Police Chief on Racism: We Must Be Anti-Racist
Police departments around the region have not been quiet about police brutality in the wake of George Floyd's death.
Sandwich police condemned the actions of the officers who were involved, calling the incident "horrible" on Facebook. The post also says Sandwich officers undergo bias and de-escalation training.
WCAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Sandwich Police Chief Peter Wack about that training, and his thoughts on how police departments can confront racism.
Eident First, I just wanted to ask, what was your personal reaction to hearing about the death of George Floyd?
Wack You know, the images that we all saw leading to George Floyd's death completely shocked and angered me. And I, like many of your listeners, watched the video over and over. And I was just really angered by it being a police officer, that nobody intervened, nothing was done to stop it. In the days that followed, I spoke with our officers, residents, and I answered a lot of e-mails about, you know, what are we as a police department doing.
So, we felt as a department that it was really important for us to put a message out. And, we wanted to reaffirm the work that we, as a department have been doing over the past years, in recent years, to build relationships, to protect and serve those in our community in the most fair and impartial manner possible. So, it's been a difficult time for us as well, here in the Sandwich Police Department.
Eident Let's talk a little bit about what the department is doing. You mentioned in that Facebook post that the department already conducts trainings like bias-free training and training and how to de-escalate tense situations. First, let's focus a little on what bias-free training looks like for officers.
Wack Bias-free training takes officers through different training materials where they're seeing situations. And not only are they police-related incidents; they're community-related issues between individuals. We're trying to learn what the perspective of each of the involved parties is and what could be done better to build that situation into a better place. You know, it's further done through a lot of discussions. And the police officers have to use the tools that they've learned to de-escalate situations to make sure that bias-free policing is being used, and that everybody's rights are being protected.
Eident The bias-free training, and how to de-escalate tense situations, they kind of go hand-in-hand, then.
Wack Yes. You know, when an officer draws their firearm and experiences a situation where the person doesn't have any weapons or shows empty hands, we have to teach that officer how to de-escalate the force right away, re-holster that firearm. If there's still some type of force that's being threatened, use a different tool, use verbal skills, use open-hand techniques, or something like that, to manage the situation and put away the deadly force.
Eident Do you think the training is enough, or do you think it needs to be made more of a priority, or more added to it?
Wack I think what we're doing in Sandwich, and what we're doing in Massachusetts, and even New England, I've worked in two other states as a police officer, we've been doing policing differently over the past several decades. We're teaching and practicing bias free policing. We're teaching in the classroom, in the practical setting, de-escalation of force. We've introduced non-lethal forms of force.
And, you know, even to take it a step further, what we're doing here on Cape Cod--if you look at any Cape Cod police department's Facebook page, you'll see endless community policing initiatives, which have built amazing bonds with our communities. And, I think what we need to do is continue this effort, continue to build on this training, continue to build on these relationships, and continue to solve problems for those we serve.
Eident Do you think racism is something that needs to be talked about in the force, or do you see it in the community, when officers in the department are on patrol?
Wack You know Kathryn, what we've been dealing with is in a number of different areas. And if you look as far back as 9/11, we were working with the Middle Eastern communities on concerns they had. And more recently, we were dealing with issues statewide on sexual orientation.
Most recently, we were dealing with issues of undocumented individuals, and how we, as police departments, were dealing with those individuals and were safeguarding them. This is, by far, another very important topic.
So, as police departments, and as a Cape Cod region of law enforcement, we have been working with our communities, our residents, the Human Rights Commission in the county, and we continue to do that. And, we will; we will work towards meeting the needs of residents.
Eident There has been talk about this notion of defunding police, and there's actually a commentary in the Cape Cod Times by Brent Harold. He talked about how at first this notion may not seem relevant to us here, but that if you were to think about it as a mandate for reform, that with town meeting and public hearings, that we have a way to talk with our police departments and be a check and a balance for them if and when there was a reform needed. And cited a few examples of how that has worked in the past. Would you agree with that?
Wack You know, there are some very large metropolitan law enforcement agencies. And, you know, some of them have worked very hard on building community relations. But maybe one of the thoughts would be to have them work more on a precinct basis with their community, a smaller group of officers working with a smaller resident base on a regular basis, rather than people changing and, you know, working in different zones every night.
I think another component is before disbanding or defunding goes, you need to look at the U.S. Department of Justice view of what law enforcement agencies should do. So, there is an agreement that agencies that have had trouble or issues with the DOJ, they have to sign onto a consent decree. And, it's basically a legal agreement of making change.
I look at those agreements as a model for me to develop policy and practices here in Sandwich. And, the Department of Justice says you should have good de-escalation training. You know, the other thing that the DOJ looks at is, how do you hear your citizen complaints? You know, in the past, police departments would say, "we only take written sworn statements of complaint." Now you have to take anonymous complaints and written complaints, and verbal complaints, and complaints from third parties. And, you have to investigate them in their entirety.
So, I think we need to look at, you know, policing and how we're doing it in our small environments. But, we also have to look at a foundation of what the DOJ sees in our agencies. And for the most part, you're going to find that the majority of law enforcement agencies across the country, and especially here on Cape Cod, are doing that already.
Eident If a group of residents came to you and said, you know, we would like to talk about what's happening in the force, learn more and suggest changes, you would be open to at least listening to them?
Wack We've done that in the past. We've had some people that have been very critical of our department. And one of the first things I do, obviously, I meet with them and and we talk. But I say, please, "it's free. Sign up for our citizen police academy. Ask questions. Be critical of us."
And, after we're done, we do an evaluation that can be anonymous. But tell us, are we doing it right? Are we doing it wrong? Is there something we can do better? So, that's really another place where police departments that are struggling around the country could try to bring their community into their police department through some type of civic connectivity with their department.
Eident Anything else that you think is important to add as we think about what happened in the death of George Floyd, and what it may mean as we see demands for police reform?
Wack I listened to the video from a pastor named Andy Stanley from North Point Church just outside of Atlanta. And I recognize that your listeners come from a wide spectrum of religious beliefs. But, he made a few statements in this video which really resonated on me.
And, he began by asking, "how do people who don't look like us experience us?" And then he said, "how should people who don't look like us experience us?" And he went on to to explain that being nonracist isn't good enough. What we need to be as anti-racist.
And he equated it to anti-bullying, anti-child abuse. Look how aggressive we've been those two issues, I mean, if we were driving down the road and saw a child being beat by an adult, we would take action. We need to do that with anti-racism as well. We need to take action.
And one of the things that he really recommends strongly: pursue and make friendship with people who aren't like us, develop conversations and come about ways that we can change. And in closing, he said "we each are somebody else's experience today and every day. And how should that experience be?"
So, I think as we move forward on this topic, whether it's a law enforcement community conversation or whether it's a community conversation itself, we have to really look at each one of ourselves and we have to want to change and really work towards achieving these goals.
Eident Police Chief Peter Wack, thank you so much for talking with us.
Wack Kathryn, thank you for having me on.
This transcript was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.