Between March and July in the city of Salinas, Calif., four Latino men were shot and killed by police officers, which has sparked protests likening the situation to that in Ferguson, Mo., where teenager Michael Brown was killed on Aug. 9.  Here’s police chief Kelly McMillin on the tricky process of rebuilding trust. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.


Police hold a perimeter on Del Monte Avenue in Salinas, Calif., Wednesday, May 21, 2014.. (AP Photo/Monterey County Weekly, Nic Coury)

When we talk about a national conversation about race relations, they’re very Afro-centric. Salinas is 73 percent Latino, and then the rest are Caucasian. I don’t have an African American issue here, in any way. I have a huge Latino population that I need to address.

So one of the challenges of a heavily Latino population, and a lot of immigrant Latinos, is that they don’t speak English. A lot of the fear of law enforcement in the Latino community comes from a cultural fear of law enforcement from whichever country they came from. A big portion of our community is undocumented, so they’re fearful that if they come into contact with law enforcement, they’ll be deported. And I’ll say for the record, we do not do that. We do not ask the question ‘where are you from,’ ever, it just does not come up. But communicating that is one of the big challenges.

We have 40 percent Latino officers, fewer are bilingual, and of those, fewer than those are culturally competent, because just because you can translate English into Spanish doesn’t mean the message is perceived in the right way.

I think this is a struggle that every majority-minority community is dealing with, which is how do you balance out your department. The pool of qualified police applicants out there is utterly dismal. We’re struggling to find good cops of any race. My ideal police officer is a young man or woman who grew up in Salinas, who is reflective of the diversity of Salinas, who understands this community. We’re not wealthy, we’re a labor-based agricultural community. We’re running with San Francisco in terms of cost of living, so when you’re trying to feed a family of four by harvesting lettuce or working in a packing shed, it’s tough.

And we don’t have any money to hire cops, by the way. We’ve lost 25 percent of our sworn staff since the recession, in a department that was desperately understaffed at our highest, facing a community plagued by violence.  It’s really important that we be reflective of the community, but it’s not for lack of trying.

As I’m struggling with this, I’ve come across kids who I know would be great police officers. One was a trainer at my gym. I grabbed this kid and said, ‘I’m impressed with you. What’s your background? You can’t be a trainer forever.’ He said, ‘Wow, I never thought about being a cop, but that would be cool. I love my town, and that would be huge.’

I know this kid would be fantastic. He grew up in a really challenged part of town, never been in trouble, comes from a really good family. He gets it; he’s personable. So I put him out on a ride-along, had him in my office for an hour talking about the process, gave him some tips to brush up on. He passed the writing test, passed the physical agility test, and he came in and failed the oral board to make it into the hiring process, and I was just devastated.

He passed the writing test, passed the physical agility test, and he came in and failed the oral board to make it into the hiring process, and I was just devastated.

And this has happened a number of times. So I want this nonprofit organization to look at my hiring process and see how I could tweak it so I’m not unintentionally excluding people.

So that’s one thing. Here’s another thing. With a 154,000 population, I average 11 patrolmen on day shift. Eleven. It’s one of the lowest ratios in California, and therefore the lowest ratio in the country, because nobody has fewer cops than California. So at community meetings, people are saying, ‘We don’t trust the police department.’ I’m challenging them to say look at the people around you, find people who you think would be good servants of the community and get them in here, and let them effect change from the inside if you think we need to change.

One of the things that we’ve done that’s emerging is the legitimacy and procedural justice work. It’s work by Tracey Meares at Yale and Tom Tyler at Harvard. Basically what they have put together with the Chicago PD is this training curriculum. I grew up as a cop believing in what’s known as deterrence theory. Here’s deterrence theory: You’re driving on a road and see a cop on a motorcycle behind you. The next three things you’re going to do is look at how fast you’re going, make sure your seatbelt’s buckled, and throw your cellphone down on the ground. Because that cop represents authority. People obey the law because they don’t want to get in trouble.

What this new study finds is that can be effective, but you’ll get better compliance with the law if people understand that the law is there to serve them, if law enforcement actions are in their best interest, even if it results in their arrest. So there’s a really important method of communicating with people: Everybody knows it’s illegal to drive with their cellphone, duh. So I can’t just say, ‘Ma’am that’s illegal. I’m going to write you a ticket.’ That doesn’t get you anywhere. So the conversation needs to be more around, ‘I can’t tell you how many accidents I’ve seen on this road because they’re distracted on their cellphones. So I’m afraid I’m going to have to write you a citation, and I hope you understand, because you’re putting the community at risk by doing that. Do you have any questions?’

As near as I can tell, I’m the first police department in California to train everybody in procedural justice. What it does is forms the foundation of long-term trust in the community. Got to start somewhere, right?

So if a white police officer in Salinas contacts a group of young Latino gang members on a corner and ends up arresting one for violating his probation for associating with other gang members, the appropriate phrasing would be, ‘You guys are putting yourselves at risk, you’re putting all the innocent people around you at risk, because when you gather out here dressed how you are, acting the way you do, you know other guys are going to come by and shoot at you. And when that happens, who’s going to get shot? Maybe you, maybe your sister, maybe your mom. And all the neighbors around here are terrified, because you guys intimidate people. And I’m taking you to jail because you should know better.’

It’s not giving anyone a break, it’s just adding in … a little dignity in the process, a little bit of communication, heartfelt and sincere.

And you struggle with young police officers who are in what I call the ‘swagger years.’ They’ve got the job dialed in; they know their beat. A good offender can really push a police officer’s buttons. So the emotional maturity part is really important to instill. We’re going to separate the behavior from the individual. If you’re going to yell at me, I’ll just understand that you’re yelling at my badge, and you can do it all day long. But getting there is really hard.

We have released names in many shootings, most shootings. But in this case, because there have been a lot of threats on social media, in the mail, in graffiti toward the safety of officers, we’re not releasing them.

Salinas is a town that’s plagued with firearms violence, particularly around gang-involved youth. So we find ourselves doing high risk warrants all the time. We had for years and years an old Brinks armored car that was so old we had to literally machine our own parts for it. It was so rusty we had duct tape on the roof to keep the rain out, so you can see how that doesn’t fit the bill of armored car. It was costing us more to repair than to operate.

So the 1033 program comes along, and we’re able to get an MRAP. It’s a ballistically sound vehicle. There is not one offensive weapon on it. Is it big? Yeah. Is it intimidating? Sure. But at the end of the day, it’s a big van, that if someone shoots at, we’re not going to get hurt.

Is it big? Yeah. Is it intimidating? Sure. But at the end of the day, it’s a big van, that if someone shoots at, we’re not going to get hurt.

Remember the part about how Salinas is broke? That’s a $630,000 vehicle. A civilian version of that is something called a Bearcat, which is smaller, but essentially the same thing. That’s a quarter million off the showroom floor. I don’t have a quarter million dollars. What I do have is $4,000 that I got in grant money to send some people to the state of Washington, pick up this MRAP that was a training vehicle and had never been deployed, bring it back to Salinas, paint it, put lights on it, put a radio in it, and now I have a ballistically sound vehicle that will last the city many years, that will ultimately keep police officers safe in the performance of their mission, and at some point will save civilians’ lives when we need to roll into a hot zone and do evacuations.

The national conversation about the militarization of police departments has me nervous, because you have to look not at equipment, but at the conduct of each department, and I defy anyone to look at how we’ve used what we call our rescue vehicle, how we’ve deployed forces in Salinas when we had civil unrest.

And we had the same thing. We had the same thing, bottles thrown, we had police cars damaged, we had a drive-by shooting where they killed a field worker, and a police officer was giving that guy CPR, and during these riots, somebody threw a bottle at that guy, knocked him out, while he was trying to save a man’s life. I’m guessing it was May 21.

So even then, we did not have big skirmish lines, we didn’t tear gas anybody. We managed that night, we got through it, and in all the subsequent demonstrations, we’ve been in close contact with the demonstrators to talk about where they’re going to be, how they’re going to conduct themselves, here’s how we want to keep you safe.

We by design have a very low, as close to invisible police presence as we can possibly manage. Because the reality is, what we knew that night in Salinas when things went bad for us, the cops that came back in said, the people that were protesting were fine. It’s the local troublemakers, they just hid in the crowd and stirred it up.

Were there angry protests? Yes. Were they all angry criminals? Absolutely not. So the protests we’ve seen have been very peaceful, and we’re not committing resources to this protest. We don’t have riot teams staring them down, because we have yet to be shown that that’s necessary.

For the second night running, it was relatively calm on the streets of Ferguson, Mo., as National Guard troops prepared to withdraw from the city where Michael Brown was fatally shot almost two weeks ago. (Reuters)
Lydia DePillis is a reporter focusing on labor, business, and housing. She previously worked at The New Republic and the Washington City Paper. She's from Seattle.