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‘Both sides of the badge’: Spokane police chief, NAACP chapter president talk race, protesting, policing, progress

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, left, and NAACP President Kurtis Robinson greet each other before the start of a meeting Friday hosted by The Spokesman-Review. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, left, and NAACP President Kurtis Robinson greet each other before the start of a meeting Friday hosted by The Spokesman-Review. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Kurtis Robinson has a message for the protesters in the streets of Spokane and across the nation: “You’re right.”

“They have the right to feel that way, have the right to express it, have the right to be angry about it, frustrated, disheartened and discouraged, and really to not understand why some of these things are taking so long,” said Robinson, the president of Spokane’s chapter of the NAACP, who joined marchers on Sunday and will again today.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl acknowledges the historical and generational trauma that have led America to this moment, and said despite the actions of police in Minneapolis and elsewhere that have resulted in outrage: don’t give up on us.

“Don’t let this distract us from what we’ve accomplished. I will acknowledge this is multiple steps backwards, but … let’s at least acknowledge that we are trying to get better,” Meidl said.

In the wake of protests over police violence and the death of George Floyd last week – and ahead of continued protests planned for Sunday – the two men sat down for a one-on-one conversation on Friday with The Spokesman-Review as a fly on the wall.

They are both tasked with guiding a fractured community, in a fractured nation, through the current tumult.

Meidl pledged to listen but also sought to provide a perspective to the issue of policing from behind the badge. He also stressed the importance of building relationships within the community.

“It is being able to understand what they experience and see what other people have experienced as well, all across the country, and that frustration and the anger,” Meidl said.

Robinson focused on the structural racism in America that continues to dominate its culture and posed a question: How much of your privilege are you willing to sacrifice?

“How much of your social capital that your identity has been built on are you willing to challenge?” he asked.

As one man spoke, the other listened.

Both will be at Sunday’s rally.

Here is a summary of their conversation, substantially edited for brevity and clarity. A full recording of the discussion can be found on The Spokesman-Review website, spokesman.com.

Jesse Tinsley - The Spokesman-Review

S-R: We’ve heard from elected leaders that, at least for the peaceful portion of Sunday’s protests, ‘We’ve heard the message.’ I’m wondering if you can articulate what message you heard.

Meidl: I don’t feel there’s just one message and a lot of that has to do with relationships that I’ve formed over the last four years. And a lot of it has to do with during the course of those relationships, where you really get to know the person and you have some discussion.

I formed a very, very good relationship with an African American pastor that is a friend of mine, and it didn’t start overnight, but this was someone who wanted to work collaboratively with us. When he was living in California, he had some bad experiences with police officers. Because of our relationship, I’ve met other people. And we were able to have those same types of conversations.

When they’re sharing these with me, their stories, it’s something that I had never seen, I’ve never experienced it from my lens. That’s not why I became a police officer. And so to know that other police officers, in other states, are doing that, it absolutely blew my mind.

And so that opened up the lens of me seeing what they have experienced, and believing what they’ve experienced and know they’ve experienced it more than one time.

I would like the entire community, everyone to look at us and when they see the uniform feel like those people are our police officers, they’re on our side, there to protect us. But because of the experiences that have occurred so often, too many people look at us as more of that occupying force. And that’s not what we want. It’s not healthy for them. It’s not healthy for us.

There is still a lot of frustration over slavery, and have we really as a nation acknowledged that was wrong to use other people like livestock? It’s a debt we can never repay, but it’s not that many generations removed. When you think about how long ago we still had slaves in the United States, it’s not that many generations ago. So this is part of the history of African Americans in the United States.

We look at slaveholders who basically were overseers. And then you look at officers, that comes from overseers. And then you look at these incidents that are occurring, you can understand why there’s a lot of that tension.

Robinson: There is that important evolution of oppressive dynamics here within this country and the evolution of law enforcement, so I appreciate you providing that context about how we got here. And the reality is the generational trauma that comes along with that.

The reality is we are tired of not only the generational stuff that’s occurred up to today, but what’s currently happening today and all of this coming together. Black and brown people … have historically and still today are being treated as less than human, less than deserving.

Thank you for being in a relationship with me where you can have these open discussions like we’ve had about faith and common goals and common humanity. The reality is that we’re still dealing with common disproportionality, we’re still dealing with common impact, that is way skewed for people of color.

Is it really that hard to understand why people are pissed off? Is it really that hard to grasp why thousands of people flooded the street last week and probably will again this week? It’s not that far of a concept for those of us who have experienced this.

We’re viewing you through trauma, right? We’re viewing you through oppression, right? And we’re viewing you – law enforcement and the justice system and the criminal justice system and all the layers of that – through the harms that our communities experienced over and over and over again, and the flat-out lack of accountability for law enforcement officers when they’re called to the task.

I’m always striving to fight for the restorative lens.

I finally coined it “the conversation on both sides of the badge.” Human beings on both sides of the issue. How do we own the fact that, hey, you didn’t cause that harm, but you’re wearing a uniform that represents that?

Reveal, remove, replace. The revelation of “this is what’s going on,” and the intentional process of removing that area.

But empty space is still a place. So, if we don’t – if we’re not intentional about what we replace it with, it will inherently, as we’ve seen through structural racism and structural oppression, strive to fill itself back with whatever was there before. And so we must be very intentional at this stage to not only capture the opportunity to remove these dynamics that have been causing harms … and be very, very aware of and engaged in that process, and then replace it with something better. That’s what I’m hearing.

That’s not just the cry of the people of color, because people called me crying about this for a long time, and rightly so. We’ve been wailing about it.

But what we’re also seeing, there’s a cross-racial thing happening here, a cross-culture thing happening. The world is watching. The world is responding. Because we’re done. And not just people of color. We’ve been done with it for a long time. But you’re done with it too.

If you’re not intentionally engaging in dismantling it, you are automatically by default perpetuating it. Period, point blank.

Meidl: There’s an after-effect as well. And now you have police officers across the country that are terrified of doing their jobs.

You have officers afraid of being accused now of doing something maybe they didn’t do. You have officers that feel like we are, we’re carrying the burdens for centuries of this whole system and abuses and everything else that has happened, and we’re feeling the weight of that now. And yet it’s also just, because you have emotions involved, you have people that are afraid. When people tend to be afraid they tend to put up those barriers.

You have African Americans that are afraid. And now we have officers that are afraid. And this is not hyperbole. My officers are saying, “I am very, very worried about doing my job now, because I’m afraid that I’m going to be accused of doing something I didn’t do, or I’m going to have to use force. And now I’m going to be demonized because the community pays us to, expects us to arrest people that don’t want to go to jail.”

You have these two perspectives, like you said, both sides of the badge. And that’s where the conversations occur, where we can say, we’re afraid that we’re going to be accused of something that we didn’t do. The waters are being muddied over here with these people that have done these atrocities. And then you have the African American community and community of color that’s, “We’re afraid of you, because you guys seem to be able to abuse us with impunity, and there doesn’t seem to be recourse.” And if you cannot move past that fear, then you can’t have those conversations.

You have to try to work through acknowledging the experiences so that fear can drop down and then you can have those conversations so that when an officer sees an African American walking down the street, they’re like, “Oh, that’s Steve. I know, Steve, he’s a good guy. His kids just graduated from high school,” or something like that. That’s where we need to get, but you have to get there past the fear.

Robinson: There’s kind of like this human thing where it’s so awesome to demonize and villainize people. We’re, like, way into it as a species, and all cultures are kind of dealing with that. That’s part of the tweak that needs to happen. Because while we have felt and have experienced, and historically and definitively sold, these oppressions, these atrocities, these manifestations of dehumanizing and otherizing – what good does it do for us to respond the same way? Where does that take us?

I wanted to just really highlight the training about slavery and the origins of policing, you know, because the reality what? A decade ago, five years ago, two years ago, officers didn’t know that. Heck, I didn’t even know that. So, I wanted to applaud that.

Meidl: You have to acknowledge that this is what I feel, I want to acknowledge that we have, we have a lot of work to do clearly, unequivocally. And it is something that doesn’t change overnight, because you’re looking to change cultures.

It takes a while to change the culture. It’s the types of people you hire, the type of leadership. It’s the type of training, its policies, procedures, it’s discipline. It’s the full gamut.

We can come out with all kinds of policies. “Thou shalt not do this, thou shalt do that.” And for the most part, they will probably follow those policies. You’re always going to have humans, humans have the free will to decide “I’m not going to do that.” And those are the ones that tend to create issues for police departments.

Those people who are victimizing the community, we don’t necessarily want them to be glad to see us. But we also don’t want them to think that they’re going to be abused or assaulted or hurt, but they shouldn’t be excited to see us if they’re breaking the law, right? But we also don’t want people to think we’re going to go in there and we’re going to hurt people needlessly, that we’re going to be heavy-handed.

We have a job to do and, and the goal is to get people to see that, man, “We’re excited to see you, we’re glad to see you.” This is a police department for the entire city. Not just whites, not just Blacks, not just Asians, not just Latinos, not just Pacific Islanders.

I am the chief, and we are a police department for the entire community.

And the reality is, is if there’s a burden in the community or a burden within a segment of the community, that becomes our burden. And that is something that we have to work through. We can’t work through that, though, without that segment of the community working with us. We can’t do it ourselves.

Robinson: I’d just affirm that, Craig.

We have to really own the fact that as a society we have all been racially programmed.

Caucasian culture, supremacy mindsets. That’s just like, “Whiteness is the thing, and whiteness is the best, our songs are the best, our clothes are the best.” That’s what’s been sold. That’s what people have been inundated with for generations. And so as an organization, and what you’re really striving to overcome is some of that that’s in people and they’re not even conscious that that’s a thing.

We’ve got the Caucasian cultural supremacy mindset on one side, and then we’ve got the systemic trauma and resentment, generational, on the other hand. It’s like, wow, is it really that hard to kind of try to figure out how we got here?

Meidl: One of my friends made a comment as well and he said, “Are we willing to heal? Are we willing to be healed?”

It doesn’t mean that everyone is in that position where they want to offer that healing but when we do have that, you have entities that are saying “We apologize for all the past tragedies and abuses and in murders and homicides and lynchings and everything else that goes with it. And we apologize and we’re working hard to change that.” Is the other side also willing to say, “Yes, we are willing to be healed”?

It becomes complicated because you get Minneapolis, you get Tacoma, and you get all these other things and everybody is like, “Well, see, you know, forget about it. You guys are just the same. You don’t want to change.”

Timeout. Yes, we do. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s not give up.

S-R: We seem to be faced with a protest movement that is fairly youth driven. And they seem to be in a hurry. What do you say to the people who are out there marching in the streets and agitating for change right now?

Meidl: We did not get here overnight. This has been hundreds of years getting to where we’re at today. We are not going to where all of us – all reasonable people want to get – overnight. It’s going to take a while.

When you see the destruction or the breaking glass or the looting or you’re even spray painting, I understand that in some of their minds, they feel like that is an expression of (their) anger. But what they need to also understand is that that is slowing down the process of us moving forward.

At some point, we have to get to the point where we’re sitting across the table and talking to each other. They don’t have to do that in Spokane for us to sit across the table and talk to each other.

That’s the goal. Let’s work through this together. Let’s work through this collaboratively.

Where you’re seeing the riots, that’s because they feel like they’re not being heard. I certainly am going to acknowledge it’s not felt by all the communities of color, but my feeling here is we do hear you, we have heard you. We are trying to make progress. We are working towards exactly what we all want. Don’t give up on us. Don’t let this distract us from what we’ve accomplished.

I will acknowledge this is multiple steps backwards, but … let’s at least acknowledge that we are trying to get better and that is not going to get us sitting across the table more than what we are doing. Now come and be part of the solution.

Tell us what is it that you’re looking for that we’re not doing. Or what is it you’re seeing that you don’t want to see in Spokane. I control Spokane city. I don’t control any other entity. So let’s talk about this. Let’s continue the progress we’ve already made in the city.

Robinson: What I am saying, because I’m out there next to them, is you’re right. You’re absolutely right.

They have the right to feel that way, have the right to express it, have the right to be angry about it, frustrated, disheartened and discouraged, and really to not understand why some of these things are taking so long.

Stop killing us period. Can we just start with that, and have that be OK? It’s not OK to put your knee on anybody’s neck, Black, brown, you know, young, old, whatever, for any period of time, and especially from an organization that is … sworn to serve.

No, you don’t get to do that. And you don’t get to keep your job afterward. You don’t get to turn around and get paid leave. You don’t get to do any of those things. You are done. And now we’re going to take a look at you from a restorative human lens.

I would also affirm the challenge of that is, to those of our human family that are benefiting from the system that know that it needs to change, but they’re not willing to sacrifice their payoff for it.

S-R: How can we look at what’s going on now and say, here are some concrete goals?

Robinson: From our Caucasian culture, from the dominant culture, what it’s going to take is some real commitment, real commitment to make sure that as they’re entering the voting booth, that they’re not just voting the party line. That they’re voting the values, the values that they’re espousing.

That’s a concrete thing, leveraging that privilege in that fashion.

POCs (persons of color) can’t do it alone. We didn’t get here alone. And we can’t, we’re not going to try to move forward alone because last time I looked, we were all in this together.

So my call out is to that right there. And with that, make sure that as you’re doing things, like looking for loans or buying a vehicle, purchasing food, are you tapping into businesses, locally owned businesses? If you are using a franchise, what is the race-equity lens that that franchise uses? What are its origins?

I think one other thing would be to really demand transparency and accountability from our system as a whole.

This has to go beyond the march or else the march is pointless. And basically, it’s the invitation for looters just to come on in hijacking and start the same nonsense all over again, which justifies some of the atrocities that law enforcement is already naturally challenged with.

Meidl: When you’re going to a group that is feeling harmed, I don’t get to tell them what we’re going to do. They have to tell me “Here’s what we need from you.” And you have to be willing to listen and willing to move forward.

It takes time to change that culture of how we view that, all while understanding our officers want to go home, too, and they are frequently, daily, put in very dangerous situations. So we also need them to be safe as well.

So there’s this constant balancing of only using force that you have to use versus “Yep, you deserve to go home as well.”

And you know, we’re human, we hire imperfect people. And sometimes they make mistakes.

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