A class created by the San Jose Police Department to bridge gaps between officers and minority communities could come to Waco, adapted to cover local history.
The city’s racial equity efforts are beginning to take shape, and various parts of city government are branching out into the topic. Waco Police Chief Ryan Holt visited the San Jose Police Department in California to sit in on its “Policing in the Current Political and Social Climate” course, which is mandatory for new officers and digs into San Jose’s local history, how it shapes the present, and why not every community views police the same way.
“The basic concept is that we would like to share with our officers the history of policing that shapes the perception our different communities have about us,” Holt said. “As a profession, we haven’t done a good job of talking about from where we’ve come.”
Holt said while there are no concrete plans to bring the program to Waco yet, he was impressed with what he saw.
“I don’t ever want anyone to misunderstand my intentions,” Holt said. “It’s not to place blame on police officers, but I do want to create a common understanding so our officers, and other officers for that matter, know why others might look at them differently. No harm can come from common understanding.”
The course also discusses the string of high-profile deaths of black citizens at the hands of police that arguably began with Michael Brown in 2014. Most recently, Atatiana Jefferson was shot and killed in her Fort Worth home by a Fort Worth police officer.
Peaches Henry, president of the Waco chapter of the NAACP, said her organization has a working relationship with the Waco Police Department. Understanding history is a crucial step, Henry said.
“I think those courses can be helpful,” Henry said. “I think they can be instructive, because we have younger generations that just are not aware of the ways law enforcement has participated and been the instrument of systematic racism in our country, and indeed locally here in Waco.”
She said while historical context is important, she would caution against framing racism as a thing of the past that modern police have moved past.
“We are seeing these incidents across the country currently as well,” Henry said. “It’s commendable the course doesn’t give the impression that difficulties between communities and law enforcement are only historical, as though relationships are not fraught with tension … and difficulty presently as well.”
Officer James Gonzales with the San Jose Police chief’s office said the original program was developed by partnering with San Jose State University and community representatives.
The program focuses on Bay Area racial history, including the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Zoot Suit Riots and a riot that broke out during the city’s annual Fiesta de las Rosas. The course also covers the 2003 shooting of Cau Bich Tran, who San Jose officers killed in her kitchen after mistaking her vegetable peeler for a weapon.
“There’s a lot of these really local things that happened in San Jose,” Gonzales said. “The chief’s vision for this is that hopefully other places see the value in this. We’re all trying to do the same thing.”
Gonzales said many young officers entering the force are hoping to build trust with those communities, and the class gives them an insight they would not otherwise have.
“All these officers, whether they’re in Waco or San Jose, are working on their relationship with communities of color,” Gonzales said. “It’s something everyone knows needs work.”
Gonzales said in San Jose, the drastic shift in discussions of policing and race has actually spurred people to join the police force in hopes of improving the system, a trend he compares to the increase in military enlistment immediately following the 9/11 attacks.
“We’re seeing a lot of people joining the police department who want to represent a demographic that isn’t predominant in policing, or who see what’s going on with relationships,” Gonzales said. “They graduate on Friday, and on Monday they start this class.”
The three basic pieces of the program are community development of the curriculum, local history and an outside source to present the information to each class.
Holt said mistrust for police among minority groups is something he has been researching for years. He came across the San Jose Police Department’s program by chance and thought it could be adapted for Waco’s own unique racial history. He said the program is not about placing blame, but teaches officers a history they would not otherwise learn through traditional police training.
“I don’t think anyone can accuse me of being soft on crime, and I don’t intend to be soft on crime,” Holt said. “We still expect our police officers to be effective and provide a safe environment for our community to live in, but you can still do that with respect, and you can certainly do that with understanding.”
Holt pointed to the Lorena Riot, which broke out when McLennan County Sheriff Bob Buchanan tried to halt a Ku Klux Klan march through Lorena in 1921, as an example of a local event the program could cover. The 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington, known as the Waco Horror, provides another clear example.
“This uniform that we wear means something different to different people,” Holt said. “Depending on what your history is with the police, it can mean something entirely different. There is a specific history in Waco, Texas.”