Beth Zygielbaum is a Yoga teacher and Owner of Leela Yoga in Alameda, CA. She is committed to her community, the studio teachers volunteer at the Alameda County Food Bank once a month, the yoga teacher training connects the Sanskrit concept of seva, work performed without any thought of reward or repayment, to community involvement and social justice. This is an account of her phone call with the local police sheriff.
Beth contacted her Police Chief in response to a friend’s post on Facebook. What Beth outlines here, is an account of what we all encounter when trying to make change in the world, and what can happen when people listen. While there are many more questions to consider in this conversation, what is happening here is the openness of both individuals to engage in dialogue to meet each other as human beings and remove the us vs them reactionary way of interacting with one another. Paradox exists, we can be “good” people and still support racist paradigms. Policing in the US IS based in a structure that uses violence and power to force compliance AND there are STILL individuals that go to work everyday because they believe that the world can be better, safer, more inclusive.
What inspires me is that Beth took the initiative and asked the questions AND that the chief was willing to engage without being defensive. The Equity Collective is a place where we can support one another in working together to make the world more equitable and inclusive. Change only happens when we each are committed. We have to actually engage in our democracy to make it worthy of ALL OF US.
In what ways do you engage your community?
*Update! Beth now teaches yoga, once weekly at her local police station.
A friend posted on Facebook, I challenge everyone commenting about Jordan Edward’s murder to reach out to your local police department on behalf of black and brown youth and ask what they are doing to ensure that not one more child loses their life to police gun violence.
I replied: I accept the challenge.
I emailed in the morning: Dear Chief, I’m fairly new to our SF bay area town and have had the opportunity to meet some of your officers at the local farmer’s market outreach booth. My kids loved collecting your police officer “baseball cards”, what a fun idea. I’m contacting you because I am curious to know what our police department is doing to reduce use of force and gun violence especially in regards to the black and brown community.
He emailed a response 20 minutes later: I would love to talk with you about this. Are you free to speak by phone? I find it is a better conversation to have person to person.
I replied with my phone number.
He called in the afternoon.
I began “thank you for taking the time to speak with me about this. I’m sure you are busy and you certainly don’t have an easy job. I contacted you out of curiosity because it seems like we could read Facebook articles all day, or I could just call and talk to you. In the wake of Jordan Edward’s murder I’m wondering what steps the local PD might be taking to reduce the use of force and weapons especially when it comes to the black and brown community.”
His long reply* is summarized here:
“I’m glad you reached out, and I’m glad we can speak by phone because it is too big a topic to cram into a little email. I also really like talking to people. It’s my favorite part of the job.
I think in this conversation that a helpful place to start is to paint a picture of the policing landscape of a place like Ferguson MO versus a place like the SF Bay Area.
The first thing you need to understand is that in a place like Ferguson MO, the police officers are making 20K a year.** Certainly the cost of living is less there than the Bay Area, but that is still nowhere near enough to support a life. In fact the first time I went to a national conference, the other Bay Area guys suggested that it was best not to mention to other officers what we make in the Bay Area. Those guys are working second jobs just to pay bills. In a place like that, policing is a minimum wage job. It is plain old common sense that low pay can’t attract the kind of candidates that better pay can. And also problematic: if you can’t afford turnover, you might let people stay on who shouldn’t stay on.
In contrast, I pretty much haven’t hired someone without a college degree in years. We have that luxury because we have enough financial resources to recruit those candidates. We pay well, and we have excellent benefits. We’ve had to let a couple of concerning people go over the years, but for the most part we are dealing with highly educated officers who are really good at their jobs.
And think about this- if a police department can only afford minimum wage, imagine what the budget is for vetting, ongoing training and evaluations. Probably not much.
CA and the Bay Area have particularly good budgets for training. In my department we meet and usually exceed our training budget every year. Our police department spent all last year going to de-escalation and implicit bias trainings. This year we purchased new software to track every hour of every officer’s training. That way, over time, we’ll have an idea of how these trainings play into any incidents that might occur.
Another factor is that I was born and raised in this town. A good percentage of my police department was born and raised in this town. It makes a big difference in police work if we know the community personally and the community knows us.
You look at a place like Ferguson, or other locations where neighborhoods or whole towns are deeply segregated, and the police departments are underfunded and many of the police officers have never lived or worked in the communities they are policing.
Now that isn’t to say that we don’t have our biases. Human brains like to categorize, we can’t help but have biases. Which is why we need to go to trainings, and why we are starting a wellness program that will include mindfulness, and why we follow certain best practices when we respond to calls.
When it comes to employing best practices, not only is that dependent on knowing the best practices but again is dependent on financial resources. For example, a good number of the calls we respond to are not crime related but are rather mental illness related. When we get a call for an incident involving a mentally ill person, even if that person has a weapon, we send a minimal number of armed officers in response. We want to minimize the number of weapons at the scene. And we station them a good distance away so they don’t end up feeling threatened by proximity. Instead, we are able to call on de-escalation officers, who are trained especially to bring down everyone’s agitation level. These specialists are not armed and we place them geographically between the mentally ill person and the armed officers. Small or underfunded police departments simply don’t have these specialists.
And we’ll keep training our officers. I mentioned the wellness program. We’d like to bring in mindfulness and yoga trainers to teach our officers because I understand the role mindfulness plays in reducing the influence of biases on decision making.
I interjected here “I didn’t mention but I am a yoga instructor, and own a yoga studio. One interesting thing I’ve seen in the last two years is police officers from neighboring towns coming to our studio. They don’t want to go to classes in the town they police, and they ask me to keep their occupation confidential. One police officer came in because the day before he had worked directing traffic around a parade route. He said a woman with an 8 year old boy approached him, and very loudly in front of the crowd asked him if he’d killed any kids that day. He said he felt heartbroken by that interaction. He had been wanting to come to class for the hip strain from wearing the 40lb belts, but this was the kick in the pants he needed to get started because that interaction had been so upsetting and he realized he needed to take care of his mental and emotional health as well.”
He replied “That seems about right. In 23 years of police work, I am finding this the most difficult time to navigate. People call all day long to question what they saw a police officer doing, or to vent their anger, which is ok, and also it has changed my job as chief. Much of my time now is spent in outreach with members of the community, like yourself. I’ve also recently partnered with the city’s interfaith and city leaders group to make sure we are at the table at those conversations. We are doubling down on personal outreach, including having tables at the farmers markets, and setting up outside of grocery stores, and coming to speak with any organizations that will have us.
I posed the question “so as a white person in this community, what can I do to help police reduce the use of force and guns especially when it comes to the black and brown community?”
He paused before answering, “ I think the best thing you can do, and really the best thing anyone in the community could do would be to get to know police officers personally. That is why I wanted to call you personally. If we all know each other, we have fewer implicit bias problems.
Another thing you might personally do, is come teach yoga and mindfulness to my police department. Is that something you would do?”
Without hesitation I replied “Yes. It would be my honor.”***
*not verbatim but as closely as possible
**Ferguson has a median police salary of $45K, but many surrounding towns do indeed pay approx. 20K per year. http://www.nbcnews.com/feature/in-plain-sight/police-pay-gap-many-americas-finest-struggle-poverty-wages-n232701
*** At this point we ended the conversation because all three of my small children had taken it upon themselves to strip down to their birthday suits and pour juice all over themselves. #momlife. But I’m viewing this as the beginnings of a conversation. I’d like to ask several more questions including but not limited to: the chief’s opinion of body cameras, local priorities, proactive vs reactive policing and what does that look like, identifying and addressing red flags, the benefits of having more female police officers and how to recruit them, and why it is so damn hard to prosecute a police officer or to get police on a national level to admit to the bias problem. I’m open to suggestions!