Update, June 11, 2 p.m.: Robert Leftwich, Town of Truckee chief of police, has announced his retirement, effective July 3. Moonshine was informed that police staff received notice at 11:33 a.m., the rest of town staff at 11:41 a.m. It was posted to the town’s social media platforms shortly after.
The June 8 town hall was advertised as a platform for Town of Truckee staff and council, the police department, and residents to share a dialog about combating police violence and systematic racism in law enforcement.
Simmering close to the surface and blowing up on social media, however, was an email police Robert Leftwich had sent out June 1 (see below) to all town staff sharing a breakdown of demonstration vs. protest vs. riot, and the police department’s role during such acts. He also provided his insight on police interactions and the “constant state of adaptation around community perceptions,” particularly with audio and video recordings.
“Conceptualize for a second what it might be like for you in your job to be video and audio recorded through your entire workday,” he wrote. “To know if there is any question about your performance that your boss can review and critique every second of your actions after the fact and compare that to policy manuals that are hundreds of pages.”
Most notable in the email, based on community reaction, was Leftwich’s opinion on the death of George Floyd — a black man killed May 25 in Minneapolis by a police officer that sparked protests across the nation and beyond. Leftwich wrote that Floyd was not innocent, that he didn’t die because of a knee on his neck, though it did contribute to his death, and that the actions of those rioting across the world in response to Floyd’s death were not justifiable responses.
The leak led to public calls for his job and resulted in planning commissioner Nikki Riley stepping down from her position in protest. A week after the fact, Leftwich was in front of a microphone to listen and respond to over 180 comments (available online through public record) on the topic of his message and a culture of racism some saw within the police department.
“I think there’s a few things I really need to say that might not make any difference for those who’ve already been disappointed in me,” Leftwich said at the meeting, sharing that Floyd’s death was “a tragedy that has sparked a bigger conversation that probably was so needed in our country.”
He continued with a plea that the community frustration directed toward the police department be curbed.
“The emotional component to this, as hard as it is for me and my family, I really am saddened by what this has done to the reputation of the police department,” Leftwich said. “… I’m understanding of the frustration that is directed toward me, but as that frustration starts to trickle down to my staff, I really have to remind people to judge them independent of me because I feel they deserve that much.”
Leftwich apologized for what he wrote, and “for creating this unintended diversion.”
Truckee Mayor Dave Polivy said ultimately, the meeting was a success, especially considering how fast it came together. A number of involved town staff, he said, “poured their heart and soul into trying to have this very robust and open discussion. I think we’re doing the best we can given all these new constraints [referring to virtual meeting requirements in light of COVID-19].”
Time itself turned out to be one of the constraints the town wished to keep, attempting to limit the meeting to two hours. (This bookend was delayed by about 30 minutes due to technical difficulties with the live TV option for viewers — ultimately the meeting could only be streamed live online.)
Because nearly 200 comments had been submitted by 5 p.m. on the day of the town hall, part of that attempt to watch the clock led to a summary of comments received, separated by different topics such as training, the town’s law enforcement budget, and building relationships between the department and Truckee’s people of color. The town’s filtering process of the comments had two steps:
“One was if the tone or the subject matter were the same for the most part, we decided to group all of that together rather than read individual comments, and that’s so we had more time to touch on [the topics],” Polivy explained. “We also chose to moderate comments that either had derogatory language, that had personal attacks, or had any type of … curse words. We did get a lot of those that were simply not appropriate [to be read out loud].”
All comments submitted, read or not, were recorded and are part of public record. Polivy said no live comments were permissible during the town hall due to the possibility of inappropriate language being used. The ones read aloud still expressed disappointment.
“Along with many others in our community, I was unsettled by the emails that were sent to town staff last week in regard to be a lack of sensitivity and awareness to the larger issues around systematic racism we are dealing with as a community,” stated one comment publicly read. “I hold our local police officers in highest regard, and I respect you as a leader … I would’ve expected a proactive response more along the lines of listening to what protesters had to say and what lessons can be learned rather than the reactive response we received.”
Yet the comments submitted weren’t all directed negatively at the chief’s email: A number were in support of Leftwich and the police department.
Nathan Farnell, for example, who’s lived in Truckee since 2003, commended Leftwich and his department as a whole: “The PD has a job that is tougher than most jobs and the chief is sometimes placed between a rock and a hard place when making decisions or commenting on issues that polarize our community. Sometimes those personal comments are well-received by people and sometimes they are not. Either way, we should examine the merits of this man’s job performance mandate in keeping the community safe.”
The town hall meeting, which, other than statements made by the mayor and police chief and conversation moderated by the town manager, centered around comments sent in, was a reasonable approach to addressing Leftwich’s remarks, said Nikki Caravelli, a Truckee native who recently moved to Sacramento for a planning position. But she said she was frustrated that she submitted a voice message to be played during the meeting and it never happened. There’s been no indication that the town even received her call, which she says makes her “question whether it was intentionally not played, or just a mere technological malfunction. Either way, the implication is concerning; the town should have figured out how to hold a virtual public forum without compromising whether and how comments are heard by now.”
Comments about Leftwich weren’t just from the public. Two current Town of Truckee staff members (who provided insight as citizens rather than town representatives, and don’t want to be named so as not to jeopardize their jobs) reached out to Moonshine to share their frustration about the email and the fallout since.
“Regret is very different from remorse,” one of the staff members said of Leftwich’s stated apology in the days following the initial email leak. “… If you read between the lines of his statement, it is very clear there is no heartfelt apology, merely a sentiment that he regrets that he was misunderstood. It’s clear that he doesn’t see the issue with what he said.”
The second town staffer said they corresponded with multiple coworkers about the email after it was sent out, and some were certainly in favor of Leftwich’s comments. Allegedly, the majority of coworkers this staff person spoke with, however, were angry.
“Upset really isn’t the right word for it,” the person said. “People were pissed. People were outraged. Most of the people I spoke to could not believe what was happening and were shocked and saddened and really, really angry. Not only that this was a racist view that our police chief took, but that we had to read about it at work and felt unable to respond.”
These town employees exchanged messages with Moonshine immediately after the town hall ended, noting that Leftwich “did not apologize for disparaging the [Black Lives Matter] movement” and he “doubled down on more of the same rhetoric we’ve heard time and time again from him.” Both staff members said they hoped Leftwich would step down.
Caravelli, meanwhile, said she thinks asking that of Leftwich would be too divisive a move. She explained that though she disagrees with his mention during the town hall that there is no racism within his department, saying his “white privilege maybe be getting in the way of him seeing that,” it’s challenging to balance desire for change with the compassionate understanding that the chief is human.
“That doesn’t mean he can’t change,” she said. “… I would rather see [him] grow and change and become an extremely strong advocate for people of color even stronger than he has on this issue rather than him stepping down.”
Truckee’s chief of police position is not an electable one. Leftwich reports to the town manager, Jeff Loux, who was unable to comment on the situation. Leftwich himself did not respond to Moonshine’s interview requests.
Mayor Polivy did provide his own insight into how the town has reacted in light of the email and ensuing conversations: “At the end of the day, it’ a team mentality. We’re all working through every issue, every crisis, every pandemic as a team, and that’s how the town functions … With that said, there are mistakes that are made, things that are said that don’t always reflect the values or policies or the statements of the whole team. [But] we don’t beat around the bush; I feel like we addressed everything head on and we did not shy away from hard questions.”
The following email was shared with Moonshine Ink the evening of June 1. We have not changed the language in any way.
From: Robert Leftwich
Sent: Monday, June 1, 2020 8:17 AM
Subject: Local Approach to Civil Unrest
Good Morning All,
I have addressed this email to all employees but most of it is more applicable to our Police Department staff. They have heard this all before. I think it is important during times like these that we all have the correct perspective and talking points for community members that might ask.
As if COVID had not frayed our nerves enough, this weekend has developed into a new mess across our nation. As most urban and suburban areas deal with some level of protests around the death of George Floyd, several areas have developed into widespread rioting that no longer has any resemblance of normal public outcry. At this point, I remain cautiously optimistic that Truckee will not see organized rioting in the same way that many cities have. Most of the large scale rioting is politically motivated and organized by groups similar to Antifa or radicalized cells of Black Lives Matter. The goal is to have the resistance become mob-like and grow with fringe criminal elements joining in. Eventually, the conflicts cause frenzy and a certain lawlessness spreads throughout the crowd. The organized instigators are often from out of the area and they desire a high level of media coverage and a significant police presence that is likely to cause police conflict that can be filmed and edited to further their narrative. Truckee provides little of those opportunities and will likely not be a location that is worth traveling to. We could see graffiti and some vandalism that develops into looting but the events will likely be smaller, short lived and consist of local actors who want to mimic what they are seeing in the news, if it happens at all.
Typically, residential neighborhoods are not impacted and people are able to maintain a high level of safety by staying in their homes or offices. Driving to where the action is to witness what is going on is where some make a critical mistake. It is easy to get caught in the traffic or to become a victim of the violence. Riots are not demonstrations and you are not “standing in solidarity.” Simply said, our best advice to people is to stay away and stay inside if rioting develops.
Our enforcement philosophy will be as it is with most things, reasonable, efficient and swift actions that mitigate the problem as best as possible. Although the terms are not the exact technical definitions that some of us learned in training, the following illustrates what we are seeing across the Country.
Demonstration (Rally) – This is the most likely thing we will encounter in the next few days. Tuesday has two events in the planning stages and these groups of people are typically on the sidewalks, holding signs and do nothing to involve those that choose not to be involved. Our role will be to help them safely hold their demonstration and protect their right to peacefully assemble. We will make contact with organizers and offer any services or suggestions that will make their event safer for participants.
Protest – This is a more robust demonstration. As it develops, certain members of the demonstration might start blocking streets, business doorways or marching down the middle of the street. We become more alert to the actions of the group because their actions start to involve others who might not want to be involved. This can cause conflict and it can quickly escalate into people trying to drive through the protesting group or groups starting to form as counter protests. We will make all reasonable efforts to divert traffic and give the group a period of time to protest but also allow for a normal dispersion over time. We will coordinate with organizers to drive the group back into a Demonstration mode but allowing organizers to be the lead.
Unlawful Assembly – At some point, we might have to declare a protest an unlawful assembly if we feel there is a significant risk to safety. Our orders to the crowd will be clear and several duplicative orders will be given with clear timeframes for the crowd to disperse. Most of the time, police will be working through the unlawful assembly process as we develop strategic plans to move the group. When you see large groups of police personnel arriving and lines of officers forming, this is likely the developing strategy.
Riot – Fairly self-explanatory. Large crowds began to move quickly or run through streets. It begins to feel chaotic and you start to see vandalism develop. The vandalism develops and grows into fire setting, destruction of vehicles and broken windows on businesses. Broken windows develops into looting and parts of the mod begin lashing out at those not involved. This is exactly what we have been seeing develop in several cities. Do not be fooled by news stories that refer to this as “demonstrations” or “protests.” It is rioting, pure and simple. There are elements that started as protests but once it devolves, there is no reason to believe it is anything other than what it appears to be. Anyone reasonable and only wanting to be part of a demonstration has no business sticking around.
Our Police Department’s role is complicated. Our job is actually to protect people’s right to demonstrate and protest. We need to be incredibly cautious to not act too soon and have it appear as though we are preventing a reasonable level of protesting. Doing so can make a town or city a target for those groups who are looking to prove a point. Being too proactive can actually bring bigger issues. At the same time, our actions can’t be too slow. When we sense the crowd is devolving from protest and into fringe rioting, we need to separate those actors and act reasonably and swiftly. Letting the frenzy spread will likely never result in the core group losing interest and dispersing.
If we should see demonstrations or protests over the next few weeks, it is critical to not assume that a riot situation is eminent. Our history is Truckee has proven time and time again that reasonable people act reasonably. It is likely nothing to be concerned about. If you chose to not be involved, turn the other way. If you get caught in a group, look for a police officer and calmly explain that you want out of the crowd but don’t know where to go, they will lead you out.
When incidents happen, like what happen to Mr. Floyd, people feel compelled to do something and be part of change. I am not going to argue against the perception of police brutality or systemic racism, although neither have even been close to my experience and interactions with hundreds if not thousands of law enforcement professionals. I will tell you that we have close to 800 thousand law enforcement officers in this country. Annually, it is likely that police interact with well over 500 million people. Calculating those events that do end tragically out of some 500 million interactions is a percentage that is hard to imagine. Police are prosecuted at a lower per capita rate than doctors, lawyers, teachers and even fire fighters. We are one of the most regulated industries in our nation with some of the most stringent training requirements. To say that law enforcement needs to “change” is a bit of a misnomer because we are in a constant state of adaptation around community perceptions. We have been adapting our strategies for decades around community expectations and concerns. Officers in most modern agencies are video and audio recorded for their entire shift. That is worth repeating…conceptualize for a second what it might be like for you in your job to be video and audio recorded through your entire work day. To know if there is any question about your performance that your boss can review and critique every second of your actions after the fact and compare that to policy manuals that are hundreds of pages.
Lastly and without trying to be defensive in the least, I will share a little about what my perspective is. George Floyd did not deserve what happened to him. Mr. Floyd was not innocent and he didn’t die because of a knee on his neck but it did contribute to his death. The police tactics that were used, by at least one officer, appear to be professionally negligent and unnecessary. None of that justifies the actions of those that are rioting. None! To prove my point, if you don’t know who Patrick Underwood of Pinole, CA is, you should Google him. Patrick was a different African American man who was murdered in cold blood on Friday and he was completely innocent. There is no one demonstrating for him or rioting because of his death. In fact, the news has barely covered who he is. There is not one article from Antifa or Black Lives Matter that discusses his life mattering. I highly encourage all of you to form your own perceptions and opinions and I will help support those to the end of time. Just try to make sure they are void of the political noise that seems to be trying to influence our perception of what all this is really about.
Chief of Police
Truckee Police Department