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After a series of controversial shootings, can the Stockton Police win back their community?

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

The following article and 25-minute documentary are the results of several months of reporting in the Stockton community and going on ride alongs with the Stockton Police Department. The documentary is broken into chapters within the article below, or you can watch the full-length film here.

All words, photos and video by Leslie Cory.

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It was a rainy Tuesday evening. Another Stockton City Council meeting was scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. Officer Jesse Smith had been on the clock since 10:30 a.m. He had responded to a handful calls, checked in on his assigned patrol area, finished writing a few reports—nothing out of the ordinary. He was tired, ready to go home. But a City Council meeting meant another protest, and as a member of the Stockton Police Department Mobile Field Force, he headed toward City Hall hoping nothing major would happen that night.

Stockton residents had been gathering at City Council meetings in early 2017 to demand greater transparency from their police force and the release of video footage relating to officer-involved shootings of civilians, after five such incidents in 2016. Some were asking for a federal investigation into the Stockton Police Department. Some were interested in specific cases. Several mothers of sons killed in officer-involved shootings were consistent demonstrators. They say they have failed to get answers or information from both SPD and Mayor Michael Tubbs.

The night’s protest started out as all the others had. Smith stood with his fellow officers listening to the meeting, outside closed doors. They took their cue to move inside when Mayor Tubbs began telling the protesters to leave.

“They already knew why they’re being told to leave,” Smith said. “Some listen, some don’t. Some kind of want to be forced out.”

The result was approximately 20 protesters trying to move up a stairwell while officers simultaneously held their ground, blocking the entrance to the meeting. One protester tried to break the police line. He lunged up the stairs, through the first two officers, and was met by the end of Smith’s baton.

“Get back,” Smith warned.

The man listened, and instead of trying to break the line again, he grabbed a slice of pizza from a protester standing next to him.

“He snatches the box of pizza, takes a piece out, and just starts throwing pizza at me,” Smith said. “One hit me in the face. There’s pizza sauce on my neck and uniform. He’s angry, he’s furious. He’s calling me stuff I won’t repeat.”

Eventually, the man ran out of pizza, so he threw the box. Then walked away. Like most nights, when Smith made it home later, his wife and kids were already in bed. He turned on Netflix, decompressed from the day’s work and fell asleep.

The protestors are aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement, and have rallied around the deaths of three Stockton residents, 21-year-old Keenan Bradley, 30-year-old Colby Friday, and 16-year-old James Rivera, Jr., all killed by law enforcement.

“I don’t like it when the police come in wearing riot masks and all of this kind of stuff because I believe that escalates the problem,” Bobby Bivens, president of San Joaquin NAACP Stockton, told CBS Sacramento in an interview following one of the protests.

Both the Stockton Police Department and the Stockton Sheriff’s Department were involved.

In Stockton, poverty, high crime rates, a bankrupt city and an understaffed police force have collided to create a combustible atmosphere of resentment and mistrust between cops and community. Protests are frequent. Officers are frustrated. How can a community ever feel like home, when there is mistrust between government, authorities and the people they serve? But as a pilot city for a special national program, Stockton is trying to patch the wounds that have festered for generations and rebuild the relationship between citizens and the officers who patrol their streets. If they’re successful, they’ll achieve a badly needed reconciliation and improve safety for everyone.

“I’m black, and I’m a police officer,” Smith said. “There’s certain things you agree with on both sides. There’s certain things you disagree with on both sides. Where do you go? There shouldn’t be picking of sides. I hope one day both sides can understand each other.”

THE CITY

“This is my home, my city, my work, my effort. I love Stockton. But boy, do we have our problems.” – Jagada Chambers, Stockton resident and member of Fathers and Families of San Joaquin

Located in California’s Central Valley, it was the prospect of gold that first brought settlers to Stockton. Over time the city’s industry shifted to shipbuilding and manufacturing, then to agriculture as it became a major shipping point for crops grown in neighboring Northern California towns. It still serves as a transit point thanks to the San Joaquin River waterways, but Stockton no longer boasts a dominant industry. Instead, it is a commuter city, an hour and a half east of the Bay Area with easy access to the I-5.

According to a study conducted last year by law firm Graham Donath that drew on data from the FBI, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and police departments, Stockton is the second most dangerous city in California, surpassed only by San Bernardino. Nationally, Forbes consistently ranks it in the top 10. Exacerbating the problem is poverty. As of March 2018, the unemployment rate for Stockton is at 7.5 percent, nearly double the national rate. The median household income, according to Mayor Michael Tubbs, sits at just over $44,000, significantly below the state average of nearly $62,000. One out of every four residents lives below the national poverty line.

Demographically, Stockton is relatively diverse. Forty percent of residents identify as Hispanic, Asians and whites each make up approximately 20 percent of the population, and 12.5 percent of community members identify as black.

Residents are quick to warn against writing the city off as damaged goods. “There are a lot of good people here,” I’m told by nearly every person I meet. “There are a lot of honest efforts going toward revitalizing the city.” Those efforts are evident in the east-central section of downtown Stockton where large alleyway murals, independent coffee shops and friendly waves from small business owners give the neighborhood a sheen of trendiness and youth more often associated with cities like Portland and San Francisco.

But drive a mile at most outside this 15-square-block area, and you’ll find that, in Stockton, poverty is often the unacknowledged and unwanted neighbor of privilege. It starts with the shuttered windows of abandoned buildings, first interspersed with the revitalization efforts, then overwhelming them. A little farther and the murals are replaced with graffiti. As clear as the urban renewal projects are downtown, so is the city’s battle with gangs, drugs and homelessness. What makes Stockton stand out though is the proximity between struggle and success. “It didn’t get this way overnight,” residents explain. “Don’t expect change overnight either.”

THE POLICE

“If you ask anybody that decided they wanted to be a cop, they wanted to go out and make a difference in the community that they’re working in. This is probably one of the best places to do it.” – Stockton Police Officer Marc Parker

In 2012, Stockton became the largest city in the U.S. to declare bankruptcy. In 2014, the community was hit again. A Bank of the West armed robbery turned into a hostage situation, multi-city car chase and gun battle, leaving one hostage dead by police gunfire. Bringing national attention to an already struggling city, the police department quickly became the focus for firing off 600 shots during the pursuit. Thirty-three officers responded to the robbery, and Misty Holt-Singh, one of three hostages taken by three armed robbers, was killed by 10 police bullets. Two of the assailants were also killed; police believe the third used Holt-Singh as a shield.

The Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. that was asked to conduct an independent review, called the event unprecedented and largely blamed a lack of leadership, officer experience and resources for the chaos that ensued. However, Chief Eric Jones, then new to the post, garnered praise for how he handled the situation. In a news conference following the incident, Jones accepted full responsibility on behalf of the department, vowing to consider any recommendations made by the Police Foundation and to examine policies, procedures and officer training for hostage incidents and rolling gunfire situations. The Police Foundation, though issuing criticism for the event itself, went so far as to compliment Jones on his efforts toward transparency with the Stockton community.

Prior to declaring bankruptcy, the Stockton Police Department had 441 officers. After the financial turmoil, it wavered around 320. Chief Jones has a lofty ambition: 500 sworn officers. In a city of Stockton’s size and jurisdiction, a well-staffed department should have around 2.4 officers per 1,000 citizens. Between 2013-2016, the department reached 420 sworn officers, a ratio of 1.37 officer per 1,000 residents. Although that number is headed in the right direction, hiring is a balancing act. Stockton is known for its rigorous training program, so officers sign up then depart for other departments that offer better compensation and less crime. This keeps the Stockton police force young. The average officer has just two to three years of on-the-job experience.

Those who stay will tell you that Stockton is a small city with big city crime. The police department averages around 1,000 calls on a slow day. Often, dispatch fields closer to 1,200 calls, prompting the watch commander on duty to call a “Condition Blue”: a code used to signal that officers should respond to emergency situations only. It’s an attempt to send officers where they’re needed most.

Officers get robbery-in-progress and shots-fired calls almost daily. But most of their time is spent in between when they’re asked to act as marriage counselors, social workers, psychologists, and stand-in parents. In an age when crime is often the leading story on the nightly news, people seem too afraid to walk next door and have a discussion about their neighbor’s music being too loud or their dog barking constantly. Instead, they call the police. When they’re not acting as mediators or responding to mental health issues, often officers just drive around for 10-hour shifts, profiling cars and running plates.

“I get this a lot of times when we pull cars over. ‘Oh man, it’s just my tail light. Or license plate light. That’s stupid, are you seriously pulling me over for a license plate light?’ Yeah, I am. I don’t know you. I don’t know who is driving this car. For all I know, you could be a bad guy with guns. Or carrying a bunch of dope. Who knows? Or a parolee on the run. Homicide suspect on the run. You could be anybody. But I don’t know that until I stop you,” says Officer Kevin Hachler.

The police say they are trying to eliminate those gun battles and car chases by preventing crime before it becomes a reality. But critics of these investigatory stops, sometimes referred to as broken-taillight policing, say it is an inherently uneven, biased method.

According to sociologists Charles R. Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody and Donald Haider-Markel in their research of traffic stops in the Kansas City metropolitan area published in, Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship, all investigatory stops are not treated equally.

“Over the course of a year, an African American man under age 40 has a 21 percent chance of being stopped in an investigatory stop if his car is some make or model other than a domestic luxury car; his chance of being stopped jumps to 36 percent if he drives a domestic luxury car,” the authors write.

“Police work isn’t reactionary,” Hachler says, recalling times when a person he’s pulled over has accused him of profiling. “I’ve had people tell me, you pulled me over because I’m Hispanic or I’m black or whatever. But, I mean, I can’t tell who’s driving this car. If it’s a man, a woman, black, white, Chinese, whatever.”

Hachler and his colleagues see it as a form of proactive policing—stopping someone for a small offense in order to search for the larger offenses. “If you take proactive policing out of this city,” Officer Marc Parker echoes, “you’re going to have problems.”

Still, Epp, Maynard-Moody and Haider-Markel argue that “accepted ways of carrying out a policy may be racially neutral on their face, but racially framed in their deepest structure and implementation.”

THE COMMUNITY

“More people in my city have endured what I have endured, than haven’t. More people of color anyway. That guilty until proven innocent, that instant presumption of guilt, that’s par for the course.” –Jagada Chambers, Stockton resident, member of Fathers and Families of San Joaquin

It’s been an everyday kind of morning for Officer Thomas Myers. He conducted a few routine stops, ran a plate here and there. Dispatch chatter broke the quiet of his patrol SUV frequently but remained fairly routine. Then a different type of call came over the radio.

Backup needed. Suspects with multiple guns.

Moments earlier a woman had flagged down a passing officer. “They have guns! Over there!” she cried, pointing toward a parking lot. “There are three black males, one wearing a black and red beanie. They all have guns! They’re going to shoot somebody!”

Within minutes, at least four police cars surrounded a parked vehicle, the driver wearing a black and red hat.

Get your hands up. Exit the vehicle. Walk backwards towards the sound of my voice. Put your hands behind your back. All of the men were searched and placed in handcuffs while the officers rifled through their car. They found a little marijuana, but no firearms.

To any observer, these were three black men being held at gunpoint by primarily white officers.

“Please, just search me,” one of the men pleaded.

“When these guys come out, they be ready to kill,” another said.

The officers explained what had happened, but the men still felt like they had been targeted.

“In the academy, we are trained everyone is armed,” Officer Thomas Myers explains. “You start having all these things kind of embedded into you that become subconscious reactions. It just becomes this programming. You’re assuming everybody has a weapon. Everybody is out to kill you. You know? That’s kind of beat into you in the academy, because that one time that you don’t do that, could be the time that somebody does actually draw a gun on you or pull a knife or whatever to harm you. So you’ve got to be ready for it.”

Stockton averages about one officer-involved shooting every quarter, according to Myers. In 2016, the department saw five total, including the killing of a 30-year-old black man named Colby Friday, who was shot after being mistaken for a domestic violence suspect. The officer involved, David Wells, failed to turn on his body camera during the incident.

After a lengthy investigation, in July 2018the San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office found Wells followed police procedure and cleared him of any wrongdoing.

“The police policies and procedures are institutionally set up to make it nearly impossible to bring a criminal charge against aggressive predatory Caucasian officers on the hunt to kill African-American males,” Friday’s uncle, Arthur Hall, told The Record. “For my nephew Colby Friday to be profiled and targeted because he’s an African-American male, that makes all of us at risk.”

The protesters at city council meetings and other members of the community echo those feelings.

“I’m of a certain age frame where we just didn’t trust the police, and it’s not without reason,” Stockton resident Brian Muhammed says. “As I’ve gotten older, I know there is definitely a need for police, but old mind-frames stay on. Being black and being a male, there’s always a possibility that something could happen when you engage with the police.”

Several officers told ABP that it’s also common for a person of any race to pull up to an officer’s window and thank them for their service, dedication and bravery. It’s a mixed perception that seems linked to the reality in which people were raised.

“My earliest childhood experience was, as a child, getting raided,” says Samuel Nuñez, Executive Director of Fathers and Families of San Joaquin. “Having the door kicked in—and having a bunch of white guys in blue suits with badges on, guns drawn—was traumatic.”

THE NATIONAL INITIATIVE

“In regards to police officers and law enforcement, we better take a seat at the table, and we better start having these conversations.” – Tashanté McCoy-Ham, Stockton Resident and case manager with the Stockton Trauma Recovery Center

It was almost 6 p.m. on December 6, 2016. A siren could be heard in the not-too-far distance. Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones and his then Chief of Staff, Lt. James Chraska, sat on top of their unmarked cars in uniform, eating straight-from-the-bag Chick-fil-A.

On that same Tuesday, Stockton police had responded to multiple armed robberies, shots fired, a homicide and a fatal car accident that had happened as Jones and Chraska were en route to the evening’s meeting. The dispatch center had received 1,144 calls—average for winter.

In a few moments, Jones would address a room of minority kids about the not-so-pretty history of policing. It would be one of the first conversations held as part of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice (NI). Stockton was chosen as one of six pilot sites for this three-year program, which aims “to improve relationships and increase trust between minority communities and the criminal justice system.”

Since 2015, officers have been undergoing training and workshops to address procedural justice and implicit bias. To work on reconciliation with residents, police administration personnel hold small meetings with community organizations where the police acknowledge past harms committed by officers and listen to personal stories. At one meeting, Stockton resident Tashanté McCoy-Ham and her mother spoke up about an officer-involved death in their family, saying that they never received any answers. The department investigated, later acknowledging that they had failed to follow-up.

“For five years, we had no answers. There were several holes,” McCoy-Ham said. “But at this point, it’s not about this case. It’s about the leadership and moral of the force, and if they’re ever going to change that.”

The meetings have continued, and each time the conversation gets a little closer to the right audience, but the participants have yet to be the people with the strongest feelings about the police, and the community members who interact with patrol officers on a near daily basis may never show up.

“I think the people that were already supporting law enforcement are more emphatic that we’re doing a good job,” officer Myers says, “and the people that distrusted us before, are more emphatic that we’re doing a bad job.”

Another obstacle to the National Initiative achieving its objectives has to do with the perception within the police department. Because of the focus on building trust between the police and the community, the day-to-day reality happening right outside the door risks being neglected. The National Initiative’s long-term blueprint hasn’t yet changed officers’ experiences. They drive around. They respond to calls. They talk to people.

“I think because we put a uniform on, or drive in this black and white car, that people look at us like we’re not really people anymore,” Sgt. Thomas says. “People that really think that we’re not people, I don’t think we’re going to be able to change their minds or attitudes towards us one bit.”

THE WAY FORWARD

“If we gave people what they want, would they be happy? Would it change anything?” – Stockton Police Officer Thomas Myers

From increasing department diversity to changing practices around how officers approach civilians, there’s a national outcry for police reform in the United States. That’s the genesis of the National Initiative and its reconciliation efforts. But listening to the stories of Stockton community members, the common thread of concern seems tied to a fear that officers either don’t understand or don’t care about the community they serve because they aren’t fully a part of it.

“Put police officers in the community that are from the community where they already know the people that grew up in community,” says Stockton resident Brandon Cooper. “How can you care about a community if it’s not yours?”

Nevermind the constant barrage of Coffee with the Cops, officers attending kids’ sporting events and gender or race-focused recruitment events. Residents say it’s not enough.

“We don’t want photo-ops and I don’t care about you playing. I just want my son to be safe,” says Jagada Chambers. “Not everyone that I work with, not everyone in my family, not everyone feels like if my son is lost, I don’t want him to go grab a cop.”

They want to see the interactions outside of these events, out on the streets, change. There is a difference between policing and protecting, they say, and the communities calling for change are those being policed.

“This is well beyond soundbites and imagery,” Nunez adds. “It’s really about law enforcement changing those experiences. I don’t think we’re the ones being protected most of the time. I think we’re the ones being policed.”

Some officers don’t see the distinction. They understand that they are in this job to serve the community. But, for them, that means preventing crimes as best as they can. Call it policing, call it what you want. But that’s what they signed up to do.

“As a department, I think the best thing you can do to build community relations is just do your job well,” Officer Myers says. “Be professional. And then spend a little extra time explaining the situation and process and why we’re there. Or why we did what we did.”

So what do the residents of Stockton really want from their police force? How much are the officers willing to change the way they do their job?

The answers to those questions start with a conversation, and Chief Eric Jones is taking steps to try to make those conversations happen. Trust and understanding aren’t achieved overnight, however. It’s a process that will continue to face challenges from both community members as well as the chief’s officers; and because Stockton is the first police department to implement the process of reconciliation, it truly is a pilot site for how this concept will work over time.

EPILOGUE

It’s been a little more than a year since I approached the community of Stockton and the Stockton Police Department to learn more about the relationship between the two and the juxtaposition of their perceptions. The National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice received a no-cost extension from the Department of Justice to continue efforts in its six pilot cities, but the funding is now winding down. Stockton Police Department has nonetheless continued listening sessions with community groups as an attempt to acknowledge past harms, meeting with groups such as Little Manila Foundation, El Concilio, the Black Leadership Council, Asian-Pacific Self-Development and Residential Association, San Joaquin Pride Center and the Sikh community.

“We are as committed as ever to the philosophy of the initiative and the principles we have learned and refined,” Chief Eric Jones says. “We will continue to do our reconciliation listening sessions, and we have gone even further by taking the themes from the listening sessions and having community input on our actual policies and practices.”

Samuel Kuhn of the National Network for Safe Communities and a research associate for the National Initiative told ABP that despite the change in presidential administration, the scope of work hasn’t changed, and there’s been no formal indication that things should be done any differently.

“There’s real trauma here. What is the responsibility of the police department to address that?” he says. “If we’re actually doing this correctly, though, this should make [police officers’] jobs easier in really concrete ways.”

The Stockton Police Department has committed to implementing several institutional changes already, such as the use of a Chief’s Community Advisory Board, the continuation of The Strategic Community Officer (SCO) program, and the introduction of a Neighborhood Impact Team, made up of code enforcement, health, parking, police and fire officials who address minor violations and community blight. These are highlighted in the most recent SPD Strategic Plan.

“When you’re dealing with systems, that stuff is deep-rooted,” Tashanté McCoy-Ham says. “There’s always room for more growth, but I think they are on the right path.”