Renee J. Mitchell is an expert in policing research with a professional background in law enforcement. As a 22‐year member of the Sacramento Police Department, she served in patrol, detectives, recruiting, schools, and the Regional Transit System. Trevor and Aaron ask her about her experience as a police officer and how police culture varies widely throughout the United States.
What is the purpose of the police union? What is police culture like and how does it vary across the United States? How is SWAT different than the general police?
00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Renée Mitchell, she was a 22‐year member of the Sacramento Police Department, serving in patrol, detective, recruiting schools, and the Regional Transit System. She’s the co‐founder of the American Society for Evidence‐Based Policing. She also holds a PhD and a JD. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Renée.
00:26 Renée Mitchell: Thanks for having me.
00:28 Trevor Burrus: Why did you become a police officer?
00:31 Renée Mitchell: That’s such a long story, if I told you the actual whole story that I used to tell, but honestly, it was just happenstance. I was a therapist before I was a cop, and I was working in a live‐in facility for women who… It was a diversion program, women who had been arrested for drugs and alcohol, and now had to basically go through a program instead of going to jail. So I was working with the women and their kids on recovery from addiction, and one of the guys that worked at the house with me was an ex‐cop, he was our book rehab guy, that would help place the women in jobs when they were getting out. And he and I would chit chat and he just told me one day, he’s like, “You’re gonna be so bored as a therapist sitting inside an office,” he’s like, “I could already tell with your personality,” he’s like, “you should be a cop.”
01:32 Renée Mitchell: And for me, where I grew up, I knew nothing about the cops other than when they would chase us off our school grounds, when we would jump the fence at night to swim in the pool, and when they gave me speeding tickets. So I just asked him, I’m like, “Well, what do they do? What’s the job like?” And he told me about it. So my attitude at the time was, I’ll just go apply. And if I get the job, I’ll go check it out, and if I like it, then that’s what I’m gonna do. And if I don’t like it, I could always go back to being a therapist, [chuckle] that’s kind of… It was just this… I was not one of those people that was like, “Oh, I wanna be a cop, from when I was a kid.” It had never crossed my mind to ever become a cop.
02:21 Renée Mitchell: And I hated the academy, I think pretty much every single second of every single day, the only thing I told myself is that they have to let me go home at some point today. And that’s what got me through the academy. And then my attitude was, Well, let me see what it’s like on the street. And for me, getting out in the field and having things be different on a daily basis, and even moment to moment kept me in the career. And honestly, looking back, I think it’s probably… It was a good career choice for me because I think I would probably have switched careers every three years, getting bored and wanting to do something new. And in policing, you can essentially have just 20 different jobs over a 20‐year career, if you move to a different unit year to year. Nobody moves that quickly, but to me, that’s what kept me in policing for so long, ’cause I could move to a new… A whole new position and do a whole new type of interesting work and not have to start all over again.
03:23 Trevor Burrus: You mentioned the people who wanted to be a cop for a long time, and that’s I think a popular perception with some people is how the people who decide to become police officers, what characteristics they have, and maybe that’s changed over time. One of the clichés I think, is that there’s the kid who either got beat up and would like to throw his weight around or the kid who beat people up and would like to continue doing that, if they always wanted to be a police officer. But in general, do you think that there’s sort of a mindset of people who wanna be police officers, maybe you’re a little bit different, ’cause you kind of happened into it, and there are just different types who come into the job.
04:01 Renée Mitchell: Yeah, and that’s why there really are different personalities and there’s different reasons why people came in. Like my partner that I had for a long time, she knew she wanted to be a cop from kindergarten, she was… Kindergarten class, a canine came in with his dog and from that moment on, she’s like, “I’m gonna grow up and be a police officer.” And she still… I think she just retired recently, but that was her whole… Main focus. And there’s other people… Of course, you always meet those people where you’re like, oh, you kinda feel like you became a cop, so you could… ’cause you have control issues. Either way because you wanna control people because of whatever happened in your childhood.
04:49 Renée Mitchell: But I think there’s probably a more… What I see as more prevalent are those people that just… They have a soft spot for helping people. They wanna be detectives, or they saw a TV show, with sex assault victims. Or they had a friend that had something happen to them, so they wanna go into the field because they want to become an investigator. They wanna investigate homicides. They wanna be there in those moments in people’s lives when they’re kind of at their worst moment, so that way they could be the ones to be like, “I’m here for you, I’m gonna help you.” And so I would say I see more people with that kind of point of view a little bit other than the… I think the driving fast, like getting to be tough kind of thing is a piece of it, because you do get to be like the person in charge, but I don’t ever think there’s one person that’s entirely one thing or another.
05:53 Aaron Ross Powell: Do departments… When they’re recruiting or in that training process, make an effort to weed out people who wanted to become cops for the wrong reasons?
06:03 Renée Mitchell: Yeah, and that’s the hard part, because where I came from, we ran into our own set of issues with officers that had problems in the field, and from what I saw, I don’t really know a good way to detect it because we all do… For my agency, we all did the MMPI, like the… What is it? The Multiphasic Personality Inventory. Well, that just kind of weeds out like your major…
06:34 Trevor Burrus: Psychopaths.
06:34 Renée Mitchell: People that have… Yeah, like psych issues. But it doesn’t weed out people that… If they have an opportunity to do something, that they could take advantage of somebody. And it doesn’t weed out… Not even like the heavy‐handed people, but it’s also… And I’m probably jumping ahead, but it’s also part of culture too, because the one thing I’ve always told people, because I was in recruiting for a little bit, when you get into a police agency, you’ll understand if the culture’s right for you. And that’s where… Like my agency was not a heavy‐handed agency. So if you were kind of coming in to take names and kick ass, but you wouldn’t have fit in my organization, like you would have left to a different organization because you wouldn’t have gotten your fill for that kind of work.
07:32 Renée Mitchell: And so to me, it’s like finding where you fit with an organization. And then there’s organizations that are so touchy‐feely that there are some cops that are just like, “Oh, that’s too much.” So I feel like when you go look across the country and even in other countries, you develop their own culture, and to me that’s part of leadership and explaining to your organization what your expectation of them is.
08:02 Trevor Burrus: Yeah let’s talk… You mentioned their culture, and we’ve talked before previously just about your department culture, which seemed to be a culture of accountability. But that’s not true everywhere when you read other stories about police going rogue, which is in our conversations, they always kind of surprise you, ’cause you didn’t see a lot…
08:23 Renée Mitchell: [chuckle] No.
08:24 Trevor Burrus: Even though it seems quite common… Or too common, we were talk… This task force in Baltimore, it was planting guns. And this recent story out of LA of the executioners who are getting tattoos, after they shot someone in the line of duty. But that’s just… That was pretty foreign to you in the Sacramento Department.
08:43 Renée Mitchell: Yeah, that’s… And like you said, when you and I have spoken before, when I got into my organization, there’s always been a very clear message that if you see something wrong and you don’t say anything, you will be fired too, so there’s no… And I know a lot of people think about, there’s a thin blue line and you guys are so insular, and you guys won’t narc on each other. But that for me… And this was… I started in 1998, so this was after Rodney King. But before things were super blowing up, and I knew if I saw something and didn’t say something or I… ’cause early in my career, I felt like I was in IA as a witness on multiple different things. And to me, I knew if I lied in IA, that’s like the end of my career. If they found out I lied in Internal Affairs, I was just fired. And for us, I know… I do believe in unions, because I do think, from what I’ve seen, that any city that could get away with paying cops $10 an hour to put their lives on the line, they’ll do it. So I do think you need a union that has your back.
10:04 Renée Mitchell: But also our union is different than the unions from my impression, like on the East Coast. It’s… Everybody would always joke that our union wasn’t a union, it’s more like a negotiating body. So they weren’t hardcore and they weren’t going to protect people that did something wrong, but they tried to… But at the same time, they’d try to step in to make sure we got paid what we should get paid, that we had protections in place, so we weren’t just… If you had somebody that didn’t like you, that you couldn’t just be yanked from your job or fired from your job. Because that’s the other thing you do see is because of political pressures, you’ll have a chief fire somebody. When you’re just like, hey, you haven’t even done the investigation yet, or you haven’t given it the proper view that it should. So I think unions should still be in there.
11:00 Renée Mitchell: But like I said, with our culture, we all knew that if you lied in Internal Affairs, there was nothing the union could do to save you, you were gone. So I think that’s part of… Every time you tell me these stories about things going on, it always… I’m always very surprised by it because I felt like in my organization… And granted we’ve had people that have gotten in… That have done some really bad things. But we’ve never had a group of people doing something together. I think the last thing that ever occurred as far as a group, was right before I got hired. And it was a group of… If I understand it correctly, narcotic officers that were taking darts when they would do a search warrant. It was kind of like a trophy, but it’s still… That’s somebody’s property. Even though you think, Oh, who cares? Like it’s a dart… But no, like my organization looked at that and said, no, that’s theft. The sergeant got fired, and every single person on the team got disciplined. All of them were kicked out of detectives. So that’s how I came on to my department is seeing that… And then the same thing with FTOs is it was very clear to me that if I…
12:25 Trevor Burrus: That’s a field training officer, right? Just to clarify the acronyms. [chuckle]
12:29 Renée Mitchell: Sorry, yeah. Yeah, field training officer. And the same thing, like your culture starts there with your field training officers, do you see how they treat people and you see what they do, and they teach you how to communicate, and so you start learning like, okay, here is the culture of my organization, like this thing’s okay, that thing’s not okay. You know.
12:48 Aaron Ross Powell: Is there a feedback loop with the unions in the sense that they come in to protect… They exist to protect the livelihood and the jobs of the cops. So as you said, they wanna prevent the cops from only getting paid $10 an hour, and they also wanna prevent, say the chief from firing a police officer arbitrarily without cause. But if the union exists to be protecting the cops, then that seems to be somewhat independent of the culture. So we can imagine that if the culture drifts in a bad direction, the union is still protecting the cops, which then makes it harder to address the cultural problems. Is there a way to solve that without undoing or limiting the power of the unions?
13:37 Renée Mitchell: It’s a really good question, and I would almost say you’d have to ask somebody that was in a different… That had a different type of union. Because also the way I always thought our union should be outside of our organization, because our union is built of our police officers. Well, they wanna promote… You know what I mean? A lot of people on our union board, they might start early in their career, well, they wanna become a sergeant and a lieutenant or go to a specialized unit. So they’re working hand‐in‐hand with management about these issues in our agency, so I saw more of a… It was never… I never, in my 22 years, saw it as being a contentious relationship between our management and our union. It was always like, how do we get things for the officers?
14:28 Renée Mitchell: But we also understand the organization is up against budget constraints or whatever, so even one of my years we gave up our 5% raise because it was during the recession and they were gonna cut cops. So the union came back to us and said, “Hey, look, if we don’t take our last raise on our contract, we could save the young officers from losing their jobs.” So we all voted and just gave up our last raise. I think… And that’s hard, that’s why I think some of the difficulty in policing, to some extent, is that you have 18,000 different police agencies and there’s 18,000 different cultures and how they work and do things. So I think, like I said, it’s hard for me to answer stuff about the union because I don’t think our union quite works like the other unions.
15:21 Trevor Burrus: East Coast.
15:21 Renée Mitchell: Yeah, exactly.
15:24 Renée Mitchell: Yeah, I was gonna try not to be pointing fingers, but… Yeah, [chuckle] it’s not like the East Coast at all.
15:31 Trevor Burrus: Shortly before you became a police officer, in 1997, the Federal Government created something that I’ve read about called The 1033 Program, which is a surplus military gear distributed to law enforcement agencies around the country. And that has become pretty prominent, especially since [15:51] ____, we’ve been writing about it, since it came out. How did that… Did you see a change over your tenure in the use of that gear, and maybe the attitude towards using that gear and maybe like a level of blaséness about using, say, a tank and a grenade launcher or battery rams to serve a drug search warrant?
16:16 Renée Mitchell: So I don’t think I saw a change, because I feel like our practices stayed relatively the same over those 22 years. I didn’t feel like we became more militaristic over that time. What I mostly see… And that’s why sometimes I have a hard time with some of the arguments in policing because it seems like such a… In some sense, a superficial argument or something that you’re trying to say like, look, this leads to this… And it’s not that simple. Because to me, I almost think… And somebody who’s got more time on could probably argue with me… I actually think it was the development of SWAT. If I understand the history a little bit more correctly, that started centering the drug warrants and the high risk warrant to be like this team. This highly… And they are much more militaristic, right, they have all the cool gear, they have the vest… Like back when I had to wear the regular vest, they had those tac vests. They have… Not night vision, but they got the lasers, they got the sites, they got all that stuff. And it started becoming that only SWAT did those things because they were high risk.
17:41 Renée Mitchell: So like I said, it was before my time, but when I hear from cops who were on the street before SWAT became a thing, they were like, “Well, we would just handle those things, and we were safe and we figured out ways to do it.” But I think it was kind of like the… When SWAT was first created… And that’s really a good, cool kids club. And then I think just the way, the same way, the fire department started becoming more of a medical service because we started to learn how to stop fires, and they didn’t have as many fires to go to. I think SWAT in order to maintain your team, you start expanding into, “Okay, well, what else could we do? Okay, we’ll do all the drug warrants, we’ll do all these violent offenders.” So they found work to do that maybe they didn’t need to do, and granted, my husband was a SWAT guy and a SWAT sergeant, and I’m sure they all would argue like, “No, no, no, SWAT should be doing these things.” And rightfully so, they train together, they move well together, they know how to do things as things rapidly unfold. But to me, I didn’t see it in your day‐to‐day operations because we had military equipment.
19:00 Trevor Burrus: That was the… You don’t see that as… I think you pointed out, that it’s the creation of these teams and then like something for them to do. But the interesting thing is there’s this idea… I think it actually comes from the movie Untouchables, where Sean Connery says, “What is the one rule of policing?” And he says, “Get home safe.” And it’s interesting because on some level that could be very pernicious if that is the one rule of policing. Because then why not use a SWAT team, even if the risk is 1% that the person is armed or something, because that 1% is the possibility that you may not get home safe. As opposed to maybe there should be a few more rules of policing, like protect the citizens and the rights of citizens, not just get home safe. And then that becomes… ’cause you deal with police, and you’ve done panels, and I’ve done panels with police, that’s usually what they throw back at me, I’m like, “You don’t need to use a SWAT team,” and they say, “You don’t know this job, you don’t know how dangerous it could be. Like there’s a 1% chance one of my officers is gonna be shot, then we’re gonna use a SWAT team.” And I’m like, “That’s the problem right there. You just stated the problem.”
20:09 Renée Mitchell: Yeah, and see… And I’ve heard it the other way too, like I said, and I feel like my agency is probably not indicative of the entire country, but I’ve had discussions with… He’s retired now, but I think he was a captain at the time, and he was upset about how somebody handled a suicide call out. You know that there was a citizen in distress and that they were trying to use the officers in the field to get on the phone with him and talk him out. And his take on it was like, “No, you’re bringing… ” How did he… He put it like, “You’re bringing our C game, like you bring the A game always,” he’s like, “Why are you waiting to call out our hostage negotiators?” And our hostage negotiators… It’s not just like, you have a hostage, they’re there for the critical incident too. So he felt like they should have been called out for this man, even though he had nobody in the house with them, he was by himself, because he felt like that was our best trained people. So they should be out there, even though this guy is by himself, not threatening anybody, except himself, he was like, “He should have… He’s part of our community, he should have our A game. Not just… ” and they did get called out and everything. And he came out and it was fine, and he went to our mental health facility to get services. But my captain was like, “He should’ve been called out two hours earlier to handle it.”
21:43 Renée Mitchell: So I think… I agree that I think policing as a culture across the country, we do fall back on what’s best for us. I think it has been changing, so you do have these shifts, so that’s where I saw… One of those shifts I saw… ’cause we used to have this order of who you’re protecting. And you’re right, it was the officer first, and then it shifted to citizen first. And I would say where that happened was Columbine because you had officers waiting outside. So they were waiting to go in, waiting for SWAT, we’d never seen that before. As far as like an active shooter, so after Columbine and then after you had these other incidences, I watched policing shift more into… Okay, there’s times and places where you can’t… Your safety does not come first, like the citizen safety comes first.
22:49 Renée Mitchell: And so like with active shooter, I ran our schools for a bit. The SWAT guy that would come out and train with us, he actually… We have this very… If you talked to anybody, a diamond shape. There’s four of you that go in on an active shooter. But he would actually walk through scenarios with us, and I thought it was really good for my team because he would ask them, “Are you gonna stand outside when somebody’s getting shot inside? Are you gonna stand outside and wait when you hear shots going off and you know, statistically most shooters kill themselves the minute they’re confronted by police. Are you gonna stand outside and all the officers would be like, “No.” And he’s like, “Okay, then let’s train that you go in by yourself.” And then he would run them through drills, like trying to force them into thinking about if I was going in by myself, like how would I go in, what would I do? What is the best way to keep myself safe so I could get to the shooter and engage as quickly as possible?
23:47 Renée Mitchell: So that’s, to me, that’s where I saw one shift in the culture of policing, and I think to me, that one kind of went across the country of that there’s times and places where citizens have to come first. And there’s other times where you can control a situation where you sit and wait. And that was the other shift I probably saw in the last five years in my career, maybe longer. You could sit outside and wait like you do not have to go kicking front doors all the time, because all you’re doing is putting both whoever is in the house and yourself into this confrontational situation and people could get shot and hurt. Whereas, if everything is going pretty good. Like, yes, if they have kids in the house, a spouse in the house or other people you’re trying to get them to let them go. But that you have time. We’ll just sit and wait.
24:39 Renée Mitchell: We did, I think on one of our calls, we went into two and a half days, of just like, “Nope, we’re not gonna kick the door, we’re just gonna sit out here and wait. We know you have your kid inside with you, hopefully, we could… ” and we always look for moves, ’cause the SWAT team was like, if the kid gets close enough to a window, can we grab the kid, so that way we’ve taken… Then we could sit here even longer with him and talk to him till he comes out. So that was the other shift I really saw too, was the fact that we don’t have to push the situation.
25:18 Aaron Ross Powell: I’m curious about the relationship between police and police culture and popular media, because one of the things that we have seen over the last several decades is a real rise in… Call it police‐based entertainment. The police procedural is one of the most popular genres of television, and I say this as someone, like my favorite authors are all… Are James Elroy and McBain authors of police procedural novels…
25:50 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, we both love The Shield.
25:50 Aaron Ross Powell: And we both love The Shield and The Wire. And so these shows and books are incredibly popular, but they also… Often, there are some exceptions, but they often present police officers routinely doing things that are blatantly unconstitutional. And the cliché in them is there’s the rogue police officer who can get the bad guy, but the bureaucrats and the politicians are in his way, and so he ends up in the… He’s gotta break the rules, and there’s always the scene of like, “turn in your badge and gun”. But that he’s the hero of it. And that’s the common trope, and I wonder how much that has changed both the public perception of policing, in terms of… These limits are the things that are preventing us from getting the bad guys. And that because this media is so popular, people who read it want to become cops, but they think that’s the way that cops do or should operate. So I guess my question is two‐fold, is first, what does this popular media get wrong about policing? And second, do you think that the popular media has an influence then on the culture within policing?
27:16 Renée Mitchell: Yes, and yes. But here… And this is a hard one. So I think when the popular media depicts policing like that, that it’s the bureaucrats getting in the way. I think of… It’s not like that. I’ve always thought you could catch a bad guy, ’cause usually the ones you catch, they’re not the greatest criminal in the world. We’re not dealing with masterminds for the most part, and the reason why we don’t catch people is more because you have a lack of evidence, you have a lack of fingerprints, a lack of DNA, no witnesses. No… Nobody even knows who did it. If it was a stranger or something. They might, like if they kinda have an idea of… If they have a sketchy friend or something that they think did something, then they might be able to give you a lead, but for the most part, policing’s very clear‐cut in a lot of ways. That when you’re going out and you’re making a case on somebody, it’s a matter of, are there enough people to talk to that could give you information. Did you get some type of physical evidence that looks good for the case?
28:40 Renée Mitchell: And I think the only time… I mean, it sucks because, you know, with prosecution, the hard part is, I would say, is more like with prosecution… And I’ve never seen anybody do anything wrong. I’ve never seen anybody like plant drugs or violate somebody’s constitutional rights. It’s more like you get frustrated that when something goes to prosecution, that you know they’re gonna drop certain things to get something else. Or that the prosecutor can’t get a win, and that’s… If you wanna get a whole… Into the reward system of the criminal justice field, that’s a whole ‘nother issue. But it looks better for them to win their cases. So if you have a case that isn’t that strong, but you know… A lot of times, unless it’s like drugs, you have a victim there, so it really sucks when your victim’s going, “They’re doing what? He gets 30 days and probation. All that person gets when they did this horrible thing to me? Are you kidding?” So I think with the popular media, that whole depiction of bureaucracy stands in the way, I always think of, did you guys ever see… What is it that… How I met a serial killer? Or how I not…
30:03 Trevor Burrus: How to become a serial killer? Is that’s want it’s called? Or…
30:06 Renée Mitchell: No, oh… It was what’s his face, I’m gonna totally blank on it, I could see it. But throughout the movie, the one character is a cop, and he’s like, “Come on Captain, yell at me and tell me how disappointed you are and that you’re ashamed of the cop I am.” And the captain would be like, “But that might hurt your feelings. And I think you do good work.” And I’ve always thought to myself that’s actually policing because the popular media makes it like all this tough guy stuff. And a lot of times, it’s not all the tough guy stuff, there are… Believe me, there are captains that will shut the door and yell at you, but for the most part, people don’t even act like that when the popular media depicts things like that. And I think… I was gonna say it’s like Miranda, because if you think about when Miranda went into effect, I know cops were like, “Oh my God, we’re never gonna prosecute anybody, ’cause of Miranda.” No, everybody adjusts, they do what they’re legally required to do. They’re still good cases. We still put people in jail. Like the law functions the way it functions for a reason.
31:13 Trevor Burrus: Well, the interesting thing for me, and it’s something I’ve thought a lot. I’ve just sort of thought through myself, I have a constitutional scholar, and so I get to see a bunch of cases, work on a bunch of cases that go to the Supreme Court with cops arguably or maybe doing something illegal or unconstitutional. But given the level of… If I were a cop, and you have that sense that someone is guilty and I don’t… I think that probably is often correct, but you got nothing on them, so you’re upset that the Fourth Amendment and the Fifth Amendment is constraining you from just figuring out that this guy is totally guilty. And then if the next thought that enters your head is, “If I violate the Fourth Amendment in some way, how likely is it that anything is gonna happen to me? Who’s gonna see it? How likely is it that they’re gonna have an attorney, a criminal defense attorney who can raise the issue? And so for the greater good, I’m going to just violate the Fourth Amendment,” not egregiously, but technically at least, let’s say. “Because I know this guy is guilty and then guess what, he was guilty, so I did a good thing there. Still understand the Constitution, but ultimately, I did a good thing.” I feel like that would be a very common struggle and that a significant amount of cops would step over that line, but maybe I’m wrong.
32:36 Renée Mitchell: Well, but that’s what I mean. I just… I think that’s the popular media, I don’t think you come upon that very much… You know what I mean? Like most of these people that are going to jail, it’s like there’s pretty clear cut evidence, it’s… I mostly see… I see it more like I had a slip up when I was interviewing one of my cases. And I didn’t mean to, it was completely unintentional, but the way I worded my questioning was basically like coercion. And I didn’t think of it at the time, I learned from that case, ’cause his whole statement got thrown out and I was pissed at myself. But you know what I mean? Because for the most part, if you have a good case, it’s all there. I’ve never run into that case where it’s like, “I know you did this and I can’t prove it.” There’s proof… If you think about where we’ve gotten to technology‐wise today, like if you’ve done something so bad that somebody really wants to put you away, there’s usually pretty good evidence. Not many people are getting away with murder, right? Unless there’s nothing, like unless there’s nothing…
33:53 Trevor Burrus: Except they are. Except they’re living in a place like Baltimore and Chicago, you have murder arrest rates that are like 30% clearance rates.
34:00 Renée Mitchell: But that’s what I mean, unless you don’t know who did it. Unless… You know what I mean? If you don’t have any leads, nobody’s telling you who did it because… And we see those even in Sacramento, where it’s like they know who did it, but it’s a gang turf war, so they’re just gonna go shoot that person that they know did it. And they go back and forth. But it’s not a matter of… I can’t build a good enough case against you. Usually, what I’ve seen is that if you know who did it, nowadays with cell phone technology, with DNA, with videos, what I found from our homicide detectives, they’ve gotten so good at checking the cameras from the nearby stores that catches something. So somebody always leaves a footprint. But yes, you’re right. Like clearance rates in communities that aren’t gonna talk to the cops… Because then the cops have nowhere to start to look for the information. So once again, that could be the case in some other police department where they try to pin something on somebody.
35:08 Trevor Burrus: Bad culture. Yeah.
35:08 Renée Mitchell: Yeah, but I think it would just be so… I think you would just be hard‐pressed to do it. It still happens. There was that shooting where the dude dropped a TASER and I was like, “Oh my God, who does that?” But apparently there are cops that do…
35:23 Trevor Burrus: You mean planted a TASER you mean?
35:26 Renée Mitchell: Yeah, on the shooting in… Was it South Carolina? When he shot the dude in the back and then said he was struggling over his TASER, but walked over and dropped the TASER next to him.
35:36 Aaron Ross Powell: This, though raises a question then about, I guess, good cops and bad cops. We’re recording this while there are protests going on around the country in many of our cities about policing. So there’s a systemic racism angle to it, but there’s also a police brutality and misconduct angle to it, and we’re watching police often respond to this in really terrible ways. The cops are being brutal with peaceful protesters, using tear gas where they shouldn’t, beating people up and so on. I also, I spent maybe a month ago, I spent some time reading police forums, so places where police officers are discussing being a police officer. And was rather shocked at how they perceived the people that they were supposed to be protecting. That you got this strong sense of “us versus them”, that we, we being police officers, are a persecuted minority that nobody understands. And it often read like the way that you would expect soldiers who are an occupying force in another country to talk about the people. That everyone that they were interacting with was a potential threat, and so on.
37:04 Aaron Ross Powell: But what you’re describing, and in your department feels very different, and so there’s this conspicuous disconnect between the popular conception of police and the reason that we have these protests and Black Lives Matter, and so on, what you’re describing. But also, I guess, are we over‐interpreting from a handful of really bad departments? And what do police officers in the better departments, like the one that you worked in, think about the police in these cities where it seems to be particularly egregious? And why don’t we see more… I guess if it is a handful of bad departments, a handful of bad cops, why don’t we see more of the good cops coming forward and ratting out these people, pushing them out of the department and so on? So I guess at the broad level, like what you’re describing in your department doesn’t feel like what we seem to be seeing and what the country seems to be reacting against.
38:20 Renée Mitchell: Yeah, that is a broad question, ’cause… Okay, so let’s roll that back into the protests. And it’s hard too, ’cause you have these touch points. So I think most cops try really hard one, not to judge cops. Because you’re not there, things happen so quickly and you’re just responding. To me, your limbic part of your brain that is what is functioning when these type of things are happening and you’re doing the best you can to think and move and react all at the same time. I think, though, with the George Floyd incident, you saw a lot of police agencies basically say like, “We don’t agree with this either.” You saw police agencies stand up and walk with their communities, and you saw police chiefs take off their belts and say, “Let me walk with you, because I don’t agree with this either.” And in the case of George Floyd, from my understanding, he’s got rookie cops there that however many days in, and it’s hard. The culture of a field training officer, and you’re trying to tell them, “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t do this.” A field training officer is just gonna brush you off, ’cause they’re gonna be like, “You’re new, what do you know?”
39:40 Renée Mitchell: But I think like with the incidents across the country, when it comes to the protests and the bad behavior that you see, I think often it’s… You gotta reel your people back in, and I think you gotta give your leadership a chance to let them get everybody situated. ‘Cause I think a lot of times when it comes to protests, I’ve always… When people would say, “As a cop, what are you scared of?” I would always tell them two things, “Dogs and protests.” Because what you see in protests are a whole lot of anonymity and people are pissed and you are not a person to them. You are not a human being. Like if they could drag you into the middle of a crowd, like my feel is they would beat you to death and have no… Like The Black Hawk Down, the Somalia theme where they’re carrying the pilots’ bodies through and they’re all cheering. To me, that’s how people get during protests because it’s a mass of people who are all like… Feed, yes, thank you. Feeding off each other’s energy, and it just really… It’s, to me, it’s kind of terrifying that you’re standing there and the only way you’re protected is because you’re in a line with your other officers to push them back or stand there.
41:04 Renée Mitchell: And I’ve never been in a protest like the cops are in now, where they’re using these green lasers or they’re throwing frozen water bottles at them or chunks of rocks. I’ve only been in those protests where they pop off suddenly, and it’s usually a group of fairly younger people, and they’re just out to create a little havoc, they’re not really there to burn, torture or maim. And I think these protests have turned drastically different. And to me, I don’t know that there’s a good… I don’t know that there’s a good solution, because I think when you have protests night after night after night and you have officers just taking a beating, at some point they’re gonna crack. I have a good friend of mine that has PTSD from being three months straight out on the Occupy protests. And that wasn’t even as violent… Those were just people screaming at you every night and blowing whistles in your ear. So I think… One, I do think there is… People are reacting to these incidents that aren’t indicative of policing across the country, and I think there’s ways to get cops out.
42:25 Renée Mitchell: But a lot of times, cops could have some issues like maybe they’re rude. Every police department has your guy or gal that you’re kind of like, “Oh, don’t show up on my call.” ‘Cause they just… It’s just like they’re… They’re just, it’s their tone, or it’s their stance or their whatever, and you just… Yeah, you just know that they’re gonna show up on scene and they’re not gonna help. But you can’t… It’s not fire‐able. You can’t get rid of them. And then if, God forbid, a shooting occurs with them, then everybody’s like, “Oh look, they’ve been a jerk their whole career.” It’s like, “Well, does being a jerk their whole career have anything to do with this particular shooting? Or did they just happen… Like this kind of happened?” So I think there’s gotta be a lot more work done as far as… And Trevor, you know I’m all about the research, but there’s gotta be a lot more work done research‐wise on what happens, why it happens, the best way to do these things. Right now, they’re pushing de‐escalation training cross‐country and nobody even knows what that means.
43:32 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, and it’s interesting though, ’cause you’ve described events to me where there is such thing in escalation, so it implies that there is such a thing as de‐escalation, and if cops come in… I read a book written in the 60s, years ago, about analyzing situations of police violence. And the biggest source of causing police violence was essentially the respect my authority issue, where you have a cop that tells you to do something and you don’t do it, and the next thing you know, you’re on the ground in a pretzel. Which I kind of can get that, but it also seems extremely problematic if that’s all that is needed to use force on someone, that you just don’t do exactly when a police officer says, even if you’re just on the scene, like, “Stop recording me” or something like that, that the next thing you know, you’re gonna be violently accosted, that’s escalation. And that seems to happen a lot. I don’t know if in your experience that was in Sacramento, but in some places, it seems to happen a lot.
44:36 Renée Mitchell: See so that’s… And there’s a hard balance there, so as cops… Especially, I feel like where I came from, we have these talks and we have discussions, and there’s a balance between… And granted, I never think it’s right, if somebody… We call it “contempt of cop”, to go hands on with somebody for contempt of cop. When I had trainees, I was constantly on them about even small things like when we would drive to jail and the person in the back seat of the car would start chipping at my trainee, saying whatever. My trainee would start in, and I would always reach across the car, like really low, so whoever is in the back seat couldn’t see me, but I would just touch their arm and I would shake my head and afterwards I would tell them, I’ll be like, “Look, you’ve won, this person’s going to jail. In this power struggle that you’re having, you’re the winner. They are now going to jail for whatever they have done, there is no need to go back and forth in the car. First of all, what… I can’t even remember the saying about trying to argue with a fool, that means there’s two fools in the argument or whatever.
45:47 Trevor Burrus: Something like that.
45:48 Renée Mitchell: Yeah, because to me when I would listen to these conversations, one, it would just give me a migraine ’cause I was like, “Shut up”, but two, I was just like, “You’re engaging in a power struggle, that is what you’re doing, by going back at him or her. It doesn’t stop, just let it go.”
46:07 Trevor Burrus: Let them call you whatever they want, who cares.
46:11 Renée Mitchell: Exactly, yeah. And that for me, I’ve always said… For me as a cop, I always felt like you could do whatever you want to me, and I didn’t take it personally, and it didn’t rile me up. I think probably the only times I’d ever gotten riled up in my career was when I would see people do things to other people. Because for me, that is part of ultimately why I became a cop is because when you talk about having that power, the power to do whatever. For me, I liked having the power to protect somebody else to say, “You can’t do that anymore to that person.” So for me, when I saw people victimize somebody or degrade somebody or do something horrible to somebody, that could get me fired up, more than you could call me all the B’s and H’s in the world you want, and I’m just like, “Okay, have a nice day.” But if I saw you do something to somebody else, that is like, where… And throwing your cigarettes out the window when you’re driving, just a massive pet peeve of mine, that’s repulsive.
47:20 Trevor Burrus: So that one might cause you to get handsy. [chuckle]
47:24 Renée Mitchell: Yeah, well, what’s funny is I actually had… There was this restaurant that I’ve been going to since I was in college, and I knew the owner since that time, and then… She had this really younger sister, and her sister finally started working in the restaurant, and she was introducing me to her and she’s like, “She didn’t wanna come say hi, ’cause she’s scared of you.” I was like, “Why?” And she’s like, “You yelled at her.” I’m like, “When?” I’m like, “Tell her come out.” So she comes out and she tells me, she goes, “I was driving with my boyfriend and he threw a cigarette out the window, and you pulled us over and you came up to the window… ” and she’s like, “You just yelled at him. And you said you were too busy to give him a ticket, but that it was a $1000 ticket and he’s just lucky that you don’t have time to give him a ticket.” And she’s like, “And then you took off.” I’m like, “That’s funny,” I said, “because it must have been that I was really… I had to go somewhere.” I said, “Because I always give a ticket for that,” I said… She’s like, “Yeah, you scared me.” And I’m like, “No, it’s just… That starts fires. California is very dry. Use your ashtray in your car. There’s no reason to litter.”
48:32 Trevor Burrus: That raises the question of discretion in this regard, where you do have a fairly large amount of… You have a pet peeve. And I think, especially in California, justifiable to be concerned about that, but other officers might have different pet peeves that maybe…
48:48 Renée Mitchell: Yes.
48:48 Trevor Burrus: And then they can do whatever they want, but even at a broad level, the question of what are officers going to enforce, so did you see political pressures come down in terms of, “Hey, the city council or the state government is getting really concerned about the drug war and they’re getting constituent calls about drug users, so we’re ramping up drug user crackdowns this month,” or something along those lines, where it’s just it’s entirely political, where someone says, “Hey, I’d rather solve actual violent crime, or when it’s a victim, and not spend so much time on the drug war, but I’m being told to spend more time on the drug war.” Did those kind of pressures come down?
49:32 Renée Mitchell: Well, you’ll laugh, but the one that I remember the most, ’cause everybody hated it, with the homeless and the shopping carts. We actually were citing and taking the carts and locking them like we would lock them to the street lamps, and then somebody within the city would come around and pick up all the shopping carts. But it was somebody’s pet peeve, so it became… That’s what everybody does. But I’ve seen more… I’ve seen it more on the other side with politics, where the community engagement stuff, that like a city council wants more of that, so you ended up like the officers went through a whole stint of like reading to elementary school kids. And those are the things where a lot of times you get this mission creep, ’cause I think the officers felt like, “What is this doing? How is this gonna help kids not commit crime later in life? Me reading a book to them once a month in their classroom, isn’t… What is it doing?” But it’s taking away taxpayers money when we should be doing what we’re supposed to be doing, which is catching bad people doing bad things.
50:49 Renée Mitchell: And the drug war… Like that in California… That you saw the shift. I saw the shift the other way too, is when they dropped everything to a misdemeanor, it just stopped getting enforced. Because now you’re just giving a ticket for certain drugs and small amounts. The officers were like, “What’s the point? Why would I stop you and write you a ticket and go through all this effort when it’s not even gonna go anywhere with prosecution.” Same way with theft, California made… You could, up to $1000, you didn’t go to jail. So like petty theft stuff went up and within the retail industry. So I think I saw a little bit more of the other way where it’s always been pressure for community engagement stuff. And then seeing police agencies chase their tail to try to do some type of community engagement.
51:41 Renée Mitchell: Because for me, the war on drugs was a little bit more, I was ’98, so I was at the tail end of that. So I didn’t really… When I started in the department, I saw a lot more… We had a narcotics unit out in the field, if you found dope, that meant you’re a good cop. There was a little bit more of that when I started. But over my years, that went away probably in the first… I don’t know, four to five years of working where you just didn’t have… And there wasn’t pressure for that either, it was just kind of like it was better to get a felony than it was to get a misdemeanor, and it was better to get a fresh arrest versus a warrant, that was kind of my culture in my organization.
52:25 Trevor Burrus: This conversation and so many conversations with you Renée, I just feel like we just need to replicate the Sacramento Police Department across the country.
52:36 Trevor Burrus: But on that point, because we talked a lot and we’re almost out of time. But in general, if you had something where you said, “I wish people realize this about policing and had a little bit more knowledge about this, so we could have a constructive conversation about reform is currently ongoing.” What would be that kind of things… Or thing or things that you wish people really realized about policing?
53:01 Renée Mitchell: Well, I would say maybe it’s two‐fold, I really wish that they understood that what happens in Wisconsin or South Carolina or wherever, it’s not Sacramento. You know what I mean? Like you have to get to know your own police agency where you’re working to get… To know whether you should be pissed at them or not. Because I think people think that policing is the same everywhere you go, and just like you and I have talked about, it’s not. The way I was raised in my agency is very different from the way other cops are raised in their agencies. And even across different countries, ’cause I’ve gotten the chance to be over in the UK and New Zealand and there’s things to bring back to America that we should be doing. But I think it’s that idea that we’re all the same, and then just like what you asked at the beginning of the conversation, like this stereotype of what cops are there for and what they want, because I think most cops even that safety factor of you gotta come home every night, I think the majority of cops like… I have friends that would do the whole drive a different way home every night.
54:19 Renée Mitchell: I’ve never been that way. My husband and I, we never carry a gun off duty, we had one gun the whole entire time we’ve been married, it’s in three pieces inside a safe, because we have children. We don’t have an “us and them” mentality, you know what I mean? So I just… To me, I feel like everybody else hates being grouped into some stereotype, yet stereotyping cops is like an okay, cool thing to do to be like, “All cops are bastards. All cops do blah, blah, blah.”
54:55 Renée Mitchell: And then I also think the other thing is, I think a lot of people see these superficial things as a way to solve the policing problem, like defunding the police, and believe me, I try to stay… With my Facebook friends, I even commented the other day because there was a very simplistic cartoon, I was like, “Oh, everybody thinks defund the policing means this,” and it showed a picture of a cop with all these stones on his back of community service, arrests, mental health, drugs… All the issues we deal with it. And then taking money away and he had to hold it himself. Versus re‐allocation, which means those rocks go to these other groups, and all I tried to point out was like, “Look, it is much more… We’re dealing with human beings, it is much more complex than just saying, “Oh, get a mental health worker.” Because often I don’t think people realize that the people that we deal with in society are the people that don’t wanna follow societal norms. And when I say that, I mean a lot of the homeless that I deal with, they don’t want services, they don’t want help, they want to live by the river, and they want to continue doing their drugs, keeping their animals, keeping their significant others. And they don’t wanna give up part of their SSI check towards housing, they would rather have that money that they get every month to use as they see fit.
56:22 Renée Mitchell: So I think people think like, “Oh, if you just had these services, everything would be fine,” and they don’t realize… Well, no, a lot of people don’t want to be involved with society, and they don’t want to do what you think is best for them as a society. Which means when you, citizen A, want citizen B to stop doing something because it’s bothering you in some ways, the only person left to go out there really is a cop, that can make somebody stop doing something. And when I say make, I mean either… Sometimes it’s just like, “Hey, it’s time to go.” And they’ll listen to a cop because you are the authority. Sometimes you have to take somebody to a mental health facility, sometimes you have to take them to jail or give them a citation or tow their car or do whatever. But a city worker cannot make anybody do something.
57:15 Renée Mitchell: So I think that’s the part, it just pains me so much to hear all of this going on in the media and all the negativity, and then all these people that come in with all these simplistic solutions. And it’s like, that’s not how it works in the field. You know what I mean? It’s deeper than that, and unless you have rational conversations and you start using research to really… And data to think about these issues and solve them, to me, this is one of those rewind, repeat and play over and over and over again. With everybody getting pissed, let’s do police reform, that turns into de‐escalation training and implicit bias training, procedural justice training. And everything stays the same. And five years later, we’re doing it all over again. So to me, I think if people would just somehow understand that you have to give this problem the time and resources and effort that it’s gonna take to solve these very complex human problems, other than like the popular media, it’s not gonna be all solved in a 60‐minute TV show.
58:37 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, make sure to rate and review us in Apple Podcasts or in your favorite podcast app, Free Thoughts is produced by Landry Ayres. If you’d like to learn more about libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.