July 27, 2022
The Gifts and Dilemmas of True Diversity
By: Pocatello City Council Member Roger Bray
I have used the phrase words matter. I found out how much they matter recently after a city council meeting. In a previous council meeting, I had described our community as being less diverse than some, making some of our policing challenges less pronounced than elsewhere. Based on comments during the citizen input portion of the regular council meeting, I realized some people hear the phrase “as diverse as some others” as referencing only – or primarily – race or skin color. I had no idea it would be so narrowly interpreted. For me, diversity is a much more layered, complex concept applicable in a wide variety of situations. I never thought my comment would be a focal point for expanding discussions on what diversity is and what levels of community investment are required to assure diversity develops.
Law Insider articulates my understanding of diversity as follows: “Culturally Diverse Communities means communities of different diversity dimensions including: race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation/identity, socio-economic status, age, religion, physical and/or mental/neurological abilities, language, geographical location (e.g. urban/rural), veteran, and/or other pertinent characteristics.” https://www.lawinsider.com/dictionary/culturally-diverse-communities
I apologize for not anticipating how others might hear the word “diversity.” I wish those offended would have contacted me during the two weeks between my comment and the post-council meeting episode on July 21st, so we could have talked. Instead, they assumed they understood my intentions and condemned me summarily. This is the type of situation in which the adage, “Seek first to understand” is highly applicable.
When diverse populations in a community increase – as with our former influx of Middle Eastern Muslim students – the potential for serious cultural misunderstandings and ensuing conflict increases significantly. When different cultures encounter each other, ensuring equity and safety for all often involves relying on laws and increased proactive, community policing.
This is not because one group or another is more crime-ridden. It is because we, as humans, tend to feel more comfortable with those we perceive to be “like us.” We, unfortunately, have an almost innate tendency to look at those who come from “the outside” or have different beliefs/philosophies as “the other” and therefore suspect. Often the majority tendency is to see “outsiders” as exploitable and be OK with that because, after all, they are not really “us.”
The confrontation this past Thursday was a classic example of what happens when emotion and shouting replace reason. It was exceedingly difficult to finish a sentence, much less a thought without being cut off. Unfortunately, I was only able to partially respond to Mr. Lacey‘s questions before being interrupted. Had I been allowed to complete my answer, and tie it to my experiences with diversity-based conflict, I would have noted that it is frequently the majority group, not the minority group(s), that create diversity-based altercations.
I would have reminded Mr. Lacey that Chief Schei stated the ratio staffing concept is based on growth/decline of population. He did not mention increased need for specialized officers as community diversity increases – regardless of population head count. A quick internet search reveals ratio staffing is not the only method for determining police department officer needs according to various professional law enforcement organizations. Significant population growth requires force expansion. However, so do significant diversity increases. I would also have pointed out that because Idaho State University has a higher percentage of local/close regional students than many universities, its student population does not increase our diversity as significantly as the more diverse student bodies of some higher education institutions.
The Pocatello Police Department’s 2020 federal COPS grant application requesting five additional federally funded police officers, relies on the concept that the influx of members of certain groups creates the need for more officers. It assumed the large number of transient construction workers needed for the much-touted rapid Northgate build-out would inherently increase the need for police officers. I quote the final grant application statement from Section 7: Need For Federal Assistance: “In the interim, the addition of additional land area due to annexation, construction buildup and influx of a population of transient construction personnel involved with the buildup has and will continue to place an ever (sic) increasing drain on our current resources.”
Is our police department labeling transient construction workers as particularly prone to increase the drain on police resources?
The more diverse a community becomes, the more it relies on an equally diverse police force with a sophisticated understanding of diversity and how its many facets can play out in a community. For example, in cities with entire enclaves in which English is the second language – or rarely spoken at all – police forces need to engage multi-lingual officers fluent in the cultures of specific neighborhoods.
Our court system employs interpreters and signers for the hearing impaired for exactly the same reasons. It adds to the payroll, but it is necessary to ensure equity. The greater the number of groups trying to inter-relate, the greater the necessity for proactive intervention plans designed to prevent – or at least minimize – diversity-based misunderstandings escalating into altercations.
I have lived where diversity is far more pronounced than in Pocatello. Those communities had diversity issues that inform my current perceptions. The differences among residents were more pronounced, involved a greater variety of cultures, jobs, races, religions, education levels, and languages encompassing a far greater number of people. Law enforcement (and all citizen services) were stretched thin being appropriately responsive to everyone.
While we would all like to believe Idaho and Pocatello are uniformly welcoming toward people of every sector, this is not true. A young woman came to my office recently. She was desperate to leave Idaho because her life was threatened based on her race. Just this year a female athlete left ISU because she was not culturally comfortable. Six years ago, a New York Times headline stated; Muslim Students Report Burglaries and Hate Literature at Idaho State. In the last twenty-four hours I learned of a bi-racial couple that left our town to live where they feel more secure and accepted.
Diversity enriches! But we also have to be prepared for the reactions of some. I struck up a conversation with a taxi driver from India recently. He shared his belief that Toronto is the fastest growing city in North America because it embraces diverse populations and immigrants; and, therefore, offers an enticing multi-cultural quality of life to city residents and tourists. However, he also said there are growing pains because locals do not always welcome newcomers for a variety of reasons.
This current situation needs to be a learning moment for all of us. I will listen to how I am perceived in our community. I hope others will strive for understanding and dialog rather than summary judgement and conflict.
I know who I am and have repeatedly demonstrated my commitment to underserved populations during my thirty years in Pocatello. If this situation serves as the catalyst to initiate the authentic, in-depth conversations about race, discrimination, and othering this community needs to have, so be it. I am at peace.