Michelle Weber, a 17-year veteran of the Jackson Police Department, was officially sworn in as the town’s new chief of police on Jan. 26. Weber previously served as the department’s training sergeant and was named acting chief of police last July. She is also a veteran of the U.S. Army.
Weber sat down with KHOL News Director Kyle Mackie on Jan. 27 to talk about her priorities for the department, including her plan to build more community trust. The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
KHOL: Michelle, thank you so much for taking the time to join us today.
CHIEF WEBER: Good afternoon, Kyle. Thank you for having me.
KHOL: First of all, congratulations on the new appointment. I understand it’s been a difficult year for the Jackson Police Department, and I wonder if you can share with us what it means for you to be coming to leadership in this difficult time.
WEBER: I am really excited and optimistic to take this position at this time. It’s clearly a unique time in law enforcement just across the—really across the world, but across the nation. And I feel like here locally with a change in leadership, just the community support, the community interaction with organizations and law enforcement, I’m just really excited to take the helm at this time.
Listen below for an extended conversation with Chief Weber:
KHOL: You have also said that your goal is to initiate a cultural shift in the department towards more community oriented policing and transparency. Can you speak a little more about that?
WEBER: Sure. I think there’s two pieces to this. Community engagement is how I like to look at it. I look forward to the opportunities to tap into some of the stakeholders in the community that maybe have not had a voice in the past but are interested in participating in local government and our local law enforcement. So, if anyone’s listening who’s interested, please reach out to me because I’d love to hear from them. And then the second piece to that is the shift within the department has been ongoing for quite some time. So, some of this was put into play prior to me taking the interim chief of police [role]. But we have worked really hard to have all our officers trained in what’s called crisis intervention training, which is an elevated level of training as far as de-escalation. So, so many pieces to the puzzle, but those are a couple of the specifics that I’m just really looking forward to.
KHOL: And as you mentioned, it has been a difficult year for law enforcement. We’ve seen record tensions across the country between law enforcement and many communities in cities across the country, especially communities of color and racial justice advocates. I wonder what you would say to people who may feel like they’ve lost trust in the police.
WEBER: We are—I feel like our police department is very open to community comments, and I encourage people to contact us. Come in and talk to us. And we’ve had protests on both sides, even here locally, right? And we’ve treated, I believe, everyone fairly and given everyone equal treatment, whether it was helping them with traffic control or just making sure that the protests that they wanted to do, which is their right, were safe regardless of which political aisle they were on.
KHOL: One other thing I wanted to ask you about related to this is the Jackson police budget. We’ve seen this term “Defund the Police” become really part of the national conversation over the past year, and I wonder how you are going to tackle that issue locally.
WEBER: Going into COVID, the police department had two positions that we had to freeze because of budget restrictions. So, we were down about 16% going into COVID. And that was prior to any conversations, regardless of a “defund me” type conversations that were going on. But I think it’s really important to, if you understand what the “defund me” movement is, if they want—they want training. They want officers to better themselves, to have more specific training. And you can’t have more specialized training with reduced budgets.
KHOL: Appreciate your candor on that. Another issue I wanted to ask you about that’s also been in the news over the past year, as more and more people are at home during the pandemic, there have been a lot of experts warning about a rise in domestic abuse and child abuse cases, and I wonder if those are trends you’re watching here in Jackson. [Is that] anything of concern for you?
WEBER: Absolutely. One of the other things that I’m really excited about is kind of related to this is that I have added additional personnel from, I’ve taken them from patrol and put them into investigations, where a detective is specialized on domestic violence and sexual assault cases. And the reason for that is because there’s repetition there, right? And additional training. And one of the concerns nationwide is that officers aren’t being empathetic towards victims, and so this is a way for me to ensure that she’s getting additional training and experience in this particular area. But to your question, we have seen an uptick in these types of cases here, particularly within Teton County, as well as I’m going to add the mental health piece into this because it’s super, super important and [there’s] definitely an increase in mental illness in our community. And I’d like to take this time to just encourage people to really look to their friends and look to their neighbors, and if they’re struggling, we have enormous resources here in Teton County to help with that.
KHOL: What specifically is the best way for those folks to find support?
WEBER: Always you can call 911 and law enforcement will be there to help you. If it’s a mental health crisis that you need somebody to talk to a counselor [for], the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center is always available and has a hotline to speak to you. [EDITORS NOTE: The hotline number is 307-733-2046]
KHOL: Great, thank you. What other concerns do you have in the community? Is there anything else you want residents to know, to be aware of as we continue to weather this pandemic together?
WEBER: The obvious one right now, one of the obvious ones, besides the mental health, is just the mask ordinance in general. That’s something that I deal with from where I sit every day. We have businesses that aren’t in compliance or customers who aren’t wanting to wear their masks, and what I would say is—I would urge everyone to please comply with the health orders that are in place, because the last thing that we want is for businesses to shut down and people to lose their jobs even more than they have already. So, I do believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel, but I think that tunnel is a little long right now. It’s not very near. It’s a ways out, but we can weather this storm together if people would just be patient. And I know that’s a hard ask. It’s been—we’re 12 months in the making of this, but please wear your mask and please socially distance and please keep your neighbors and friends in mind when you’re doing that.
KHOL: Listening to the last county COVID update, I believe I heard you say that up until now, the department has really only been issuing warnings when there have been incidents of noncompliance. Can we expect to see the department start issuing fines or other citations?
WEBER: It’s very possible. If businesses are staying open past 10:00 p.m. or violating any of those health orders that we feel like we have probable cause to issue citations, we will issue citations.
KHOL: Well, thank you Chief Weber. It’s been a pleasure to get to know you and chat with you today. We really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us at KHOL.
WEBER: Thank you. Have a great day.