José Luis’s voice shook with emotion during his comments to the Board of Teton County Commissioners Monday morning.
The board listened intently, but it was unclear how many commissioners could understand what Luis was saying. (Four of the five commissioners later told KHOL they are not fluent in Spanish. Mark Barron did not reply.)
Luis repeated his comments in English. “I hope you are doing your homework on the racist institutions that undermine minorities in our insulated community.”
“If you felt lost during my comment, think about how the minorities in Jackson feel when you stay silent on policies that greatly affect them,” Luis said.
This is just one of the ways the new grassroots group Act Now JH is holding a mirror up to Teton County, asking residents and public officials to examine the ways racism is built into public agencies.
Informed by a larger global movement to reimagine law enforcement and dismantle institutionalized racism, Act Now JH wants to address those issues locally. They have been speaking at town and county meetings for the past few weeks and inspiring others to speak up as well.
Another valley resident who spoke at the June 22 meeting was Luxianna Watkins. She said that any time she has had an interaction with law enforcement they have asked if she is a citizen, whereas her white friends do not get that question. (By law, people do not have to discuss their immigration status with police.)
“How can I trust [that the police] will not treat me differently based on the color of my skin during a time of crisis?” Watkins asked.
Sheriff Matt Carr says his deputies undergo training to prevent racial profiling. Some of that training happens in police academies and is then enhanced through programs Carr brings to his staff. “We treat everyone the same,” he told KHOL.
He does acknowledge that immigration status crops up in some cases.
“There’s always the challenge of whether [a Latinx person] is here in this country legally or not. So we try to really work as delicately as possible, keeping in mind the respect for human dignity.”
Watkins told commissioners that people of color would be more apt to call for help if they knew they wouldn’t have to interact with law enforcement. “Using police to respond to … medical calls and mental health calls is not only inappropriate, it also sends a message to Black, Indigenous and people of color who are criminalized simply for the color of their skin that those services aren’t for them.”
Wakins’s remarks echo the central message of Act Now JH: stop tasking law enforcement with jobs they weren’t trained to do, and bolster funding for human services instead.
At a June 22 commission meeting, Act Now JH founding member Rachel Attias implored commissioners to do their homework. “Evidence points toward one thing: and that is that defunding police and investing in community service or alternative forms of public safety works, and traditional policing does not,” she said.
The Act Now JH website highlights a 2017 study by the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive think tank focused on racial and economic justice. The study found that among the jurisdictions profiled, police spending vastly outpaces expenditures in vital community resources and services. Authors of the study cite numerous other studies that have found that “access to holistic health services and treatment, educational opportunity, and stable housing are far more successful in reducing crime than police or prisons.”
In Teton County, 22 percent of the general fund is spent on public safety (including search and rescue and the county jail), 17 percent on community development, and 11 percent on health and human services. Per capita spending on public safety is around $347 whereas per capita spending on health and human services is approximately $173.
One of the challenges proponents of “defunding” law enforcement agencies face stems from the term “defund” itself. Attias says there is a crucial difference between reform and defunding and it has to do with the way America views law enforcement. Proponents of “defunding” see a broken system rooted in slave patrols in the South and protection of merchant property in the North.
Cities like Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered by a police officer, tried numerous police reform policies in the past. According to sociologist Alex S. Vitale, those reform measures included implicit bias de-escalation training, tighter use-of-force standards, body cameras, and even early warning systems to identify problem officers.
None of that prevented Floyd’s death.
The debate over reforming law enforcement versus creating new models of public safety has been raging for years. It’s only in recent weeks that it has reached mainstream America.
“This is a conversation that’s been had many, many times for decades,” Attias said. “All the evidence points to the fact that reform doesn’t work. It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.”
A New Discussion
Early signs are that elected officials are listening—and open to enacting new programs and policies.
At the June 22 meeting, Commissioner Greg Epstein expressed interest in a model from Eugene, Oregon, that sends mental health providers rather than law enforcement officers out to mental health-related calls for service.
The Eugene program, CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), started in 1989. According to its website, the program mobilizes two-person teams consisting of a medic and a trained mental health crisis worker. In 2019, out of a total of roughly 24,000 CAHOOTS calls, police backup was requested only 150 times.
Studies show that law enforcement can be deadly for a person experiencing a mental health crisis. A November 2016 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimated that 20 to 50 percent of fatal encounters with law enforcement involved an individual with a mental illness.
Advocates say another advantage to crisis workers responding to mental health calls rather than cops is cost-saving. The CAHOOTS program has saved the city of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million in public safety spending annually.
Epstein asked Carr if he thought such a program could be replicated in Jackson. “I think that’s a wonderful idea,” Carr responded.
In an interview with KHOL, Carr expressed concerns about costs of such a program, as well as the safety of the mental health responders. But overall, he said, “I absolutely support the idea.”
Commissioner Luther Propst also signaled support for a CAHOOTS type of program in Jackson. “Let’s do it,” he said.
From Words to Actions
Despite weeks of concerted public comment calling for a redistribution of law enforcement funding, it is unlikely that further cuts will be made to the sheriff’s budget. All county agencies were asked to cut their budgets to make up for funding shortfalls due to the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting shutdown.
Propst told KHOL he doubted the sheriff’s budget would change during the final budgeting meeting June 30.
“Act Now JH didn’t really appear on our radar screen until about two weeks ago,” Propst said. The last-minute appeal at the end of a months’ long budgeting discussion doesn’t allow time for a thoughtful approach, he said.
Attias is undeterred. She and fellow activists say they realize this will require long-term vision and commitment. While some American cities are disbanding their police departments in response to Floyd’s killing, Attias realizes that isn’t going to happen here immediately.
“I don’t expect our demands to be met right now,” she said. “What we want requires major restructuring of the way law enforcement works here. It’s becoming abundantly clear that this is a long journey we are embarking upon.”
The sheriff responded positively, saying that it was important to hear what Act Now JH had to say and to address their call for next steps.
“That’s something I’d be very open to,” Carr said.
Attias agrees with the idea of forming a task force to study the effectiveness of local law enforcement. “There’s so much we don’t know,” she said. “They’ve just been operating in the same way for years and years and they haven’t been questioned.”
Propst says the county budgeting process overall suffers from a similar lack of analysis. “The current way we allocate funds to the human services groups is not based on any strategy or priorities,” he said. “It’s just like, ‘that’s what we did last year.’”
If Act Now JH is successful in advancing the conversation about redirecting funding from law enforcement, budget increases may be necessary in the transition period. Attias said one idea is to create an alternative public safety force that would operate simultaneously with traditional law enforcement.
“Once that alternative force is robust and established, we can start taking money out of the police force because we won’t need them as much,” she said.
Currently, that model exists only in concept. While commissioners and the sheriff have expressed interest in new models of law enforcement, it remains to be seen what concrete actions they will take.
Latinx community members like José Luis say change can’t come soon enough. Originally from Texas, the 30-year-old moved to Jackson in 2017 for work. “Defunding” law enforcement, he said, is only part of a bigger project to dismantle racist institutions in general.
He said speaking Spanish at the county commission meeting was a symbolic act. He wanted to speak for a part of the community that goes unheard. “If my parents were here this is how they would do it, because they can’t speak English.”
“I think that’s why I got so emotional, because this is about my family.”
The Board of County Commissioners meets Tuesday, June 30, to adopt the 2021 county budget.