Like every sentient being on the planet, I was and remain appalled by last week’s killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. Making the horrific even worse was that the policeman was abetted by three of his colleagues.
If I were not an elected official, I would not comment publicly – save for adding another voice of condemnation, I don’t feel I have the standing or wisdom to add anything valuable to the conversation. But I am an elected official, and for the last several days I’ve felt torn about how to proceed.
To help resolve my dilemma, I reached out to several people for their thoughts. One was Todd Smith, the Town of Jackson’s police chief.
When the George Floyd tragedy occurred, Chief Smith was on a camping trip, and he was still processing the awfulness when I caught him on Sunday.
The Town of Jackson is extraordinarily fortunate to Chief Smith leading our police department, for he’s a man of great integrity, thoughtfulness, and wisdom. During our conversation, he shared his horror at not just the killing, but the stain it has left on his profession and our nation. It also turned out that he, too, was struggling to figure out next steps.
By the time we hung up, I had made a suggestion and a request.
My suggestion was that he hold some sort of community forum to share his thoughts about the George Floyd killing and, critically, to hear from residents how they felt.
The request was that he write down and share with others the thoughts he shared with me, for I thought they spoke volumes about both him and the department he leads. They also captured the ideal of what a community’s police force could be.
Happily, Chief Smith said “yes” to both suggestions.
To hear from the community, Chief Smith set up a “brown bag lunch” to be held in the Town Council Chambers today, Thursday, June 4, from 12:00 – 1:00 pm.
Making the session even more vital will be the presence of the community’s other major law enforcement officials: Sheriff Matt Carr, Lt. Matt Brackin of the Wyoming Highway Patrol, and Michael Nash, Grand Teton National Park’s Chief Ranger.
What: Community forum on the Minneapolis killing with local law enforcement leaders
Date: Today, Thursday, June 4
Time: 12:00 – 1:00 pm
Location: Jackson Town Hall, Council Chambers
Streaming link: https://www.jacksonwy.gov/290/Watch-a-Meeting-Online
Due to social distancing concerns, live attendance at the Town Hall will be limited to around 25 people.
To allow for as many questions as possible, the law enforcement officials are asking that questions be submitted in writing. You can send yours to Chief Smith at email@example.com
Chief Smith’s thoughts
Below are two notes Chief Smith wrote. One was to the men and women of the Town of Jackson Police Department. The other was to a Town of Jackson resident, who had written to the Town Council expressing his concern for residents’ safety. Here’s an excerpt from the first note:
“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. We have to stop acting like robots and act more like human beings, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. We have to stop talking and spend a little more time listening to people. We have to know that everything we do matters and impacts those around us. And we have to know that the little stuff unchecked will lead to the big stuff tearing us down through a lack of trust…
“The honor will come in doing the right thing when no one is watching. And if you are that person who can’t see the forest for the trees and have no idea what I’m talking about, then do the rest of us a big favor and go to work in a different industry and save us all the hassle of trying to fix you… honestly it’s exhausting.”
A final thought
In closing, we are living through extraordinary times, a weird and awful mash-up of 1918 (the Spanish Flu), 1933 (the worst year of the Great Depression), and 1968 (the worst year of America’s civil unrest). It’s not clear when we will emerge from this, nor what we will look like on the back side (these are topics I’ll address in future newsletters).
What I do know is this. In these difficult and oh-so-pressured times, how well we ultimately do will be a function of our empathy. Our compassion. Our ability to listen deeply and act accordingly.
Courage is not the absence of fear. Instead, it’s being afraid and proceeding anyway. The more we – as individuals and as a community – can step beyond our personal fears to recognize all of us are hurting, all of us are frightened, and most importantly, all of us need each other, the more successful all of us will be.
Thank you, stay healthy, and all the best,
June 1, 2020
To the department,
Having recently returned from a much needed “off-the-grid” camping trip with my wife, I returned to the real world to find that Covid-19 was not the only challenge facing our nation. Thinking nothing could top what we had been enduring the past couple of months with the whole pandemic and self-isolation situation, I sat in horror as I watched what was unfolding on the five o’clock news; protests, riots, burning of our cities, and a general commendation of the police. I had yet to see the George Floyd video to know what had triggered all this chaos in our country. Then I saw the video, and everything came into focus for me.
As I watched a person dressed similarly to us, supposedly standing for all the same things that we stand for, a representative of our chosen profession taking the life of another human being unnecessarily, it made me sick. It made me saddened for Mr. Floyd, and for his family, knowing what they were about to endure. And I knew that this one decision on the part of this person would cost the lives of many good police officers across our nation, because that is what happens when evil rears its head in this form. The innocent are the ones who pay the price.
It also made me beyond angry, knowing that the actions of one asshole would unwind the great work of many who proudly wear a badge and honor what it stands for each time they come to work. That this person could steal from us what we value the most, our integrity and our commitment to protect life and property, even if that means sacrificing our own someday. I also knew that we would not be judged as individuals but instead we would all be lumped together and stereotyped to be like this person because its an easy assumption to make without greater information to contradict it.
I have come to realize that there is something greater that is broken in our society and in law enforcement. Despite the fact that my personal experience has been mostly a positive one, working with some outstanding men and women over the years who believe in the work that they are doing for our community and believe there is still honor in being on the right side of a conflict.
I know that law enforcement is like any other profession, there are good departments and some that fall short of that description. There are even individuals within a “good department” that do not approach their job in the same manner as you and I. They walk up to that line of justifying their actions that are often questionable, all in the name of officer safety or something similar. But what they really suffer from is a lack of creativity in how to solve a problem; a lack of knowing how to use their mind and heart instead of their brawn every time; a lack of empathy for other human beings; and a warped sense of what wearing a uniform and badge really means. They embrace the “us against them” mentality, instead of realizing that it only makes us less safe when we lose the trust of those whom we serve.
But none of that matters now, we get to start all over again building the trust and respect of those in our community, even though the majority of us would never think to do that to another person, this guy’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.
Though much ground has been made up in recent years to maintain honor in our profession and to keep out the proverbial “bad apple” from infiltrating our ranks, there is still work to be done to rid ourselves once and for all of those whom would tarnish the badge and cause the rest of us to be at risk because of it. From how we select a candidate, to how we train the new recruit, and the leadership and tutelage we provide along the way to keep us on track, it all matters now more than ever. If we lose this battle, it might be the one thing that we don’t come back from. The relative safety we get to enjoy may be gone forever if we don’t pull together to show the rest of the world that being a police officer is not about anything other than service and sacrifice, not about dominance over those whom we serve. Yes, we have to be safe and aware of our surroundings, but if we lose sight of what makes us safe, we will all lose in the end if we don’t change our approach to the problem.
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. We have to stop acting like robots and act more like human beings, fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. We have to stop talking and spend a little more time listening to people. We have to know that everything we do matters and impacts those around us. And we have to know that the little stuff unchecked will lead to the big stuff tearing us down through a lack of trust.
Now more than ever, leadership has got to be part of our DNA. We have to be willing to step up and do the right thing when it matters most. From the decisions we make on the street, to how we treat people both internally and externally, and how we go about holding ourselves accountable for our actions when we fall short.
The honor will come in doing the right thing when no one is watching. And if you are that person who can’t see the forest for the trees and have no idea what I’m talking about, then do the rest of us a big favor and go to work in a different industry and save us all the hassle of trying to fix you… honestly it’s exhausting.
I continue to respect those who serve and the difficulty of the job that faces you each shift. I respect those who are willing to show up each day to be part of something bigger than themselves and make a difference for Jackson. Your job has always been difficult, but it just got a lot harder. Look out for each other and look out for those whom we serve. Go and earn the respect that we all want and deserve and bring honor back to our profession one call at a time.
In light of recent and seemingly never ending events involving the murder of marginalized people at the hands of the police, myself and many others I’ve spoken with would like to see a statement or plan from the leadership at JPD about what steps they are taking to ensure one of these incidents never happens in our community. The murder/lynching of Ahmaud Arbery by a retired LE officer and his son is terrifyingly similar to the event in Jackson involving Colorado police officer Vanessa Schultz chasing down the unarmed and innocent teen Gerardo Becerra and holding him at gunpoint. The fact the victim Becerra was cited by JPD and prosecuted for marijuana possession from the incident, while JPD allowed Schultz to walk free without charges is absolutely disgusting, and is something that unfortunately reflects back on you all as our local governing force.
With the police department hurting for new deputies, we worry more now than ever that those outside our community, who don’t reflect our values, and could be closeted racists or sociopaths could soon be armed walking our streets because a lack of better candidates, is truly terrifying for myself and marginalized / POC in Jackson. Additionally, I would encourage you all to question the actual need for additional deputies in our largely peaceful town, and if those funds could be better used to prevent alcoholism, domestic violence, and poverty (the main sources of crime in our community) before they become a problem the police have to deal with.
Hope you are all staying happy and healthy thru these uncharted times!
May 31, 2020 – Response from Chief Smith
I was forwarded your email by a couple of our Council members and wanted to take a moment to try and answer your questions and address any concerns you may have.
Let me get it out of the way and start by telling you that I don’t condone what I saw occur by the police officer in Minneapolis when he killed Mr. Floyd needlessly. In fact it disturbs me greatly to think that anyone would do that to another human being, police officer or not. It only makes matters worse to know that it was someone who was supposed to be upholding the law and representing a symbol of trust.
I have been a police officer my entire adult life and it has not been my personal experience to work with people who would derive any pleasure out of taking someone’s life, regardless of the circumstances, but I not naive enough to think they don’t exist, clearly they do. But police departments are like any other industry, there are good ones and there are bad ones, but we certainly are not all the same. Generally, departments are a microcosm of the community they serve, and we are extremely fortunate to live where we do. We enjoy a culturally strong community, and our police and sheriff’s departments are a reflection of those western values. Within my professional circles, all of the police officers I have conversed with about this situation all hope that the Minneapolis officer is prosecuted for his actions and some semblance of justice can be found for Mr. Floyd and his family.
I will go so far as to say that it pisses me off that this officer did this, leaving the rest of us who genuinely want to serve for the right reasons holding the bag and being judges as if we are all alike. The bright spot is we are not, and there really are some great people serving for the right reasons, going out each day and trying to do good things in their communities. That is not to say that being a police officer is always easy, it’s not. We often get called to a pre-existing problem that has gotten out of control between two parties and we are asked to solve the problem without any controversy, and the real world is not always that simple. Substance abuse is often a common denominator at many of the calls we go on that make resolution complicated at times and can lead to conflict.
I consider the Jackson Police Department to be a values centered organization and we strive to police in a manner that hopefully brings solutions to problems, not contribute to them or make them worse. We believe in maintaining a community standard that we all want and desire through application of our laws, and try to go about our job of policing in manner that allows for policing within the spirit of the law, not necessarily the letter of the law, but there are many rules and regulations that guide us on this journey.
As for hiring, we have worked at a deficit (staffing wise) for many years and it is nothing new for us to contend with. As you are well aware, it is not easy to live in Jackson with the limited housing and high cost of living, all on a salary that does not leave much at the end of the month to enjoy the things we all moved here to enjoy. I feel no pressure to hire a warm body to simply fill a vacant position and would much rather operate short of staffing than contend with someone who is a poor fit for our agency and community. I am not suggesting to you that a bad apple cannot circumvent our processes for hiring, but there are many steps in place to try and reduce that likelihood. Wyoming has a Police Officer and Standards Commission (POST) that creates standardizations in hiring requirements. There are very few jobs in the world that filter and vet people more than law enforcement does. Every new hire must meet educational requirements, pass written exams, physical exams, psychological tests and interviews, a detailed background, drug testing, polygraph exam, an oral board that includes members of the public on it, and a Chief’s interview.
That’s all just to get an initial job offer, as you still must go through a police academy for months and a very rigorous field training program for several more months before you ever work a single shift alone. The entire process is designed to test and evaluate the performance of the recruit all along the way, watch for concerns, or performance related issues. Each candidate receives a score on their performance on a daily basis throughout the entire FTO program. My point is that there is no plan to or pressure to hire the wrong people, quite the contrary if you look at the extensive one year process for hiring and training a new officer that takes place.
You also asked about Schultz/Becerra case, so I will offer what insight I have about the case. There was much discussion about Schultz being a police officer in Colorado, but it really had no bearing on what transpired in Wyoming, as Schultz had no authority to act as a peace officer in Wyoming, but Wyoming does allow a citizen to make a citizen’s arrest under certain circumstances. All of Schultz’s actions that day are measured by that standard, as they should be. One requirement is that the citizen has probable cause to believe a felony is being committed. Schultz claimed she thought a robbery was occurring, which is what our officers responded to thinking they would arrive to see. It wasn’t until we got there and began to size up the situation after talking with various parties and witnesses that suggested that was not the case. But “probably cause” is measured by the person assessing it, and not the privilege of hindsight. I actually believe the state statute is poorly written and could be improved upon by the Wyoming Legislature, as the term “probable cause” is generally reserved for law enforcement to determine if enough information exists to arrest or cite a person for a crime based upon a person with the same set of facts in front of them would come to the same conclusion. It is not generally used for the measure of what a “citizen” believed to be true before acting, again, it could be improved upon in the language used in the statute.
It is this very issue that created a quandary for our agency. We believed Schultz’s actions were not reasonable once we heard her version of the events, but we could not arrive at our own probable cause that she had violated the citizen’s arrest provisions since it is her probable cause, not ours that the statute points to. However, we did write up the case and sent it to the Teton County Prosecutor to consider the case for prosecution if the prosecutor felt they could overcome this language issue in the statute.
When the case got sent to a special prosecutor in Fremont County, I vehemently disagreed with the prosecutor’s explanation of why he would not prosecute Schultz, as I felt that he was applying the standard of a police officer “reasonable suspicion” (lesser than probable cause) to the actions of Schultz, when she deserved no consideration of this standard, as case law only used the term “reasonable suspicion” to apply to a police officer for detaining a person who is believed to be committing, about to commit, or did commit a crime. The only standard the prosecutor should have been looking at is “probable cause”, but he admitted to me that I was “technically correct”, but he felt that Schultz’s actions had good intentions to help our community and were not done in malice.
In the end, the JPD will be the best witness for the civil case brought by Becerra against Schultz as a result. I do not want to give you the impression that I think that Schultz was trying to be a bad person or demonize her. I do not, and think she thought she was helping our community in some way by stopping a “robbery”. I would not have done what she did, and would never think to go to Colorado and try to become directly involved in stopping crime there unless I thought someone’s life was in imminent danger if I did not act. But I think she seriously overreacted to what she saw and heard and completely misread the situation. As I understood it, she was fairly inexperienced and it showed to us all with more time on the job.
As for Becerra, he was a juvenile when this case occurred, so state law forbids me from going into very much detail about his case, but much of the information I can divulge is already out there as public record, so I feel somewhat comfortable discussing it to that degree. Yes, Becerra received a misdemeanor citation for possession of a controlled substance because he was already on felony probation in Wyoming for delivery of a controlled substance and his possession of any new controlled substance violated his felony probation status, which is court ordered to report any violations of that probation to the court who placed him on probation. He also had warrants for his arrest for failing to appear in court that we did not discover until later after the fact. Issuing him the misdemeanor ticket was the least restrictive way to get him to court to address his probation issues, as we would have had to arrest him if we charged him with violating his felony probation instead. None of us thought that was the best thing given his situation and went with the least restrictive approach.
As for the case in Idaho that you referenced, I do not believe that has anything to do with his citation he received in Wyoming for violating his felony probation and it would be more likely that it is a separate and distinct criminal violation that occurred in Idaho. The only other explanation could be that he may have petitioned his felony probation to be transferred to Idaho to be monitored there instead of in Wyoming, which is fairly common when someone moves to a new state, but it generally only applies to felony probationers, not misdemeanor probationers who are placed on “unsupervised probation” vs felony probation that is supervised and requires the checking in with a probation officer on a regular basis.
I hope that Becerra is successful in his civil suit against Schultz, as I do not support the choices she made that day to detain Becerra.
I am more than happy to sit down with you and chat further if time permits for you. I am in the office all this week and you can just stop by and ask for me if that is something you want to do.
I hope you stay healthy during these very trying times for our nation and thank you for caring enough to reach out to us all.