- Harrison Berry
- No cameras were allowed in the Idaho Black History Museum during the Community Discussion on Police Relations.
The Community Discussion on Police Relations, held at the Black History Museum on Oct. 27, was a secure space for attendees to air their feelings about Boise and Ada County law enforcement.
"I want there to be discussion, but there needs to be this sense of safety," said organizer Leta Neustaedter. "This is a private moment that's going to happen."
The meeting—promised to be the first of several—brought together approximately 60 members of the community, organizers like Neustaedter, Angela Taylor and members of Black Lives Matter; along with Boise Police Chief Bill Bones and Ada County Sheriff Stephen Bartlett. They were there to discuss law enforcement in the shadow of the officer-involved shootings of black people and the attacks on police officers, both happening across the U.S., and highlighting racial disparities in policing and the criminal justice system.
Some members of the audience said they'd witnessed prejudicial treatment of people of color by police officers in Boise.
"It seems like when we say, 'black lives matter,' people say, 'No, we don't. Don't bring that here,'" said one person. Another described seeing a police patrol vehicle follow a black child down a street, describing the scene as "unacceptable" and "a prime example of systemic discrimination."
Saying all people, including police officers, have unconscious biases, Bones said there are severe consequences for officers whose bias causes them to behave inappropriately.
"Biased policing gets you fired at the Boise Police Department," he said to applause.
Racial disparities in law enforcement are systemic, Bones and Bartlett said. Between 1 and 1.5 percent of Boiseans are black, Bartlett said, but according to data collected by his office as part of a report to the MacArthur Foundation, people of color were more likely than white people to be booked into jail.
Of the more than 9,000 white arrestees, 18 percent were given citations and released. For Asian-American arrestees, that number dropped to 16 percent; for Hispanic and black arrestees it was 14 percent; and for Native Americans arrested, only 9 percent were cited and released.
When whites end up behind bars in Boise, the data show they also spend less time there. According to figures shared at the community discussion, black, Native American and Hispanic arrestees spent an average of five days longer in the Ada County Jail than their incarcerated white and Asian-American counterparts.
Bartlett said his hope is to reduce his jail population by 15-19 percent, and the numbers his department collected show how criminal justice reform may help ameliorate racial disparities and save money.
"The bottom line is, yes. In Ada County, there is a problem [of racial disparity in criminal justice]. Let's find the true facts and make us better," Bartlett said.
Bones and Bartlett fielded questions about how to behave during a traffic stop, identifying inappropriate police behavior and reporting that behavior to police dispatch, but some audience members said they've seen too many instances in which victims of police violence appeared to be cooperating with officers but were injured or killed anyway. Others said they felt like little would come of reporting a negative law enforcement experience.
"We see so many videos where people are cooperating with the cops and they still get shot," said one audience member.
Others expressed gratitude. One woman in the audience described how police saved her life, but worried for her children about police shootings. Several brought up how police respond to people suffering from mental illness and the militarization of law enforcement.
"It's not the equipment that you're carrying, it's the mentality," Bones said.
Since Bones became Boise Police Chief, 63 officers have been issued body cameras as part of a move to increase transparency and provide higher quality evidence in criminal cases. The department has shifted its priorities to de-escalating tense interactions with the public, treating unconscious bias and improving services to those with mental health issues, including hiring a department mental health coordinator—but the citywide plan to address bias didn't satisfy one attendee.
"The police will manipulate you to get you to do things," she said. "We need justice and transparency," she said. "I just want to see some action."
Another attendee concluded police and the public live and work in the same criminal justice ecosystem, and it will take good faith to address bias.
"I'm hoping we came together not to point fingers," he said. "We seem to think we're always right, but who do you call when somebody's robbing your house?"