If Sabrina Briggs ever gets tired of being a cop, she might consider a second career as a public speaker.
Testifying Wednesday before the Assembly Select Committee on Community and Law Enforcement Relations and Responsibilities, Briggs, an eight-year veteran of the Sacramento Police Department, sidestepped the stated topic of how to get more women of color like her into the white male-dominated policing profession, and instead told a story from her early days on the force. It was a simple allegory, featuring two characters in a single setting—a patrol car—but did more to illustrate how a one-mission establishment like law enforcement is a crude tool when bludgeoned against complex social failings.
As a new patrol officer, Briggs began, she often used the phrase, “I feel you,” in her interactions with civilians. It was a colloquial affirmation for all sorts, whether victim, witness, perpetrator or bystander. An inoffensive remark, she thought, until that one night.
She and her partner were dispatched to a weapons call involving a black male juvenile in possession of a handgun at a park at night. As they pull into the park, she makes eye contact with a youth matching the suspect description, “and boom, the race is on,” Briggs says. “He takes off running, jumping fences, through backyards. A couple blocks later, we catch him. And he does have a gun. But that’s not the interesting part of the story.”
The story actually begins on the car ride to juvenile hall, Briggs says. She tells the esteemed panel listening raptly that she especially likes to speak with juveniles following an arrest, to figure out what brought them to this moment, age 14, carrying a handgun through the park at night.
Seated behind the wheel of the patrol car with the youth detained in the backseat, the two catch each other’s eyes in the rear view mirror, through the partition grate separating cop from accused.
“I say, ‘Tell me man, what’s going on?'” Briggs relates. “And he says, ‘You know, Officer Briggs, I don’t usually talk to the police. I don’t like the police. But you seem pretty cool, so I’m’a talk to you.'
“He says, ‘Officer Briggs, I don’t know my dad. My mom’s never home. I have three older brothers, and they’re all locked up.'”
Briggs pauses and looks up at the ceiling. She punches her inner cheek with her tongue before continuing, in the boy’s words.
“’I have two sisters that I never see. My family is the streets. My family’s the gang. I carry a gun with me, at night, because people don’t like my family and they don’t like me. And I’m scared. I don’t go to school, and I bounce house to house with my family.'”
The two continue their drive in silence for a spell. Finally, Briggs reestablishes eye contact through the rear view mirror and says, with all the compassion she can muster, “I feel you. Man, I feel you.”
There’s another pause. When the officer find’s the boys eyes again, he speaks up.
“’No disrespect, Officer Briggs, but you don’t feel me. You don’t feel me. I bet you know your parents. And I bet, when you were 14 years old, you weren’t on the streets with a gun because you were scared.'
“And that young man is right. I don’t feel him. My parents have been married for 38 years. When I was 14, the only things I could think of were basketball, keeping my grades up so I could play basketball and cleaning my room. And that’s the only thing I had to worry about.”
Briggs’ usual statement of validation, of empathy, proved too inadequate in the face of something so real. She couldn’t bridge the gulf between them that night. Although, if I can speculate why the interaction has stayed with Officer Briggs for so long, the boy certainly got through to her.
“Like Frederick Douglass once said, ‘It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men,'” Briggs tells the panel. “We need to make that extra effort to be there for the youth in the community before they have to rely on the streets for families and role models. From a humanistic standpoint, I want to help these kids build better lives for themselves. From a law enforcement perspective, I have an obligation to prevent crime by helping to create better citizens.”
Can the two missions work together?
Assemblywoman Shirley N. Weber (D-San Diego) thinks they can. But it will take nothing short of a wholesale reimagining of what it means to be a peace officer. Certainly more than just adding more women and minorities to the job, which, Weber said, would accomplish little without restructuring the profession itself.
“Most of us want diversity without any change,” she said. “And that’s only natural. I’ve been at boards and commissions that bring in people of color, but we don’t want diverse points of view. We want the people in the room to act like everybody that’s already in the room.”
Weber was evoking the day’s unspoken challenge—making sure any reforms law enforcement considers don’t end up being skin-deep.
The panel’s host, meanwhile, spoke of the need for community investment. Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), a former employee of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, recounted going into hard-hit neighborhoods to conduct undercover drug buys 30 years ago. Today, the neighborhood is part of his district and just as troublesome as it was back then.
“The same thing is going on,” he said Wednesday. “And what do they have? They have horrible schools, low-performing schools. They have no banks, no supermarkets, no arts, no activities for the kids. That’s a big problem. And we’re there every day, because that’s where the crime is. We’re not in the rich neighborhoods, or the good areas of Sacramento. We’re in the poor areas as an occupying force.”
Cooper hoped Wednesday’s three-hour gathering of law enforcement officials and community representatives would present an opportunity to chip away at the frayed trust that has resulted from numerous police-force encounters across the country.
While a bill to outsource the investigation of deadly use of force died this week, Weber is supporting two bills that address other issues—expanding California’s definition of police bias beyond race to include other identity signifiers, and a bill that would collect use of force data.
But she also spoke of shifting the job of policing from a warrior mindset to a caretaker role. “You need to recruit people who don’t want to be cops,” she said. She followed that up with the afternoon’s biggest laugh line. “I even like to have elected officials who don’t want to be elected officials.”
One mountain at a time, Assemblywoman. One mountain at a time.