Jeff Thomas, a choir singer, stood on a corner holding a choir robe slung over his shoulder, while waiting for a ride. An EPD officer checking the area for a man who just fled from the Sheriff’s office saw Jeff standing there. The suspect was described as a black man in his 40s. Jeff is a black man in his 60s. The officer spotlighted and approached Jeff to see if he was the wanted suspect.
Jeff said, the officer was polite and respectful even calling him sir. Jeff was upset but civil in his response. Two days later Jeff and I met to discuss the encounter. His question for me, if I was white would this officer have stopped me? He was clear he did not want to see the officer punished, but rather use this incident as an opportunity to talk about race, and to improve the police-community relationship. Jeff’s maturity and grace were remarkable.
The officer genuinely felt Jeff could have been the suspect. Although choir robes and age might have been a good clue that Jeff was not the suspect. In my opinion, we could have used better judgment and more discretion in the contact. We also could have approached Jeff in a non-threatening manner, such as, “Headed to church tonight?” Alternatively, “I am looking for Joe Doe, have you seen him?”
Implicit bias is a conflict that plays out daily across America and Eureka. Here is a hard reality each of us must face; we are bias. Implicitly or overtly, we are biased. Bias hurts those who are the target of this predisposition. Our institutions, laws and policies further that bias, recycling and reinforcing beliefs that hurt those singled out different than the traditional American norm. A norm that has changed. For America to heal as a nation we must change, and systems must change.
This week my wife stood in the merchandise return line at Target. Generally speaking Target has a very liberal return policy. A young and pregnant Latina stood in line in front of Cathy. She held several baby items to return. Baby shower Cathy thought, there must have been double gifts. When the girl got to the front of the line to return her gifts, the store clerk denied her return. The clerk was kind, professional and almost apologetic, but she stood firm on company policy. The girl pled with her, was registered at the store, and willing to take a gift card. The answer was firm. No.
Next came the big question…do you have a driver’s license? I can return these items if you have a license. The pregnant girl slumped in embarrassment. No, I don’t have a license. Well, I need a license to take it back. Cathy interrupted and asked for the girl’s property. Cathy took out her license and asked to return the items. She got the refund and handed it to the girl. I understand Target’s policy, as thieves often do not have a license, but the impact of implicit bias on a culture of immigrants, many who do not drive, is devastating. No one said or claimed that she was or was not a citizen or legal resident.
California state regulations (POST) demands that police applicants must have a decent credit score to be hired. The reasons are to guard against corruption and ensure the person is responsible and paying their bills. I was asked at a workshop what policies do you have that eliminate people of color from being hired? That rule immediately came to mind. Many people of color live in or grew up in poverty. They have not had the opportunity to establish credit or are too busy surviving to worry about it. Parents living in poverty cannot bail kids out when over extending on their first college credit card. How do we collectively fix this problem of implicit bias? EPD has adjusted its policy on a case by case basis.
Here is EPD’s plan to move forward and reduce implicit bias.
- Become more aware of implicit bias. Each officer will take Harvard implicit bias test.
- Bring in those who can instruct us about implicit bias and learn to reduce it.
- Eliminate or change policies that are inherently bias.
- Continue to work in partnership with communities who experience bias regularly.
- Hold the organization accountable for our actions, and rely on the Chief Advisory Panel to ensure we are genuine in our approach to policing.
Mr. Thomas, thank you! Thank you for the powerfully positive way you handled this incident. Your final words stuck a cord with me…”Chief, I want the men and women of EPD to do their job. I don’t want them to fear contacting a person of color or hesitate and get hurt. I just want them to use discretion. The black community needs the police as much as any other community. I felt he contacted me because I was black, and I needed to say something.”
Jeff, your actions and courage is how Eureka reduces bias and builds a community where civility is the norm. Thank you.