Every day police officers and sheriff deputies put their lives at risk in order to perform their jobs and protect their communities. With recent civil unrest, protesting, and sometimes rioting with Black Lives Matter marches, and, now, #notmypresident marches, there is more risk to law enforcement around the country. And as if that wasn’t enough, police are being targeted and shot, not because of who they are individually, but because they wear the uniform.
However, it may not be so true that the men in blue are disrespected more than ever before. According to a US News and World Report article from October 25, the respect for local police, by Americans, is very high. The article, “Americans Respect for Local Police Nears Record High,” reported by Rachel Dicker, sites a new Gallup poll which shows 76% of US adults have a “great deal” of respect for local police. Only 7% said they have “hardly any.” The poll and article reveal that the percentage is up regardless of race, although the percentage was higher among Whites.
Higher Respect in Kings & Tulare Counties
Locally, law enforcement officials, and officers, feel they garner an even higher average of respect.
“I know with the national media going on, at times we get lumped into the spotlight. The things I see in our community are a lot different,” said Kings County Sheriff David Robinson. “We do a lot of community events and the feedback we get in our community, from the people, is that there is a lot of support, and they are very receptive to the things that we’re doing.
“That’s not to say that somebody doesn’t complain about us, or to us, but in comparison to a lot of other agencies outside of California and to some larger agencies overall – I think we have a great relationship with our community.”
Robinson said he judges his agency’s positive community relationship from a low total of two official complaints made against the department during 2015, and none so far this year. He also feels that while Measure K, a measure that would accept a ½ cent sales tax throughout the county benefitting public safety–including fire departments–fell short of passing, it did receive close to the 66.67% needed for passing with 66.29% in June, and a slightly smaller, 65.23%, unofficially, in the November election.
“When you have a community that is willing to [nearly] vote in a tax to support public safety – I think that says a lot about the organization and public safety as a whole in Kings County,” he said.
Better or Worse Than 10 or 20 Years Ago?
While officer respect seems to remain high in the county, some changes through the years have been seen.
Kings County Resource Deputy Darrin Ellis, a 51-year old African-American who grew up in Fresno, has served on the force since March, 1990.
“When I was a kid, you looked up to cops,” he said. “And, if a cop told you to do something, or asked you to do something – you did it. You didn’t question it. I noticed when I came on, it wasn’t like that.
“It’s a lot on how you portray yourself, and just how you are with people, in general. So, sometimes I’d get backtalk from kids and stuff like that, and it kind of shocked me. But, you treat everybody with respect, no matter who they are – rich/poor, Black/White, doesn’t matter who they are – you treat them all with respect.
“I go through my day treating everyone with respect. And, if you do that, you hardly ever go wrong.
“As far as the recent events in the news – it breaks my heart, sometimes, because conclusions are jumped to–by everybody–you see things; you don’t see things. Just because there is video, doesn’t mean it tells the whole story, about everything.
“I think a lot of times there is a generalization with law enforcement that we’re all working together to do bad things to people. That’s what people have told me, sometimes. I’ve heard that from people that I know – even childhood friends, sometimes.
“I used to get upset by it, but I don’t anymore. Because, I know me. And, I know the people who I work with. And, I know the people in this department. Serve – that’s what we do. And, I know if there is a problem and someone comes in, it’s going to be handled. It’s going to be dealt with – with respect and professionalism, by the people here.
“In the sheriff’s department, we have a lot of support here in the community. I don’t go a day without someone coming up to me, shaking my hand and saying ‘thank you for your service.’ And, it comes from all kinds of people – kids will come up and hug me.
“But, I will not say that nothing at all has changed, because it has. If I am driving down the street [while on patrol] and, if I see an African American young man, or young lady, they will give me a look. And, it’s like a, ‘why are you looking at me,’ kind of thing. But, it’s not just them, it’s everybody really.”
Ellis went on to say that every officer has a whole set of experiences all his own.
“My experience is not the same as other deputies or other police officers experiences – White and Black. My experiences are my experiences. And, in my experience, I’ve never shot anyone. My experience with shooting is on the range. I go over our use of force rules and regulations, over, and over, and over. I’ve never beaten anybody up. I’ve never kicked anybody. I don’t believe that I have treated anybody in a way that would be thought of as being out of the ordinary range of law enforcement. In other words, I’ve never been excessive with anybody, I don’t believe. And, that’s the vast majority of every single deputy in this department, and lots of other police departments all over the country.
There are Bad Seeds
“But, we’ve got a big country. So, there’s a certain small percentage of deputies or police officers that, to put it nicely, didn’t take their training serious enough, and may make mistakes, or may overreact,” Ellis said.
“There’s this thing, that lumps us all in the same basket – that bothers me – that there’s always a tendency for law enforcement to back each other up [the Blue Line] regardless of whether the officer is wrong or not – THAT IS NOT TRUE! Our first duty is to protect the public.
“I can say that over the years the officers and deputies that have gone over the line, or have done something that they should not have done, have been dealt with properly.”
“It’s like any other job,” Robinson added. “You have people at times, at different levels of severity – violate policy, or violate the law. And I know, through my years in law enforcement, and with the department, that it has always been dealt with – not just under my administration, but even prior administrations, it was always dealt with and it’s dealt with at different levels – through additional training, and termination.
And, it’s not just rookie mistakes, he said.
“No, experienced deputies sometimes,” he said. “There are challenges within this job that sometimes the stress level pushes people to do things that you wouldn’t normally see somebody do. Alcohol sometimes plays a role – drinking on the job, showing up to work drunk, driving drunk on duty. It’s happened – but it gets dealt with.
“From the department administrative perspective, we want to see that we deal with it swiftly. But then, also from the employee perspective, that is, they have an issue. We try to get them the help that they need. And, sometimes it results in termination, depending upon the severity, but sometimes it doesn’t result in termination, but it results in discipline that includes some type of treatment plan.”
Another Point of View
“I don’t think we’ve felt or seen any of the problems that you’ve seen nationally, here,” said Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar. “I think, that while we’re all part of America, there’s also different ways that we approach, and communities have their own different dynamics. In the 23 years I’ve been here, I think Visalia’s always done a pretty good job of being involved in the community, in terms of our police department.
“And, I think that’s where a lot of this starts – in having people who are involved in the community. We have what we call a Take Home Car Program and I think we’ve shown, from a financial perspective, it’s a good investment. I think the part that gets missed, is the investment it makes in the community, because about 85% of our officers live here. And, I think that that makes a big difference too, when you talk about community relationships.
“Like Sir Robert Peel said, ‘The police is the community, and the community are the police.’ I think there’s a lot of validity to that. When you have staff that live in the community, they tend to be invested in a different way.
Black Lives Matter Protests
“We really haven’t seen any of those same issues [aggression toward the police] come up,” Salazar said. “We did have, a few months ago, a local group that started out as a Black Lives Matter, that were getting ready to plan a march. But, we met with their organizers, before they did that, and we sat down and talked with them. We opened up some lines of communication.
“And, that was very important, I think, to understanding where they were coming from and what their concerns were. Their concerns really weren’t local, it was more about what was happening nationally, and being part of that conversation. We now meet with that group rather frequently.
“You certainly have your First Amendment rights to do that [protest], but our hope is that you express that and do it safely – but more importantly is that we start a dialogue. If you believe there is a problem, or an issue, especially with us, we need to start the dialogue, because that is where we’ll make progress. And, I think that’s happened. And, so they learned a lot about us, and we’ve learned about where that movement comes from, and they ended up not doing a march, they ended up holding a prayer vigil instead.
“And, they prayed really for the communities they feel have been affected by the issue, they prayed for police, they prayed our nation and healing in general. That’s been our experience with it and I think it’s a positive thing.”
Salazar said that he believes that there is little racial tension or police brutality questions within Visalia, and certainly not any recent addition to it.
“I think nationally there’s been, and as everyone is aware what’s happening. We’ve certainly brought attention to what some of those issues are. But, have we seen a change in behavior between the police and the community here – no. It’s something that we pay attention to and we try to be sensitive to. We try to understand and to make sure that in the things that we do, we take all of that into account. And really, I think if you really practice community policing and you practice service, integrity and respect, and all those things- if you really embrace those philosophies – you’ll tend to avoid some of those issues in the first place.”
The Visalia PD has two advisory boards – a Hispanic advisory board and an African American advisory board, Salazar said. Quarterly meetings are held with each group.
“Those have been good with opening dialogue with those parts of the community, but we are talking about merging it into one community advisory board,” he said. “The Hispanic group has been around for probably 12 years or so – and it’s just different community leaders – a lot of them have been around for a long time. And, then on the African American Advisory board – we had an officer who retired, who’s African American, and he reached out to different parts of the community that he was familiar with. That kind of branched out a little bit, so we’ve got probably around 15 people, and it’s a very diverse group. It’s a good opportunity for them to talk with us, and about how we handle some of the issues here in Visalia.”
Size of Protesting
“In California there’s 38 million people and when you look at a Black Lives Matter march, or protest, or riot that has occurred in LA or Oakland – it’s generally hundreds to maybe a thousand people involved,” Robinson said. “And, when you’re talking 38 million people in the State of California – that tells me something, well, hey, yeah there’s a group of people that are upset about how they perceive the way that law enforcement treats them. But, there’s a large group of people that feels that their law enforcement protects their community.
“And, in the vast majority of the protests that have gained national media attention, there’s a common theme. And the common theme isn’t Black or White, or Hispanic– the common theme is that the suspect has dictated the actions of the deputy, or the officer. And, the common theme also includes that that person failed to obey the commands that they were given.
“I do think that that has changed a lot in the course of our careers – not that we always didn’t have people who just didn’t follow directions,” Robinson said, “but I do think that in our society, there has been this movement in questioning authority – and values and morals in your upbringing, and looking at those things in our youth community to see that those things are still instilled in them. So, that way as they grow, they understand what authority figures are.
“I think that is one of the big changes that we have seen, is that in our youth movement, there is more of that questioning everything and questioning authority. In certain circumstances, where the police have a duty to respond, or a duty to act, or react – we’re trying to give an authoritative command – because that is what the law says. We can give a lawful order and the person is supposed to follow it, or they are in violation – and if they don’t follow that, then the police have to step it up to another level, and sometimes it can result into what just looks horrendous in the news media.
“And while I agree, it is sad to see, if people would cooperate with the commands of the police, it would go a long way to quell these instances that occur. Question it later – we have a court process – we have a process by which they can file a complaint. They can file civil action against us. So, the biggest thing to the community is – if a police officer or deputy sheriff gives you an order – follow the order, and then sue us later. Take it up with the courts – file complaints – do everything you can through the legal process, rather than take the chance of escalating it to another level where somebody gets physically harmed.”
This is part one of a two-part series. The Valley Voice would like to thank Visalia Police Chief Jason Salazar, Kings County Sheriff David Robinson, and Kings County Sheriff Deputy 2 Darrin Ellis for the time they afforded these articles.