“An Abolitionist Look at the Recommendations from the Salt Lake City Racial Equity in Policing Commission”
The Racial Equity in Policing Commission was created in the summer of 2020 after countless protests against police violence and calls for defunding the Salt Lake City Police Department (SLCPD). They formed with a mission to “address and improve the disparate outcomes seen in the interactions between the Salt Lake City Police Department and communities of color compared to White [sic] residents, as well as the internal disparities that exist within the department.”
They have presented recommendations to the city council several times, but published their first set of recommendations for the public on March 2nd, 2021. You can read it in full here.
There are three main areas of concern that the commission presented recommendations for. They are:
- DEMOGRAPHIC CONCERNS RELATED TO FIELD TRAINING OFFICERS (FTO)
- TRAINING CONCERNS RELATED TO CRISIS INTERVENTION TEAM (CIT)
- TRAINING CONCERNS RELATED TO EQUITY, IMPLICIT BIAS, AND COMMUNITY POLICING
We, as residents of Salt Lake City, participants in the 2020 protests, and voices of the demand to defund the SLCPD, contend that these recommendations are inadequate. The commission’s conclusion that lack of diversity and training at the SLCPD exposes their fundamental misunderstanding of the reasons why SLCPD continually harasses, incarcerates, and commits violence against our city’s communities of color. We offer an abolitionist perspective on the root cause of police violence. We urge readers to consider non-state community-based support systems as an alternative to calling the police.
Below we break the commission’s concerns down one by one.
Demographics of the Field Training Officers
The first area the board has concern for is related to the demographics of the Field Training Officers (FTO). These are the officers who lead the Training Academy for new recruits. They found that out of 67 FTO officers with the SLCPD, six are POC. Their recommendation is to create a process for targeted outreach to officers of color to increase the diversity of the program.
The belief that guided this recommendation is that by “ensuring the broadest demographics possible within those officers, it will send an unconscious message to the new recruits that diversity is an important factor for SLCPD, that it is not essentially a White-only [sic] police department, and officers and communities of color are important in the fabric of SLCPD.”
WHY and HOW are officers and communities of color important in the fabric of SLCPD? Instead of sending unconscious messages about inclusivity or diversity in a police force that continually perpetuates violence against communities of color, we should be making material changes to prevent the police department’s violence in the first place. The FTO training recommendation is nothing more than an extended and expensive PR campaign. It is about optics, and an attempt to fix the image of and community trust in police.
This recommendation does nothing to address the source of community distrust in police—such as the average 13 police killings of Salt Lake residents every year. This recommendation is NOT about making substantial changes. NOT to better hold police accountable for the racist things they do. NOT to alleviate poverty and make our community safe. NOT to create better pathways for people coming out of jails and prisons to success, an issue that impacts BIPOC disproportionately.
There is no evidence that a diverse police force is less harmful. Rather than tokenize the recruitment process by targeting communities of color, the city could invest in programs that those communities are already trying to build to look out for and take care of each other. This could include survival groups providing mutual aid, violence prevention programs, and housing resources for survivors of abuse.
Training Concerns Related to the Crisis Intervention Team
The Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) is a unit under the police department where a detective is paired up with a social worker. In theory, this is supposed to be a deterrent to arrest and involvement with the criminal justice system. The team is supposed to respond to mental health crises where de-escalation is needed, or offer support and share resources for homeless outreach services when the police perform camp abatements.
The recommendations the commission has for the CIT Program is to require re-certification or certification for all officers, and to hire more staff to “ensure quality response”. The commission also recommends increasing, re-allocating, and/or reprioritizing the police department budget to hire more detectives to participate in that Core Responder Model Unit.
This budget recommendation comes despite even police chief Mike Brown claiming that “law enforcement, jails, and prisons are filling the treatment gap. And they’re the most expensive, least effective option.”
In addition, the police, by their presence alone, escalate any situation they go into. Police presence generally indicates that someone is in trouble, something is wrong, or that someone is going to jail, which increases the sense of fear and irrationality in a person experiencing a mental health crisis. They cannot, by their nature, de-escalate during a mental health crisis. The point of de-escalation is to remove actual and perceived threats, create space for empathy and non-judgement, provide options with freedom to choose, and to return all parties to a place of calmness. Read our post for more information about how police cannot de-escalate.
Pairing police with social workers and mental health outreach will drive people away from seeking help. When people feel threatened with police harassment, arrest, or jail time, they will naturally feel defensive or wary. When people are coerced into a drug court or diversion program with the threat of jail time if they fail, the added stress increases the chance of them being driven away. Despite well-intentioned efforts, trust is corroded when a person is brought into this system.
Instead of requiring certification and increasing the budget to hire more detectives, we should disarm and defund the police, and fund alternative crisis intervention models that do not involve the police. We could also fund community education programs so that everyone can learn how to prevent escalation, in ways that are accessible and culturally appropriate to accommodate the diversity of this city.
Training Concerns Related to Equity, Implicit Bias, and Community Policing
The Salt Lake City Police Department runs and creates curriculum for its own training academy. This is how new officers are onboarded, with the training and practices prioritized by the city and the department. The issues the commission saw in this area was that there are no POC facilitators in the academy, the academy does not include curriculum about the history of Salt Lake and its communities of color, and the number of hours dedicated to this training is insufficient.
The recommendation from the commission is that the training academy and other in-service trainings should require POC to be part of the academy and training team, require “equity curriculum”, and to require that new recruits “learn the history of the diverse communities in Salt Lake City”. It also recommends an increase to the budget to provide this training.
Implicit bias training does not overcome decades of conditioning and department culture. Since the 1960s many community groups have demanded similar trainings, with many demands met across the country. But historically, the training is either ineffective, forgotten, or dismantled by the police department over time.
Rather than attempt to train officers out of implicit (i.e., unconscious and deeply ingrained) biases, the city could restrict officer’s ability to randomly stop citizens. This could be done both by reducing the police force (like cutting the force in half!), adopting and enforcing policies that demand higher levels of probable cause before a stop or search, and by funding community education programs about citizen, tenant, and workers rights.
Defunding the Police is the Equitable Thing To Do
We know that racism in policing is systemic, not individual. Studies have shown that having more Black police officers does not reduce the amount of Black killings by police. By focusing on training and recruitment, the commission assumes that it is the individual officers choosing to enact racism against residents based on the onboarding process, and not that they are joining a system built on inequality and bias toward BIPOC.
Mariame Kaba defines policing as “an entire system of harassment, violence, and surveillance that keeps oppressive gender and racial hierarchies in place.” Any measure that fails to address policing’s role in protecting the status quo is doomed to reproduce it. Well-trained, well-staffed and diverse police will still target communities of color for low-level offenses because that is how the system is designed to operate.
The SLCPD tried to scare the public by issuing their 2021 Crime Control Plan highlighting increases in crime over the past year (with the most increases seen in property crime). This was issued in an attempt to sway the City Council to lift the hiring freeze and add more funding to their department; the city council has succumbed with seven budget amendments that increased funding to the police department since last summer. In addition, the council went back on their promise to keep the hiring freeze for a year, and approved the police to hire almost 60 new officers to begin training this spring.
Predictably, the response to the pandemic and our economic crises is for many people to resort to theft, which can account for the increase in property crime in the city. But in SLC, overall crime rates have actually dropped in the last five years. Painting the “spike in crime” narrative is an old trick the police use constantly to defend their growth. Theft can be prevented by ensuring our community has the economic means to pay for the things they need in order to survive—use of force with no material changes will not recover lost or damaged property.
We also know that “crime” is a loaded term. What we call crimes are in direct correlation with poverty. If you are poor, you are more likely to engage in theft, sex work, and street camping as a means of survival. If you are poor, you are more likely to live with chronic stress, and engage in violence and abuse as a reaction to this stress. If you are poor, you are more likely to use drugs and alcohol as a means of emotional and mental escape. By continuing to focus on making policing more “equitable,” rather than alleviating conditions of poverty, we continue generational cycles of state violence.
The city budget is not infinite: by pouring funds into training, police take priority and money away from other programs and resources that our community needs to achieve economic and racial equity. In the past, bloated budgets have led to the rise of SWAT teams, drug enforcement, and militarized crowd control tactics. Racial equity in policing does not help us achieve racial equity in our city.
Rather than attempt to train officers out of biases, or hire more diverse people to join the force, the city could restrict the use of power of the police. That power comes directly through the dollar. The demand to defund the police is a demand to give power back to the people that create our community and support it every day.
We can no longer accept the status quo. We can build something different. We can empower citizens to utilize their own mediation skills and support networks. We can invest in resources that provide comprehensive support to eliminate economic insecurity. This isn’t a pipe dream — cities like Minneapolis, Oakland, and Seattle have embraced the calls to defund the police and are creating new systems based on collective care.
Salt Lake City is embracing change because of public pressure, and we need everyone in the community to help guide this transformation. We hope you’ll join us in our continued efforts to #DefundSLCPD and invest in community resources.