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The City Journals

West Jordan Police Department prioritizes a ‘philosophy of peace’

Jun 24, 2020 03:21PM ● By Alison Brimley

: Guided by his peace-promoting philosophy, Chief Ken Wallentine regularly reviews dash-cam and body-cam footage of his officers’ “car approaches” to help them see how they can show more respect. A question like “Do you know why I stopped you?” doesn’t cut it—the approach should be clear and straightforward. (Photo by Robert Couse-Baker.)

By Alison Brimley | [email protected]

On May 31—a week after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, and following a weekend of riots and protests in response—West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine took to Facebook to share his perspective. The post he wrote, shared by the West Jordan Police Department, began with an anecdote.

“A West Jordan resident asked me yesterday whether something like the tragic death of George Floyd could happen in our city,” he wrote. “I answered that as much as I can be certain of anything in the future, clearly “no,” such a horrific wrong would not happen with our police department.”

What followed was an overview of the values upheld by WJPD as well as the policies that give Wallentine confidence in his answer. As of mid-June, the post had since been shared nearly 600 times and liked by 1,600 people. Wallentine doesn’t use Facebook, but the city’s communications director tells him over half a million have seen it. Of the nearly 200 comments on the post, most are supportive; residents express their appreciation of the department and recounted positive interactions with the police.

Wallentine does feel he has the trust of the community. But he’s aware that this trust is fragile, and it’s liable to be threatened amid increased scrutiny of police departments.

Indeed, not all were convinced by Wallentine’s reassurances. Utah’s policing in particular has come to national attention since an infographic went viral, demonstrating that Utah’s Black population is killed at the most disproportionate rate in the country. Despite making up just 1% of the population, nearly 10% of Utahns who died in altercations with police were Black.

One comment on the chief’s post pressed for more detail: “Our community is also interested in public data transparency. Is the WJPD willing to share the findings of internal reviews of excessive force? The breakdown of arrests and citations by race? The hours of training required by officers in de-escalation, racial bias, and U.S. history of institutionalized racism in policing? Our community is truly interested to know how you will guarantee that ‘nothing like this could ever happen by WJPD.’”

For one thing, Walletine is decisive when he said the tactics used by Floyd’s killers were not permissible; they were an “inappropriate infliction of pain and domination.” Chokeholds have not been taught in Utah, he estimates, for decades.

“We teach that officers may apply a knee to the back or to the buttocks if someone needs to be restrained,” He said. “But that technique? I would fire an officer if I saw that happen in our department without any hesitation.”

WJPD has a “stellar record” when it comes to low use of force incidents. Part of that comes from prioritizing high-quality training in physical skills.

“The more proficient you are in techniques to take people into custody without brute force, the more confident you are,” Wallentine said. “The more confident you are, the less likely you are to use force.”

But that’s not so unusual for a police department. The thing that makes West Jordan’s police training unique is the framework they use to train officers’ minds.

“It’s a course on how to think,” Wallentine said. “The theory being that outwardly those who are skilled proficient at thinking outwardly and analyzing thought patterns are those who can pursue paths of peace.”

The framework was initially developed by the Arbinger Institute, which trains business leaders of Fortune 500 companies. Based on publications by the Arbinger Institute, "The Anatomy of Peace and Leadership and the Art of Self-Deception,” this framework is a major part of WJPD’s training and is clearly close to Wallentine’s heart. He owns multiple copies of the books, keeping some at home and some at his office. At the moment, he’s loaned them all out. The peace-promoting Arbinger mantra, “You matter like I matter,” guides his work.

“And it works,” Wallentine said. “It works for us in our personal relationships, and it works in our interactions with people on the streets.”

After graduating from the police academy, recruits attend an additional two-week in-house academy where they complete four four-hour modules that teach them “how to examine their motives and their behaviors—to interrupt thinking patterns that are inwardly focused.” Refresher courses take place regularly for each officer.

Wallentine is an evangelist for the Arbinger approach, but he didn’t adapt it for police use himself. Chip Huth did that. Huth is a personal friend of Wallentine’s, as well as a senior consultant at Arbinger and a major with the Kansas City Police Department. The textbook he authored for use in police training is called “Unleashing the Power of Unconditional Respect.

Huth’s approach helped him transform the Kansas City Police Department. Using traditional policing techniques in a high-crime area of the city, Huth’s unit became the most complained-against in the department, according to a 2015 TED Talk. Within one year, Huth had tripled the department’s productivity and cut the complaints to zero by shifting their mindset to truly “see the people they [policed] as people.”

Wallentine echoes Huth’s approach.

“People call us at the worst moments of their lives,” he said. “We go into their homes, and we see them at their very weakest. It’s essential to see those people as very valuable members of our community.”

Still, many would feel more secure with the police playing a drastically reduced role in our country, and their voices have grown louder in the weeks since Floyd’s death. Decarcerate Utah is a group with a fast-growing following that is currently campaigning to cut the budget of the Salt Lake City Police Department and the University of Utah’s campus police, reallocating funds to social programs proven to decrease crime. Their efforts are currently focused on Salt Lake City police because most organizers live in Salt Lake, said co-founder Eliza McKinney. But “every police department is problematic and is only a means to enact violence and control of the oppressed class.”

“We are excited to see so many coming to the conclusion of abolition,” McKinney said.

While many advocate for shrinking and even abolishing police departments, more cautious reforms usually require increased police budgets. These include measures such as body cams and de-escalation or implicit bias training. But evidence of the effectiveness of these measures is mixed at best. Various studies of body cam use in the last five years have shown that they do not inhibit officers’ use of force to a statistically significant degree. And the effectiveness of implicit bias training, though it’s become popular, hasn’t been definitively evaluated.

Wallentine doesn’t rely on either of these to improve officer conduct, though body cams are worn by most WJPD officers. However, the cost of body cams is high, not just for the hardware itself but for the storage. Recently, the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s office stepped back from body cams for this reason.

It’s rare, Wallentine said, but in West Jordan, every significant use of force must be reported by officers by the end of the shift and personally reviewed by the chief. (A verbal warning is also required before use.) Even a threat of force must be reported. The policy is born of Wallentine’s recognition that trauma at the hands of law enforcement is emotional as well as physical.

“For me, pulling a gun out may not be a big deal,” he said. “But have you ever had a gun pulled on you?”

Bias training does occur, though it’s not specifically framed in terms of a bias against any particular group. Officers are trained using the Arbinger approach to “be self-aware and ferret out their biases.”

And his opinion about movements to defund police departments? Wallentine is less dogmatic than one might expect of a man who’s dedicated his life to law enforcement.

“What’s really ironic is that one of the reasons we’re in the situation we’re in now is because we’ve defunded social services,” he said. “Now, we expect the police officers to be the social worker and the mental health therapist.” To find a person in the midst of a mental health crisis is often frustrating for the officers because they “don’t have the resources” to provide the needed help.

To illustrate the effectiveness of the Arbinger approach, Wallentine often pivots to stories of officers acting in the role of social workers or even just concerned neighbors: feeding frightened children in the midst of domestic violence disputes or running down the street to a grocery store to replace a meal that had been burned while a conflict erupted at home. But here, he turns somberly to the story of a recent domestic violence call his officers responded to. Officers arrived at a home to find a man pinning his partner to the ground, having just thrown their toddler across the room. The officers moved to tackle the man and free his partner, not realizing the man was armed with a firearm. He was able to wrestle the gun from his belt and, with an officer on his back and his partner beneath him, fatally shot himself.

“I thought to myself, how would a social worker handle that call?” Wallentine said.

Wallentine is dedicated to “continuous improvement” within his force. The department has been re-examining language in its de-escalation policy to make it unambiguous. And he’s grateful for the minority voices who invite him to listen to their concerns.

“It is not the job of people of color in my circle to educate me on racism or their struggle or their challenges,” he said. “It is my job to study and learn, to understand [their] experience. It’s my job to be humble and to listen with the same intensity with which I wish to be heard. We’re doing our very best in humble fashion to merit [the community’s] trust and to improve structures for creating more trust.”