In the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minnesota police officers, Jackson law enforcement are worried about a breakdown in public trust.
“I am deeply concerned about the situation in Minnesota and the death of Mr. Floyd,” Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr said. “We want to ensure that we do not lose the trust of our local community as we move forward through this tragedy.”
The killing of Floyd has sparked protests across the world decrying police brutality and demanding racial justice. Police departments nationwide find themselves once again in the spotlight. Images from protests in some cities have shown officers taking a knee or marching with protesters. Other footage depicts a disturbing side of law enforcement.
A viral video alleges police shot mace directly into the eyes of protesters, including children. Meanwhile, a police officer in Denver was fired this week for his social media post featuring three officers in riot gear with the caption, “Let’s start a riot.”
At a Black Lives Matter protest in Jackson on Sunday, police kept a low profile. Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith said several protesters thanked his officers for their service. When the protesters chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” however, Smith said officers perceived it as a negative response toward them. “But we actually get that a lot and we don’t really pay it much attention after we hear it so often.”
The phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot” originated from the 2014 police killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Some eyewitness accounts say Brown had his hands in the air when Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed him. The slogan is regularly used in rallies protesting police violence.
Though Jackson has no police reports of police killing an unarmed civilian, the town and county are not immune from the reverberations of Floyd’s death. Like Carr, Smith is concerned about the effect the killing will have on public trust of his officers.
“I want the world to know that the guy in Minnesota who had the police uniform on, it’s not me,” Smith said, referring to Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
“I am mad for Floyd’s family,” Smith said. “I’m mad for our industry, and I’m mad for our nation. That is not what good police work should look like.”
The nationwide protests aim to call out a well-documented pattern of police violence against black people—with a spate of killings in the past few weeks—and seek to redress institutionalized racism within police departments. Smith, however, referred to Chauvin as a rogue actor. In a letter to his department, he said that watching the video of Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck infuriated him because of how it would reflect on police as a whole.
“Even though the majority of us would never think to do that to another person, this jerk’s knee on the neck of George Floyd was the equivalent of all of our knees being the ones snuffing the life out of Mr. Floyd, at least that is how society will view it,” Smith wrote.
Smith does not think that institutional racism is widespread. Instead, he says law enforcement is a microcosm of society, and that police departments are likely to have the same number of racists as in the community at large.
“My personal experience has been that good policing isn’t about walking up to a car and treating that person any differently because of their skin color,” he said. “I try to teach people that race is irrelevant. We need the size situation up accurately and apply the law in a fair and unbiased way.”
How law enforcement officers are trained is a systemic problem, Smith said. Speaking with KHOL, he said police training programs put a disproportionate emphasis on firearms and defensive tactics, and don’t focus enough on de-escalation techniques and how to deal more sensitively with the public.
“You’re taking this impressionable 20-something-year-old who has very few life experiences and training him to think everyone wants to kill him.”
According to Smith, the reality of policing is a lot of desk work or answering quality of life calls like a complaint about a neighbor with their music turned up too loud.
In his letter to his department, Smith wrote, “We have to stop being so fearful that someone is going to hurt us that we instill fear in them instead, and as a result the situation becomes less safe for us all.”
Both Carr and Smith said they vet new hires carefully and provide ongoing training about issues like racial profiling. Both departments have internal review processes in place to learn from each incident in which an officer uses force. They scrutinize what went right and where mistakes were made.
Living in a small community and knowing their team members on a first name basis creates a protective layer, they said.
“I believe in the supervision that we have,” Carr said. “We get to know our officers and they become part of the community.”
Still, Carr acknowledged that what he called “bad apples” happen everywhere, including small towns. “We’ve had to fire officers.”
There are zero people of color on the county law enforcement team, a fact Carr regrets. “We have been actively recruiting in the Latino community,” Carr said. Despite his efforts, he doesn’t get many applications. “It would be a huge win if I could have somebody Spanish speaking working at the front desk.”
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates say 15 percent of the county’s population are of Hispanic origin. Community advocates say Latinx people actually comprise roughly 30 percent of the area’s population.
Lack of affordable housing and low pay could be factors in his recruitment challenges. Carr said the town pays a special stipend to Spanish speakers. He has been pushing the county to do the same, “for quite some time.” Though there are several people of color in the Jackson Police force, Smith said just two patrollers speak Spanish.
In a county where only 0.8 percent of the population is African American, according to U.S. Census estimates, racism faced by black residents may go unnoticed or unreported. Vice Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson said she feels sick about Floyd’s death. “You read about these things, but we don’t necessarily see it here.”
Moving forward, Levinson said the Jackson Town Council will likely be addressing more human policy issues. Whereas historically the council has focused on land development regulations, there has been a shift in recent years to community issues like enacting a nondiscrimination ordinance. “I want to look towards things like a direct policy around racial justice or inequalities in our community.”
For his part, Smith is addressing the current moment by hosting a brown bag lunch in the town council chambers on Thursday at noon. He and Carr will be on hand to answer questions from the public about local law enforcement in the wake of Floyd’s death and the continued protests. Due to public health orders, town hall can only accommodate 25 members of the public. The meeting will be live-streamed and people can comment online as well.
If Sunday’s rally is any indication, it’s likely county residents will have a lot to say at the event. Levinson says she is encouraged by the public response to Floyd’s death. Though Jackson is fortunate not to have had such an incident, Levinson says people can’t rest on their laurels.
“You can’t think it won’t happen here,” she said. “You have to figure out active ways to make sure it doesn’t happen.”