‘It’s about moving forward’: Truckee forum focuses on systemic racism, following police chief’s controversial email
Truckee PD: Chief to retire July 3
The Truckee Police Department posted on its Facebook page Thursday morning that its chief, Rob Leftwich, will retire effective July 3.
“Chief Rob Leftwich has announced his retirement as of July 3, 2020,” the post states. “He began with the Truckee Police Department in August of 2010 as a sergeant. He moved up through the ranks, and was promoted to Chief of Police in January 2016. He has had an extensive career, not only during his time in Truckee, but also in his twenty-plus years serving multiple California municipal police departments.
“We thank him for his service and wish him a wonderful retirement and all the best.”
Further information was not available at press time Thursday.
The town of Truckee sits peacefully above the Tahoe Basin, but scenic views and high elevation cannot shield the mountain paradise from the nation’s most contentious issue. Pressed by George Floyd’s death, Truckee’s public officials initiated a conversation on the tangled complexities of systemic racism in a public forum.
Monday’s virtual town hall featured Mayor Dave Polivy, Police Chief Robert Leftwich, Town Attorney Andy Morris and Human Resources Analyst Bonnie Thompson-Hardin. The discussion was moderated by Town Manager Jeff Loux.
“The purpose is not to fight or find consensus,” Polivy said. “It’s the beginning of a conversation, not the end.”
The forum followed the June 2 locally organized vigil memorializing black victims of police brutality. The evening’s discussion — which took public comment via voicemail, text and email — focused largely on an email sent to 130 public employees by Leftwich. The email compared the character of two dead black men, Floyd and Dave Patrick Underwood — the first, a civilian apprehended for allegedly using a counterfeit bill; and the second, a federal law enforcement officer shot and killed amidst a May 30 riot in Oakland.
In that email Leftwich said Floyd was “not innocent.” Underwood, a security officer who was fatally shot May 29 a few blocks from protests in Oakland, was called “completely innocent” by the police chief.
Valerie Fridland, a University of Nevada, Reno linguistics professor, said the email highlights the need to investigate implicit biases and how that contributes to racial insensitivity.
“The fact that (Leftwich) needed to say something about this man’s character indicates that somehow he was justifying the behavior of the police. I think that’s what people are upset about,” Fridland said. “The conclusion suggests that he’s trying to somehow bring some blame to the victim. It’s the equivalent of saying ‘she was wearing a short skirt.’ It’s unnecessary.”
Fridland said although unspoken, similar assumptions are made when people identify someone as a “lady doctor” or “black doctor” instead of just “doctor.”
“We only ever articulate exceptional things when they’re marked,” Fridland said. “In this case, noting that there was something exceptional about this man that made him a target.”
Truckee’s town manager, mayor and members of the public identified the email’s language as “unacceptable” and “unfortunate,” but their perspective was countered more than once Monday evening.
Many contributors demonstrated support of the Truckee Police Department. Some complained that phrases like “police brutality” perpetuate “anti-police sentiment.” According to another, those in favor of defunding the police should have no place at the table.
One commenter identified as a person of color and retail business owner via text called the forum an empty demonstration of moral correctness.
“There is no systematic racism in the Truckee PD,” the text read. “This is all virtue signaling.”
Fridland said prejudice can be unconscious and exists everywhere.
“There’s a difference between overt racism, which is easy to condemn, and the implicit bias that we all harbor based off of our upbringing, our socialization and through the dominance certain groups have in society,” Fridland said. “We are all victims of our experience, and we all talk from our own experience and that doesn’t make us bad people.”
Fridland said language matters because it can reveal unconscious biases and influence actions.
“We all carry implicit bias, but we don’t all act on it in ways that are detrimental, and I really think that’s key,” Fridland said.
ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY
Leftwich expressed regret that any animosity brought on by his initial email to town staff might be directed at the rest of his team.
“It’s caused a great amount of guilt for me,” Leftwich said “As hard as it is for me and my family, I really am saddened by what this has done to the reputation of the police department.”
Semantics or pragmatics aside, Truckee Police Department’s records are squeaky clean, town officials say.
“We’ve never shot anyone in the town of Truckee in the history of the police department,” Leftwich said. “We’ve never had significant trauma for use of force. We’ve never had an officer shot.”
Morris, the town attorney, confirmed Leftwich’s claim and said he came up empty handed when the American Civil Liberties Union requested to review the town’s records of police misconduct.
“I was happy to tell the ACLU, ‘We’d love to give you records,’” Morris said, “but there simply aren’t any.”
On average, Truckee’s 25 police officers respond to 15,000 to 17,000 incidents each year. They offer quarterly reports online and were one of the first departments in the state that had the whole force wearing body cams.
Seventy-eight percent of their traffic stops are white motorists and 18% Hispanic, Leftwich said, which mirrors the region’s demographic makeup.
Leftwich said his team does not belong to a union, addressing community concerns the Truckee Police Department could be protected from public accountability by a police brotherhood and backed by ample fiscal firepower. According to the chief, the department is relatively small for a permanent population of 16,000.
“We are understaffed because we have law-abiding citizens,” Leftwich said. “By those numbers, per capita, we’d be significantly larger.”
‘CULTURE EATS POLICY FOR LUNCH’
Leftwich said policies can only go so far, but what sets his police force apart is its community-oriented culture.
“Although that’s more subjective and difficult to articulate, anti-discrimination and anti-harassment has been part of our culture going so far beyond what the policies dictate,” he said. “It’s literally a thread in everything that we do in our agency.”
Truckee Police Department has some Latino officers, Leftwich said, but is mostly white.
Leftwich, who served on the board of directors for the SAFE Alliance (now known as the Sierra Community House), said he knows his department has more work to do, in outreach and recruiting in communities of color — something he thinks should be customized.
“I think with the Latino community in particular, we have to be very cautious about the strategies we put in place to reach out to them,” he said, citing long standing mistrust between law enforcement and Latino communities.
Leftwich recalled intentional outreach made by his department after the election of President Donald Trump.
“When President Trump was elected to office there was an overwhelming concern regarding immigration laws,” he said. “We really tried to encourage the community to not be afraid of police, particularly in reporting if they were a victim of a crime.”
Leftwich said his department relies heavily on community leaders to conduct culturally sensitive outreach in a non-confrontational environment.
The unit already volunteers with the homeless community to promote familiarity outside of the legal system, the chief said.
During the meeting, comments were split. Some community members said they believed the mayor failed to support the police, while others felt Polivy was not critical enough. Throughout the forum, Polivy refocused the conversation.
“The meeting was not necessarily meant to take place because of the email. This is not a reaction to the police department, this is about how we can do better,” Polivy explained. “It’s about moving forward.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a reporter for the Sierra Sun. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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