Foon Rhee

Foon Rhee: Building bridges between police and community

New graduates of the Sacramento Police Academy take the oath of office Dec. 17 at Memorial Auditorium.
New graduates of the Sacramento Police Academy take the oath of office Dec. 17 at Memorial Auditorium. Sacramento Police Department

They marched down the center aisle in their dress uniforms as the bagpipes wailed. On stage, they stood ramrod straight for the Pledge of Allegiance and national anthem.

And when fathers and fiancées pinned badges on their chests, it was one of those lump-in-the-throat moments that restores your faith in people. If you’re feeling jaded, I’d highly recommend going to a Sacramento Police Academy Graduation, like the one last week at Memorial Auditorium.

The 42 new officers, who made it through 24 grueling weeks of training, were urged to be peacekeepers and role models, and to remember their training to make the right life-and-death decisions. Police Chief Sam Somers told them that it’s a tough time to be a cop with all the media and public scrutiny – and praised them for having the character to step up and serve anyway.

The 30 graduates reinforcing the Sacramento Police Department will have some more help living up to their noble calling. They are the first academy class to have a new Community Police Commission looking over their shoulders and offering guidance.

Designed to help build bridges between the police and the community, the commission is one of the most important reforms pushed by Mayor Kevin Johnson and other Sacramento leaders in response to the police shooting and riots in Ferguson, Mo., last year.

Since Ferguson, there have also been protests against police over the deaths of Eric Garner in New York, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C., Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Laquan McDonald in Chicago.

That kind of controversial police killing – and that level of unrest – hasn’t happened in Sacramento. But how strong is the bond between police and community here? If an officer shot an unarmed black youth, would there be a peaceful march, or a violent riot?

Les Simmons, the police commission’s first chairman, says while Sacramento’s police department is more community oriented than most, there’s still a lot of distrust, plus frustration that more progress hasn’t been made.

“Yes, we’re further along, but there’s a sense that at any moment, something like Chicago or something like Ferguson could happen,” he told me.

“If something goes down in Sacramento, you better bet there would be a march,” Simmons said. “How far it goes depends on the relationship between the police and the community.”

And that depends partly on the commission’s success at pushing the department in the right direction.

Simmons, 37, seems well-suited to the task. He has lived in south Sacramento since he was 8. For 16 years, he has worked at South Sacramento Christian Center, first as youth leader and now as a pastor of the 1,000-member congregation.

For the last six years, he has worked on gang and youth violence. He was active in Sacramento’s version of the Ceasefire program, which brings together police, clergy and others to give gang leaders a second chance with job training and other help. He’s now active in its successor, Cops and Clergy, where ministers mentor youth and work in the community.

After the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, Simmons went to Ferguson, representing Sacramento Area Congregations Together. He returned for the one-year anniversary in August, taking part in marches and talking to local leaders. So he knows better than most what can go wrong when police and residents don’t get along.

Besides that strong background, Simmons has many of the right priorities.

One is diversifying the Police Department. About three-fourths of the 670 sworn officers are white. Only 10 percent are Hispanic, 8 percent Asian and 4 percent black – numbers nowhere near representative of the city.

The new recruits sworn in last week will move the needle a bit. Of the 30 academy graduates joining the department, three are black, four are Hispanic, two are Asian and two are Middle Eastern. Six are women, compared to 17 percent of the current force.

Simmons also supports the department’s test of body cameras on officers as an important step on transparency, though he said it’s also important to change how police deal with people on the street.

Already, the department is taking key steps by offering more training for officers, seeking more minority recruits, honing anti-crime strategies for different neighborhoods and using social media to communicate with residents.

The panel’s mission is to monitor those initiatives and build on them. It replaces the 11-year-old Community Racial Profiling Commission, which didn’t do much after producing a study on traffic stops in 2008.

The new commission has much broader powers and duties. It will review the department’s training, diversity and community outreach programs; meet with citizen groups; and make recommendations to the City Council. It can request data from the police to analyze how and when officers use force, stop and detain people on the street and intervene in crises.

But the panel will not review specific cases of alleged police misconduct, will not seek to influence those investigations and will not get access to confidential information about individual officers.

I doubt the new commission was much on the minds of the graduates Thursday night. And maybe I was in a particularly optimistic frame of mind with Christmas around the corner.

Still, as I watched them take their oaths, then celebrate with their loved ones, I felt hope – hope that these men and women will faithfully protect and serve the community, and hope that the commission will make sure they do it the right way.