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Utah’s highway patrol tackles racism head-on

Utah’s Highway Patrol tackles racism head-on

Many Americans were awakened to the ongoing racial prejudices in this country after the murder of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis in late May. Floyd’s last breaths caught on camera forced many to acknowledge the pain and the treatment that so many Black Americans face on a daily basis and have continued to face for centuries. This realization brought about a deep dive into the history of policing in this country. 

In Colonial America, informal “night watch” groups were formed to keep order and prevent gambling and prostitution or to take on special requests by rich colonists. Ironically, night watch officers were typically criminals put on night watch duty as punishment. But as the nation grew, roles and responsibilities changed for officers depending on the region’s economic and political views. 

While in the north, most officers were protecting shipyards in major trading ports, the south was relying on officers to act as slave patrol. They chased down runaway slaves for plantation owners and worked hard to prevent slave rebellions similar to Nat Turner’s in 1831. Over the next century, night watches evolved into organized police forces similar to modern-day law enforcement and the emergence of state law enforcement or state troopers, that performed functions outside of the jurisdiction of county sheriffs, grew to become more commonplace. 

Long before the social media age, Black Americans relied on The Negro Motorist Green Book, an annual guidebook that informed travelers of roads, motels, and restaurants that were friendly to Black travelers during the Jim Crow era. After the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, personal biases continued to play a major role in how people of color were treated in regard to the law compared to white Americans both by state and county law enforcement. 

With peaceful protests in all 50 states as a result of Floyd’s murder, communities were asking law enforcement in their areas to make swift changes, offer additional educational and training courses for police officers in their departments, and begin conversations that could lead to better relationships between law enforcement and civilians. In response to these protests, the Utah Highway Patrol decided to join the conversation and reflect on how they too could ensure all Utah civilians, and those driving through the state would be treated fairly and could feel safe and protected regardless of their race.

An uncomfortable conversation with police officers

In 1925, Utah’s highway patrol was made up of only two part-time state patrolmen known as the State Road Police Patrol. Within 10 years, it had grown into what we now know as the Utah Highway Patrol and was given statewide police powers. The current organization operates as a division of the Department of Public Safety with a vision to set “the standard for excellence in law enforcement with professional service, demonstrating absolute integrity, courage, and forging trust with every public interaction.” 

In staying true to this vision, Lieutenant Alex Lepley and others within the department set out to see what they could do to implement this topic into their annual in-service training. Not sure of where to start, Lepley reached out to Emma Houston, who started her new position as special assistant to the vice president for equity, diversity, and inclusion at the University of Utah after 18 years of employment with Salt Lake County; Dr. Kathleen Christy, a retired administrator for the Salt Lake City School District; and Dr. Forrest C. Crawford, former assistant to the president for diversity and professor of teacher education at Weber State University. 

The four came together to determine what a potential diversity training might look like. As Black Americans themselves, Houston, Christy, and Crawford were able to create an agenda based on personal experience, specialized expertise, and knowledge of the struggles endured by the Black community. They wanted to ensure that this wouldn’t be a class, but instead would be a discussion. These sessions would serve as part one of what they were looking to do long-term to educate troopers and facilitate difficult conversations about the history of policing, identifying personal biases, and building trust in the regions in which these troopers reside. 

The training began in July for nearly 600 members of the department and will continue through December. In some cases, there have been heated exchanges, but in this setting, every person in the room felt safe in voicing their opinions, because they knew that their ultimate goal was to be able to understand someone else’s point of view.  

“I think in almost every class, someone has come up to Ms. Houston, Dr. Christy, and Dr. Crawford to tell them that they really weren’t looking forward to coming that day, but that they actually appreciated them, their openness to sharing their experiences, and ultimately found it really worthwhile.”

-Alex Lepley

“For many of these officers, these are uncomfortable conversations and I watch from the back of the room and I see their bodies tense up. But the goal is to understand someone else’s viewpoint apart from their own. I think in almost every class, someone has come up to Ms. Houston, Dr. Christy, and Dr. Crawford to tell them that they really weren’t looking forward to coming that day, but that they actually appreciated them, their openness to sharing their experiences, and ultimately found it really worthwhile,” Lepley says. “They’re able to teach in a way that exposes these troopers to the basic fact that there are other people who have different points of view than us and that those viewpoints are also legitimate.”

Houston talks about how much effort they put into designing the training to provide a great, albeit challenging, experience for the officers. “We go over the history of policing and there’s some pushback to some of that information, so we provide the facts. Lieutenant Lepley chimes in with facts as well and he balances it out because we don’t know the internal mechanics of how law enforcement works, but he does. We talk about how Jim Crow laws came into effect, civil rights, emancipation, etc.”

In addition to covering the history of policing and its impact on Black Americans, they discuss each other’s lived experiences, both good and bad. “We talk about how [officers] know what the law is, but the common citizen does not know what the law is on their level. Even the officers will give examples of how they have been stopped by fellow officers and how they have responded. So we are able to offer various lenses of how a person of color would handle a certain situation versus a person in a dominant population would handle it and how it all plays out,” Lepley says.

For Lieutenant Nick Street, the Utah Highway Patrol public information officer, this training meant understanding cultural differences, embracing diversity, and listening to different perspectives offered by Utah’s growing community of people of color. 

Street says that reckoning with the history of his profession and what still exists in many areas of the nation today has forced him to self-reflect on what is right and what is wrong. While the perspectives shared by Houston and Christy were perspectives he’d heard before, he noted that what was most pivotal was seeing that his coworkers were receiving the message the way he was too.

“It’d be easy here in Utah to say ‘we’re different here. Why would you have any beef with us?’ but we have some steering corrections to make too. We’ve internally reflected on changing some policies. We’ve looked at and poured over it in our administration. We have to own the actions of officers everywhere in this country. We all wear the badge.”

When biases became apparent the Utah Highway Patrol decided to step up and fix them.

An opportunity to build a better police force

In 1946, Utah troopers began wearing the six-point badge and in 1993 adopted six values to symbolize their duty to protecting Utah highways and maintaining public safety: integrity, service, knowledge, professionalism, teamwork, and courage.

With a greater spotlight on law enforcement, Street acknowledges that there is a valid fear of law enforcement for people of color, and he says now is a time to use each interaction as an opportunity to build rapport, gain trust on the road and in communities, and bring honor to the badge that he wears on his uniform.

Street credits his mother for teaching him to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and for shaping his mindset around other cultures. He tries to demonstrate what he has been taught when he engages with people he’s pulled over by letting people know who he is right away.

“My mother would always tell me to pull people in with your eyes and let them know who you really are,” Street says. “Right now with wearing masks, it’s a little difficult to let people see my full facial expression, so remembering what my mother taught me has helped me to focus harder on how my expressions and demeanor make people feel when we communicate.

Street explains that because the Utah Highway Patrol is “a part of the Department of Public Safety, it is our responsibility to correct unlawful driving behavior and hold those that break the law accountable, but we are also responsible for establishing trust in the community and policing fairly. We have a duty to protect and serve. We can’t protect and serve our nation if we are not on the same team. We need to own our mistakes, but be careful about saying ‘us versus them.’” 

“How you perceive things depends on your experience, education, and attitude. You’ve got to understand when they’re talking to us that this is their history too and now we can understand through their eyes.”

– Cade Brenchly

Sergeant Cade Brenchly, assigned to a region that includes Cache Valley and Box Elder county, felt that this training was not just a reminder to acknowledge the experiences and perspectives of others, but also an opportunity to ensure that his team of troopers were present to experience it together and best implement what they learned.

Brenchly was born and raised in Cache Valley and is a second-generation member of the Utah Highway Patrol―his father spent nearly 42 years with the state and 33 years as a sworn officer. In his early years in college, shortly after returning home from an LDS mission in Portugal, he briefly considered law school, but ultimately decided that law enforcement was where he wanted to pursue his career. He graduated from Utah State University in 2005 and within two months entered into the academy for Highway Patrol. 

Throughout the last 15 years, Brenchly has been able to reflect on the ever-evolving conversations in the nation regarding social justice and has tried to protect Utah roads through the lens of the individuals he is committed to protect. The Cultural Awareness training is a great start, he says, but he hopes that it is just part one of numerous trainings to come. 

“The biggest takeaway for me is perception,” Brenchly says. “How you perceive things depends on your experience, education, and attitude. You’ve got to understand when they’re talking to us that this is their history too and now we can understand through their eyes.” 

He also believes it is important to be honest with yourself in order to appreciate someone else’s lived experiences. “Saying ‘I don’t see color’ isn’t honest. I get what people who say that are trying to say, but what we see is a description based on someone’s skin color. It’s part of who they are and you can’t pretend you don’t see it.”

Through doing family genealogy, Brenchly discovered that on his maternal grandmother’s side, his family had migrated to Utah from the south. As southerners, they fought for the Confederate Army and owned slaves. Upon joining the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints post-Civil War, they left behind their large plantation and made the trek to Utah to settle in Cache Valley.

“It’s not something you take pride in, but you learn from your past. It was abhorrent back then, but you look at the way they were raised, try not to judge them by the standards of today, but also recognize that they were so misguided to be okay with slavery.”

Recognizing biases is only the first step. Brenchly believes that it is important to then figure out how to best communicate with people when you are looking to understand what they’ve been through and how to meet in the middle. 

“Communication is always there, it’s just poor a lot of the time. We need to have quality communication and just be good people and show empathy. We need to give respect as much as we expect it. Sometimes, we think we are where we think we need to be, but now we are realizing that we’ve over here and they are over there. If the troopers are taking it seriously, they can look at how people of color think and use their experiences to better form judgments, understand that their experiences are real and valid, and meet in the middle.”

Brenchly also acknowledges that there are law enforcement officers that don’t police fairly and without prejudice. “Nobody hates a bad cop more than a good cop. I can’t speak for other officers in other states, but I feel confident that someone will speak up [against prejudice] here in Utah. I’ve had to speak up myself and in some cases, those officers were fired.”

Brenchly also notes that he does think it is important for people to understand their role as officers. He has encountered on many occasions parents who will tease their children and suggest if they misbehave that they’ll have the officer arrest them. He says he knows parents do that in jest, but it isn’t helpful in shaping young minds to trust that law enforcement is there to protect them, not punish them. “I’ve asked some personally to please not joke that way with their children. It is important for them to know that we are here for the sake of safety and to protect.”

For all involved, they are committed to seeing this through beyond 2020. Lepley wants this to be phase one and is excited to see where things take them in the future. He recognizes that times are tense, but he is confident that Utah troopers can create an environment for drivers and citizens where they feel protected, respected, and understood.

Liese is currently a Director within the financial sector and has lived in Utah for 12 years. She is originally from Orange County, California and moved to Utah to attend Brigham Young University. She is passionate about ethnic, religious, and gender inclusivity and has worked hard within education and professional spaces to carve spaces for those who should be represented.

Comments (1)

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    Larry Mulcock

    One way to improve interactions between law enforcement and the public is to thoroughly educate all citizens about how to interact with law enforcement under various circumstances, e.g. traffic stop. Citizens need to know the rule regarding what officers can and cannot do and where the lines are, e.g. search and seizure of vehicle or person without a warrant. Officers will be more circumspect when they know they are dealing with educated citizens.
    Policing is not a for-profit activity nor should it be thought of self-supporting. Quotas are not ok. Tickets are not a measure of good performance. Civil asset forfeiture is unconstitutional and must not be enforced. Officers are public servants and have a duty to treat all citizens with respect and be of assistance whenever possible. End of rant.

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