may influence a few of your friends and acquaintances or create better discussions in Gospel Doctrine, but you won’t change the Church’s political pet projects, the manuals, the universities and policies, or the culture of leader worship and obedience to human authority. Publicity may shift leader thinking on these issues, but a single individual sitting in a pew who refuses to march to the beat of the drum will just be seen as an outlier. If that person is a bishop, he may create a great ward environment for five years (provided the Stake President approves of his behavior), but then he will slip back into the pool of members while another leader takes that role and shifts the culture to his own comfort level.