The Salt Lake Commission on Racial Equity in Policing outlines its latest diversity initiative

Story by ZOE GOTTLIEB

On March 2, 2021, the Salt Lake Commission on Racial Equity in Policing issued its recommendations for the city council in tackling prevalent racial disparities within the Salt Lake City Police Department.

In a memo submitted to the Salt Lake City Council, the commission proposed that the SLCPD hire more diverse officers specifically for its Field-Training Officer Program.

According to the commission, having a diverse program is essential because it sends a powerful, “unconscious message” to officer cadets that people of color are “important in the fabric of SLCPD.”

As it stands, six of 67 FTOs, or roughly 9%, identify as people of color, according to Fox 13 data.

Utah’s law enforcement body in general consists of very few Black officers. Of all the self-reported officers in Utah, the number of Black officers is around .5%, or 25 in 5,000.

Those numbers are likely to be even lower after five police officers, including two officers of color, reportedly left the SLCPD due to increased circumstantial stress, as reported by the Deseret News.

Darlene McDonald, a commission member, says part of the challenge of recruiting Black officers comes down to two things. The first is getting out-of-state recruits over the culture shock of relocating to a place with a large, predominantly white Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints population.

Darlene McDonald is a member of the Salt Lake Commission on Racial Equity in Policing. Photo courtesy of Darlene McDonald.

“A lot of people of color really struggle living here,” McDonald said, “because of that lack of diversity.”

The other reason McDonald cites for the lack of diversity in the police department is the tendency of officers to racially profile and arrest Black community members for what are considered lesser offenses, a phenomenon called overpolicing.

“Taking into account that many men of color especially are targeted and overpoliced and end up with criminal backgrounds because of that overpolicing, those are some of the things that disincentivize people of color from becoming law enforcement,” McDonald said in a Zoom interview.

McDonald said she believes that the hurdle of attracting people of color to the law enforcement profession can be overcome if departments are willing to introduce some kind of incentive, such as relocation packages or signing bonuses.

Fred Louis is a former sergeant and one of the few retired Black officers within the SLCPD. Louis dedicated 28 years of his life to law enforcement and even worked for a time as a lead trainer in the police academy. Since 2010 he has been running his own judo business, the Zenbei Martial Arts Academy.

Like McDonald, Louis is aware of Utah’s more homogenous culture and how it can affect diversity hiring initiatives. “We got so many cultures, for example like in New Orleans we can pull from — but here, it’s kind of tough,” he said, reflecting on the cultural differences between where he grew up and Salt Lake City.

Louis also said the SLCPD would benefit from drawing community policing concepts into its day-to-day practices.

Community policing, as defined by the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, “support[s] the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues.”

What does community policing mean to Louis, one of the few retired Black officers in the state of Utah? “[It means] you just have to get out there and have police officers become part of the community fabric — not just get in their cars and go from call to call without ever making contact with people in the neighborhood,” Louis said in a phone interview.

The Ogden City Police Department serves as perhaps one of the best examples of community police work. The department has divided its city into eight districts, with each of the eight Community Police officers belonging to their own district, according to its website. The police force also consists of 230 employees, including a homeless advocate and a victims’ advocate, according to Diana Lopez, community outreach coordinator of the department.

Lopez said that in her experience with the position, it is essential to have a listening ear within the department “whether there is an outcome or not.” For her, this means getting to know the neighborhood, and having someone on hand to “hear [citizens’] concerns.”

While input from and police exchanges among community members is beneficial to citizen-police relations, the officers themselves can also receive intrinsic rewards from it.

Fred Louis’ podcast Judo Ya-Ya. Having opened up his own judo practice in 2010, Louis’ podcast is all about sharing the lessons of judo among youth. Courtesy of Fred Louis.

Louis said, reflecting on his time spent as a community resource officer at Highland High School, “I get a lot of gratification out of it, right? I mean a person, they grow up, they’re doing good in life — that makes me feel good.” In all 28 years, Louis recalls this as being the proudest accomplishment of his career.

Since retiring, Louis has spent his time re-engaging with the community in new and equally important ways: teaching young kids the art of judo. In Louis’ perspective, judo and police work are intertwined.

Concepts from judo came into play in his lessons at the academy, where he learned about a practice of something called verbal judo.

“We were taught in the class OK, go up to the person and try to lower their anxiety level,” Louis said of everyday practices police officers are expected to employ, using the classic traffic stop as an example. “Verbal judo is all about letting people have their dignity and respect.”