“Culture Trumps Everything” says Benicia Police ChiefBenicia Herald, by Lois Requist, July 17, 2020
Carquinez Village invited Benicia Police Chief Erik Upson to speak to the community via Zoom last Monday. I’m using today’s column to report on that meeting.
Chief Upson began with a national perspective, saying that national standards for policing on testing, hiring, ongoing training, etc. don’t exist. Contrary to other occupations, a podiatrist, for example, for which national standards exist, the consumer can rely on a podiatrist anywhere in the nation having similar training.
The chief’s philosophy is that “culture is most important.” Even if a police agency has good guidelines written down, bad things can happen, depending on the culture. Egregious events such as happened in Minneapolis can occur if the culture doesn’t reflect the written policy. More about this later.
Chief Upson said his philosophy is “We’re neighbors. We care about the whole community.” He went on to say that he tries to follow a policy of being a great human being. Caring about other people. When he interviews a candidate to work in his department, he goes out to coffee with them, to try to get a sense of the person. He talked about the “golden shovel” award, which is about “recognizing and rewarding officers for exemplifying our culture, going out of their way to do something that benefits the community though it might not fit in the more accepted perception of what policing is about. Caring about people as people and manifesting a true sense of caring about humanity.” Upson understands the need to respect everyone and learn to recognize our own implicit bias, something we all have, but aren’t always aware of.
Chief Upson was asked if blacks, even blacks who live in Benicia, are stopped more frequently than whites. Of course, he’s aware of racial profiling, but he wouldn’t want that to happen here. He’s been Benicia’s Police Chief for five years, so he has hired most of the police force. He tries to weed out people who don’t fit with his philosophy.
In New York, a young white woman called the police on a black man who was bird watching, saying he had threatened her. Since the incident was recorded, it was easy to see that wasn’t the case. He’d asked her to put her dog on leash. Upson has a policy that, if someone calls and complains about another person, but doesn’t indicate that the other person has committed or is committing a crime, the police may not follow up on the call.
He was asked about the possibility of having town hall meetings here, as some other communities have, to discuss racial inequities; he thought that a good idea. Schools also came up in a question to the chief. He said that two officers work with the schools, endeavoring to have good relationships with the children and the staff.
One person asked the chief about the release of 8,000 prisoners in California due to outbreaks of the Corona Virus in prisons. Upson said they get a list of anyone being released who has ties to Solano County. They would check out the situation if appropriate. He pointed out that many people being released are older people over 65, who were scheduled to be released in 90-120 days.
Another person asked about handling of homeless people. Approximately 40 people are identified as homeless in Benicia. Working with the county, Benicia police try to help by getting these folks into shelters, and offering other mitigations, as appropriate.
Upson has been a police officer for 30 years and has never shot anyone, though he certainly recognizes the need for officers to carry guns, reminding us there are 250-300 million guns in the country and a good number of people quite willing to use them.
He was also asked about crime during these times of COVID-19. He said there is an increase in property crime—stealing of cars and damaging property, not breaking into homes, as most people are at home now. “There is also an uptick in domestic violence,” according to the chief.
He was also asked what “taking the knee” means to him. He said it’s a “demonstration of caring.” Some people, when hearing the slogan “black lives matter” ask “don’t all lives matter?” Upson remarked that “when a house is on fire” you turn your attention to that. It doesn’t mean that other houses (or lives) are any less valued.
I mentioned earlier about Chief Upson’s approach that “culture trumps everything.” So, I asked the chief how the culture can be changed. He answered that it takes time, modeling good behavior, and leadership.
In terms of implicit bias, he said the department has made a Public Service Announcement (PSA), and he is aware of the concept of “restorative justice.” In that regard, I’d like to add a link here of an article I’ve read on that subject.
He urged us to ask if we have needs or questions, and I think that applies to the entire community. Chief Upson was approachable, direct, and honest about the situations the department faces and his philosophy about the best ways to handle whatever comes up. I was pleased to spend the hour in conversation with him. I should also point out, that on the city’s website there’s much more information about the police.