Skip to main content

The City Journals

Community policing? It’s a matter of ‘community caring,’ panel tells Pacific Islander conference

Jun 20, 2019 01:33PM ● By Jennifer J Johnson

The power of community policing was in motion at the sixth annual National Pacific Islander Violence Prevention Conference, where West Valley City Police Chief Colleen Jacobs recruited members of the Pacific Islander community to represent the city on community policing boards. (Jennifer J. Johnson/City Journals)


By Jennifer J. Johnson | [email protected]

Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown called it.

“Trust has waned the last four years. We need to strengthen trust,” he said.

Strengthening trust, particularly with Pacific Islander communities, was the message of a five-person “Community Policing Panel,” addressing the sixth annual National Pacific Islander Violence Prevention Conference, held in April in West Valley City at the Embassy Suites.

The Community Policing Panel was a powerful, open, respectful exchange and even created some real-time, on-the-spot synergies for the local Pacific Islander community at the event.

The conference, managed by local grassroots organizer Susi Feltch-Malohifo'ou and her Pacific Island Knowledge To Action Resources (PIK2AR) group, brought together social services, law enforcement and cultural experts from around the world.

But to discuss the topic of law enforcement? Only the moderator, Malissa Netane-Jones with the San Mateo, California-based Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center, and one other panelist, Gaynor Siataga of the San Francisco Equity Group, came from out of the area. The rest of the experts came from Salt Lake County.

Salt Lake law enforcement speaks to unique challenges of local Pacific Islander community

Utah hosts a significant Pacific Island community, with almost 40,000 residents identifying as Pacific Islanders. Indigenous inhabitants of the Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia groups of islands of the Pacific Ocean comprise Pacific Islanders.

According to 2014 U.S. Census Bureau data, one in four Tongans living in the U.S. resides in Utah, with Salt Lake City and West Valley being the most populous Tongan communities in the country. Salt Lake City has the fourth-largest Samoan community in the states. 

According to the Urban Institute Think Tank, Pacific Islanders, as well as Asian-Americans, are “a missing minority” in criminal justice data.

Institute analysts Cathy Hu and Sino Esthappan theorize that, because these groups demonstrate high academic and economic achievement, they do not face the same negative profiling and social barriers as do their black or Hispanic counterparts. 

Research from moderator Netane-Jones’s organization echoes this finding, indicating that the prevalence of assault and abuse amongst Pacific Islanders or Asian-Pacific Islanders demographic groups is easily overlooked by agencies that serve entire cities or counties.

Amid this backdrop, the Community Policing Panel took center stage at the Pacific Islander Violence Prevention Conference. Joining moderator Netane-Jones and SLC Police Chief Brown on the panel were SLCO Sheriff Rosa “Rosie” Rivera, West Valley City Police Chief Colleen Jacobs, former SLC Police Officer and Chief of Investigations for the Salt Lake City Legal Defenders Association Isi Tausinga, and out-of-town guest and community activist Siataga.

Community trust – ‘a huge challenge’

Brown was serving as interim police chief of SLC Police Department in 2016 when an officer-involved shooting served as the catalyst for protests across the city. Brown worked with community leaders, comprised of the local NAACP chapter, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black Lives Matter, Utahns Against Police Brutality, and other community organizations.

Rivera indicated, “Public trust is a huge challenge,” naming it as one of the top-three challenges she finds in her role as CEO of law enforcement over the largest county in the state.

“Distrust has really crept between law enforcement and the communities we serve,” Brown said.

From Brown’s point of view, law enforcement went through a time where an inappropriate focus on technology versus people added to an erosion of trust when explosive situations occur. 

“The cars, the radio, the technology all got better,” he observed, “but we forgot to stop and talk to the people we serve.” 

He added, “In my opinion, trust is the biggest issue, but we have worked hard and have moved the needle.”

How can local law enforcement combat the crisis of confidence?

“Get out of your car. Shake a hand. Look people in the eyes.” These were tactics given by Brown.

When trust of law enforcement prevails within a community, that is a “great moment,” said West Valley City's Jacobs.

She indicated what a treasure it is, when “you have legitimacy given by a community, and have them trust us versus question everything we do.” 

Jacobs likely encourages this confidence and shared trust through her core beliefs. “Policing is not just enforcing the laws,” she said. “It is (contributing to) a community of care.”

Moderator Netane-Jones noted that trust is earned by law enforcement, and that the onus is on law enforcement to become “allies,” as opposed to “some person they don’t want to deal with.”

‘We are going to have a relationship’

Brown indicates having an aha moment when asked why it was that, “When you guys come to our neighborhood why do you come in dark cars?”

Making the relationship not be about fear is one key to building trust, he shared, indicating that relationships will occur and guiding them to be the best possible interactions is a law enforcement priority.

Tausinga, who said he was the first Tongan police detective in the SLC Police Department, indicated diversity is a core component of trust and gave the challenge to better diversify law enforcement. Tausinga asked himself the hypothetical question, “What does community policing mean and look like to us, as Pacific Islanders?”

‘These poor officers are stuck in the middle’

Tausinga’s answer portrays compassion for law enforcement and Pacific Islander victims and perpetrators alike.

“There’s so much hate (from the) political system,” he said. “These poor officers are stuck in the middle, trying to solve problems.” Tausinga, once a detective with the SLC Metro Gang Unit, in the past has spoken about the emotional toll of trying to help keep Pacific Islanders out of gangs and illegal activities. He now works on the “law” side of law and order—serving as the chief of investigation for the Salt Lake Defenders Association.

San Francisco’s Gaynor Siataga indicated the importance for law enforcement agencies to be diverse, and to “look like their communities.” (Interestingly, the diverse panel comprised two Pacific Islanders, one Latina, two white police chiefs, and a Pacific Islander moderator; there were three women panelists, two male panelists, and a female moderator.)

Almost as a support point to Siataga’s comment, Rivera indicated having just promoted two Pacific Islander officers to detectives and her department’s focusing on learning-implementing-improving de-escalation techniques and “trauma-informed policing.” 

Jacobs reminded the panel that her city comprises the state’s largest Pacific Islander community. Jacobs told the room of 100-some Pacific Islanders and other activists that West Valley was actively recruiting resident involvement on a community policing board and also indicated law enforcement as a positive career option for Pacific Islanders.

In answering WVC resident Tofi Faasou’s question about how to better engage to make an impact on law enforcement in her community, Jacobs advised the conference attendee to apply for the role with the police board she had previously mentioned. At the close of the session, Faasou was meeting with Jacobs and avidly discussing the opportunity.

“It is so easy to hate,” Brown said. “But [look what happens] when we just sit here and shake hands.”