‘We will own up to it’; Southern Utah law enforcement comes to grips with race relations

Protesters demonstrate against police brutality in downtown St. George, Utah, June 4, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — With all of the four fired Minneapolis police officers involved in George Floyd’s death facing felony criminal charges, the debate on police conduct rages on across the country – including in St. George and Cedar City.

Interim St. George Police Chief Kyle Whitehead gives the Black Lives Matter protesters thumbs up after taking a knee with them, which sparking cheers from the crowd downtown St. George, Utah, June 4, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

For devotees of national news, the perception from nearly everyone interviewed during the civil unrest is how the criminal justice system needs reform and that everyone wearing a badge is a “bad” cop.

St. George Interim Police Chief Kyle Whitehead agrees that the system needs reforms, but disagrees that “all” police officers are bad cops.

“I hope the community will be cautious about judging any organization by a few bad apples,” Whitehead said. “I hope if people have issues or concerns about our department they will bring it forward. We’ve always taken a quick approach to look into problems before by conducting a very throughout and transparent investigation.

“If we’ve made a mistake we will own up to it, always. The goal then is to make sure we don’t make the same mistake again,” he said.

Whitehead added that he believes there are “thousands” of police across the country who serve their communities faithfully, but “unfortunately there are some police officers who should not be in the profession.”

Not to be an apologist, he said, over the past several decades with tight job market conditions it has become a challenge to fill police positions with “quality” candidates. In St. George, Whitehead added, the hiring process is extensive and thorough.

“I worry sometimes that police departments are looking at hiring people who traditionally they would not have hired,” Whitehead added. “I don’t know if this is the problem, but it makes me wonder.”

Across the city, St. George police enjoy widespread support, but that support does have conditions, said local white resident Cameron Phillips.

“I will support our police always,” Phillips said. “It makes me angry to see people protesting who want to take away their funding. That is not right. They protect us, but if we find that they act to harm us then that’s a game-changer. We need to let the bad apples go. They don’t belong here.”

Finding the bad apples

According to national news, some of the officers involved in Floyd’s death had a recorded history of questionable behavior.

Former senior lecturer and professor with Arizona State University – Lake Havasu School of Criminology & Criminal Justice Danny Pirtle, an expert on police and community relations, admits while understanding between the two groups has gotten better since the protests of the 1960s there is more to do and more healing to happen. Lake Havasu, Ariz, Nov. 16, 2016 | Photo by David Louis, St. George News

We’ve seen this movie a “million” times said Danny Pirtle, an African American and former senior lecturer and professor with Arizona State University – Lake Havasu School of Criminology & Criminal Justice.

“We will be talking about police and minority relations just like we are talking about it now for decades,” Pirtle said. “Likely there will be Congressional hearings and some police chiefs will be fired. But, sooner than later there will be yet another incident of a black man losing his life at the hands of the police.”

Read more: Recent notable riots sparked by police action

According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, there are 790 African Americans living in Washington County with a median age of 22, compared to 123,914 identified as white with a median age of 34.

Other race population demographics include Hispanic 13,486, American Indian 1,869, Asian 982, Pacific Islanders 1,078 and native Hawaiian 166.

“One of the things that I try to explain to our officers and staff is that we may look at someone and think they are different, but the real issue is how people see us,” Whitehead said. “We are all different in our own unique ways. We all come from different backgrounds and different cultures … and we as a society need to remember this fact.”

Although St. George 20 years ago was predominantly white, it has become more diverse, Whitehead added.

“One thing I try to encourage our officers who I think are doing a good job is, regardless of who they encounter in our community, everyone needs to be treated with integrity and respect,” Whitehead said. “We should treat everyone like they are family; like they are a friend.”

If police officers address every interaction with suspects, approach every traffic stop, and take every chance to meet the community in an honest and respectful way it will be “very” difficult to get into trouble and they can also prevent questionable issues and actions from happening, Whitehead added.

“Like family, they can push our buttons and we may not see eye-to-eye, but at the end of the day we need to be a little more patient and a lot more tolerant,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that society is getting to a point that if we don’t share the same ideas suddenly we are labeled and hated. It is almost like we cannot have a conversation anymore.”

While it is usually unjustified to classify any organization as “all bad,” Pirtle said, the problem is how do you determine what is “bad.”

“If police remain complicit in their fellow officers’ actions – those who have a documented history of aggression toward minorities – are they bad as well?” Pirtle said. “You cannot say an entire police department is bad, but the problem is when we run into police officers who know those who (in their ranks) are bad. Will they say something? Never, and this paints the picture that all police are bad.”

But, some community activists, such as 17-year-old Jalen Thompson from O’Fallon, Missouri, says the paradigm that all police are bad is changing.

Last week, Thompson was joined by approximately 2,000 others who held a peaceful march.

O’Fallon Police Chief Tim Clothier joined the demonstration to show solidarity with the marchers and told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he condemned the officers’ actions in Minneapolis.

“We do not believe in what happened,” Clothier said. “It was an embarrassment to our profession.”

Similar demonstrations of solidarity by police have been reported across the country, including in St. George when Whitehead took a knee with protesters on Thursday.

Still, for law enforcement there is a “mountain to climb,” Pirtle said. “Sometimes perception is reality.”

Nearly 6-in-10 Americans believe police officers are more likely to use excessive force against a black person than a white one when faced with a dangerous situation, according to a new Monmouth poll.

The poll finds that 57% of Americans believe that protesters’ anger is “fully justified,” while another 21% say it is “partially justified,” and 18% say the anger motivating protests is “not justified.”

The percentages are up by about a third of Americans who said the same in a similar poll conducted in 2016.

NBC News has reported that three-quarters of Americans — 76% — say racial discrimination is a major problem in America, up from 68% in 2016.

“I don’t see improving community relations as a “panacea,” Pirtle said. “Most people who are born into a certain class will die in that class. We know that. But, we shouldn’t be put in the situation that we are never going to escape the inequities while also being treated as second-class citizens by law enforcement. Just treat me as a human being. Enough is enough.”

Fear of when being black is a crime

Tasha Toy, a “proud” African American woman and Dixie State University vice president for campus diversity believes the fear is more fundamental than police/community relations.

Tasha Toy, assistance vice president of campus diversity and Inclusion Center director, speaks at Dixie State University, April 1, 2019 | File photo by Markee Heckenliable, St. George News

When her loved ones leave the “perceived” safety of their home, her blood pressure rises.

“We don’t want to go back to a place where moms worried about our police lynching us,” Toy said. “When (violence) involving the police happens, who do we turn to for help?”

The wife of a black man, Toy’s guard against violence, whether from police or anyone else, cannot “ever” be let down.

“When my husband goes out and he’s not back when I expect him my heart skips a beat,” Toy said. “I start calling his cellphone. I start texting him and asking when he’s come back home because as a black person you just don’t know if something has happened.”

Since the black race cannot change the color of their skin, Toy added, “we have to change society” along with how the police view African Americans, especially black youth, during daily interactions.

According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, (PNAS), the official journal of the National Academy of Sciences, police violence was the leading cause of death for young men in the United States.

Approximately 1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police, according to a recent PNAS report. The risk of being killed by police peaks between the ages of 20-35 for men and women and for all racial and ethnic groups.

Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police. Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men.

St. George resident Andre Rashad, 61, has lived with racism and police aggression all of his life.

Although he feels a sense of inclusion in St. George and a “great” respect for its police department, his head is on a “constant swivel” after a lifetime of social racism and police bias whenever he goes to the store to shop for groceries, gets gas for the family car, or joins in on his children’s school events.

This is not the way to live, he added.

“All I want to do is live a peaceful life, raise my kids to be good, honest people and to be kind to everyone regardless of who and what they are,” Rashad said.

“Most police I’ve met, most white people I know, are honorable, but I have been detained by officers from being in a neighborhood that people who look like me don’t usually visit. I’ve been beaten and my family has suffered violence simply because our skin is different,” he added.

The reason things are different now is that everything is focused on not just police brutality but also accountability. This focus played on nightly television news, written in newspapers across the country and splashed 24/7 on social media is shaping the current narrative, Toy said.

“Things have escalated to another level because the people who are supposed to protect us are the police,” Toy said. “We tell our children they are here to help you, they are not here to hurt you, they are someone with the superhero mentality that we place upon them, but what happens can be different.”

St. George Police Lt. Johnny Heppler takes a moment to speak with Troy Anderson, the head of the new Southern Utah chapter of Black Lives Matter, during the BLM protests against police brutality in downtown St. George, Utah, June 4, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Police officers say they a very visible group in the community which sometimes takes on a lot of negativity.

Being a superhero may place too many expectations on what can be a challenging job, Whitehead said.

“We are on the frontlines,” Whitehead added. “As much as we would like to get out and have positive interactions, it’s tough sometimes. It’s hard enough keeping up with the things we have to do, which unfortunately is viewed as negative. We want to be sensitive to all of the issues, to protect everyone regardless of who they are and what they believe. You can’t do anything with a heavy hand.”

This time in history has reminded us that we are all humans, Whitehead said. Unfortunately, he added, a lot of times we still label people and what they represent.

“Sometimes we label people as objects versus human beings who just want to be heard and who want to be respected,” he said. “By wearing the uniform there is enough of a barrier. When I make a traffic stop, which I still do, I introduce myself by my first name. ‘Hello, I’m Kyle with the police department.’ I don’t think it hurts to be personal. I think there is value in finding ways for more human interaction.”

Recent research supports Whitehead’s views.

Despite these experiences, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey finds that a majority of officers retain a generally positive view of the public. About 7-in-10 reject the assertion that most people can’t be trusted.

Rather than viewing the neighborhoods where they work in what is believed as “hostile territory,” the survey reported approximately 7-in-10 officers said at least some or most of the residents share their values.

The survey also found that officers were divided over the use of more aggressive and potentially more controversial methods to deal with some people or to use in some neighborhoods in their communities.

A majority of officers, 56%, agreed that aggressive tactics are more effective than a more courteous approach in certain areas of the city, but 44% disagree with this belief.

Another 44% agreed or strongly agree that some people can only be brought to reason the hard, physical way. Younger, less experienced, lower-ranking officers were found to be “significantly” more likely to favor a confrontational approach than older, more experienced officers.

Finally, more than 9-in-10 residents believed it is important for an officer to know the people, places and the culture in the areas where they work in order to be effective at their job.

Crowds demonstrate along St. George Boulevard in solidarity with national protests in the death of George Floyd, St. George, Utah, May 30, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“Having a voice that is heard goes hand-in-hand with respect,” Toy said. “If you do not respect me, you are not going to hear me. As a society, you may hear my yells, you may hear my cries and you may hear my chants, but often you are not going to really listen to what I am saying.”

Everyone on both sides of the issue is grappling how skin color affects police interactions and outcomes, but most also agree there is hope. “How can there be anything but hope,” Toy said.

“As long as people have breath on this Earth, regardless of their skin color, there is hope,” Toy added. “If I fall, others will take up the cause. Unfortunately, because hate is taught and perpetuated I am always going to have a job.”

Whitehead also agrees in the power of hope.

“I feel if there isn’t hope we are all bound to fail,” he said. “We are the author of our own destiny, but it is amazing what a positive attitude can do. We’ve got to be patient and start working on the issues, but (society) has to realize change takes time.”

Change will only happen, Toy added, through the ballot when people vote for politicians who share similar values.

Change will also happen, she said, when communities have an “active” voice, stand up in “social activism, not just by protesting but by showing up at city council meetings” and speaking out against the “injustice and inequalities” everyone suffers, not just minorities.

The well-used saying, Toy said, “First they came for this group, and then they came for the next group and nobody said anything. Then when it was your turn nobody was left to speak for you. If we don’t speak up, they are going to keep coming for everyone who is different.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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