Policing with minority perspectives in mind

Keizer Police Chief John Teague (right) welcomes two new police officers to the Keizer Police Department.

Thirty years ago, Keizer Police Chief John Teague had his worldview reset when an acquaintance told him he saw a “black man” in the mirror every morning. 

“I found it remarkable that his race was that prevalent to him,” said Teague, who is white. In the aftermath of that conversation, he started paying closer attention to the ways in which race is used to hinder the progress of minorities. 

“A while back, Wells Fargo was taken to task for charging people of color higher rates for their mortgages than white folks. Just imagine if you’re a respectable, hardworking, successful, really good, admirable man and, for all that effort, you’re getting dinged on your mortgage payment because you’re black.” 

In a 2015 study published by the National Institute of Health, more than 93 percent of roughly 300 black, male participants reported feeling stress. Almost two-thirds attributed additional stress to money and finances, 43 percent replied with racism as a specific cause. 

“If you’re a black person and you are told all the time that cops stop you because of race and you see other black men being stopped, all those things eat at you, you question all of them,” Teague said. “I don’t know about you but, when I’m in those situations, I feel it in my gut.”

Teague said he was once falsely accused of something in the town where he lives and not knowing what others thought of him began to color his interactions with other people in the city. Aside from making Teague aware of himself in new ways, he also had to break down barriers others might have erected in the wake of the accusation. He found some guidance in a book titled Whistling Vivaldi and Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us by Claude Steele. 

“The author is a rather imposing black man and he writes about walking down the sidewalk and people would get out of his way,” Teague said. “So he began whistling some of some tunes from Vivaldi, which are typically very upbeat. And he said, just by doing that, people would look him in the eye and they would acknowledge him and say, “Hi.’ Members of the minority are carrying a burden that white folks don’t have, like it or not.”

Overcoming the unwitting and overt ways race impacts our daily interactions requires a more complete understanding of how any minority experience differs from the white experience of this country. Black Americans are regularly told to be skeptical of police and then a video surfaces that provides the evidence to support it. Black parents have to have conversations with children about police that do not resemble the ones white families have in any way. By contrast, many white people are often told that the United States is nearly infallible and that any evidence to the contrary should be met with similar skepticism.

Teague mentions summons up a quote he came across in a book about the black experience, Stamped from the Beginning, by Ibram X. Kendi, “We have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.” 

Audre Lorde, a black, lesbian poet and author is the source of that quote. The lead-in to the portion Teague mentioned provides context and is just as enlightening: “Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human difference between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate.”

These are the kinds of things Teague is thinking about as a leader in the Keizer Police Department and policing efforts throughout the state. Teague described himself as a “gun-carrying, homeschooling, conservative Christian” at an event several years ago regarding race relations and Marion County police officials, but those labels – and their opposites – only scratch the surface of any person.

“They don’t touch who I am,” Teague said. “That comes from somewhere else, and I can appreciate and understand how Benny Williams [president of the Marion County NAACP] or Roland Herrera [a Keizer city councilor] have to go through life differently than I do. It’s a matter of getting to know people and know their experiences.” 

With that lens, Teague has a different take on recent police protests and that actions that led up to them. 

“The acute problem is what happened to George Floyd, but the chronic, more pernicious problem is what happened to Christian Cooper,” Teague said. 

Days before Floyd died under the knee of Minneapolis Police Department Officer Derek Chauvin, Cooper was watching birds in New York City’s Central Park when a white woman called police on him for asking her to leash her dog. 

Teague said firing Chauvin in a moment of passionate uprising turns the situation political when what both residents and police officers need is clear lines of “procedural justice.”

“We have to build cultures within our agencies that give people on the street procedural justice. Where we treat them with dignity and respect, where we give them a chance to be heard, where we convey trustworthy motives, where we make reasonable, informed, transparent decisions,” he said. “When you look at video and call a guy guilty and fire him, I guarantee you, you’re not giving him the chance to be heard. You’re not making reasonable, informed decisions. You’re not conveying trustworthy motives. You’re conveying political motives.”

The type of swift, political action made when the offending officer was fired – before an investigation was complete – strengthens “the blue wall” of silence on behalf of police officers, Teague said. 

“If you don’t build a culture of procedural justice, a fairness within your agency, how can you expect the cops to hold each other accountable?” Teague said.

Building strong police agencies means adhering to strict codes of procedural justice from the outset, Teague said. While many police chiefs loathe dealing with personnel problems, Teague believes they are among the most essential training tools.

“Those are absolute gold because you get to build, over time, the reputation within your agency of how you’re going to handle things and how you’re going to treat people with respect,” he said. 

One of the issues facing police more broadly is the access to research on what makes for the best practices and ,Teague said, even when there is ample access, the resulting recommendations and resources to implement them are aimed at large agencies, like NYPD or LAPD. To combat the oversight, Teague helped establish the Center for Policing Excellence at the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, home of Oregon’s police academy among other programs. The goal of the project is to connect police officers at all levels with the best research to inform how they do the day-to-day work. 

Making sure racially charged incidents don’t arise from the Keizer Police Department comes down to hiring officers that meet a set of qualifications beyond knowing when to use force and how to do it when the situation requires it, Teague said. 

“We don’t test for policing skills in new recruits, we can teach those,” he said. “We test for courage, conscientiousness, a sense of justice, empathy, helpfulness and humility. That’s it. That’s who we look for. ”

He pointed to a recent issue with a regular gathering of car owners in Keizer Station, some participants would attempt burnouts as they left the event, creating danger for those at the gathering as well as those in the shopping center for other reasons. 

“Most agencies would go up there and start laying tickets on people. Well, that doesn’t do a darn thing for anybody except cost those kids money and time. It does not build legitimacy at all,” Teague said. 

Instead, a Keizer officer tracked down the organizer and asked if they could speak about what is happening. It turned out the man had moved to Keizer from California to get away from gangs and he had been attempting to discourage the burnouts already while providing an outlet for local enthusiasts. 

“My guys are awesome. They totally get this,” Teague said. 

Teague hopes that instituting forward-facing, procedural justice in the Keizer Police Department soon makes its way to other agencies as its officers make their way to other communities. 

The drawback to Teague’s approach is it will take time and, as nationwide protests have demonstrated, many are tired of waiting. 

Contact the reporter at [email protected].