Episode 117 – The Honegger Family in Conversation with Police Officer Tonya Jefferson

This week we continue our series on the Art of Difficult Dialogue with a special change of format as the whole Honegger family sits down with Officer Tonya Jefferson, a police officer in Austin, Texas. In this conversation Officer Jefferson, Jessica, and her kids have a thoughtful, honest, and hopeful exchange about race in America, defending the police, and how we can live better – together.


Jessica: Hey, everyone. Welcome back to the Going Scared podcast. This is your host Jessica Honegger, founder of the social impact fashion brand Noonday Collection. Join me here every week for conversations on living lives of purpose by leaving comfort and going scared.

Alright, this week’s episode is a little bit different than normal, and it’s extra special because we’ve never done anything like this before. Today I am joined by Austin Police Department Sergeant Tonya Jefferson, and my three kids, Amelie, Jack, and Holden. Sergeant Jefferson has worked in the police department for 23 years. She was the first African American woman to be on the APD motorcycle unit, she has served as a district representative and as a detective, and she’s the mother of an incredible daughter.

We extended an invitation to have Sergeant Jefferson and my kids partake in this convo because my kids started asking a lot of questions to me over the summer, and I had more questions to ask back to them than I had answers to give them. I think more than anything right now, I’m wanting to teach my kids nuance, how to hold tensions, and how to see things from different angles and inside other people’s perspective. Where you live or what experiences you’ve had with law enforcement are going to impact how you enter a discussion around law enforcement, and I was finding that my children were being very, very one-sided. So, I wanted them to hear from someone in law enforcement.

Originally, I thought, “You know what guys, let’s just have a police officer come into our home that polices of our neighborhood and let’s just get to know him or her,” but then I thought, “What if I actually recorded that conversation for you guys, because I’m imagining if we are having these kind of conversations in our house, you probably are, too. I didn’t want to just talk to anyone, though. I wanted to hear from a Black police officer who herself was a victim of systemic racism growing up and who is now fighting against systemic racism from the inside as a reformer herself. And let me tell you, that is who Sergeant Tonya Jefferson is.

She is a woman of integrity and of courage and of peace. And just even how she was able to communicate with my kids was really inspiring and a huge learning experience for me. Now, this is a brave conversation, and after reviewing it, we feel good about this conversation and really wanting you to get to listen in, because hopefully my kids are asking questions that your kids are asking at home as well. Here’s my conversation with Sergeant Jefferson and my kids, Amelie, Holden, and Jack.


The Honegger Family in Conversation with Police Officer Tonya Jefferson

Jessica: Well, let’s kick it off. We are here. For the first time in my life, I have my children with me. I have to say, I’m a little nervous, to have my… I love my kids. We have the most colorful, amazing conversations in our home. Wouldn’t you all say that?

Holden: Yeah, definitely.

Amelie: Yeah, a little bit.

Jessica: And so, we wanted to bring a little bit of that to the podcast today. And so, we have Sergeant Tonya Jefferson, now, Thomas.

Sgt. Jefferson: Yes.

Jessica: Just got married a couple of days ago. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Sgt. Jefferson: It is my pleasure.

Jessica: Kids, why don’t y’all go around and say your name, your age, and one fun fact about virtual school.

Amelie: My name is Amelie, I’m 14 years old. And one fun fact about virtual school is I can get let out of class like really early, and then I can just like, hang out, like for a long time.

Jessica: That’s a benefit.

Jack: My name is Jack Honegger and one fun fact about…

Amelie: How old are you?

Jack: Oh, yeah, I’m 11 years old. And one fun fact about school… Well, the funnest part about it is leaving it, so…

Amelie: Jack.

Jack: Hey, you got to be truthful here, Amelie. You’ve got to be truthful.

Jessica: It’s true.

Holden: I’m Holden Honegger. One fact about virtual school is, I guess… Well, I guess, like, you get breaks, which makes the school day a lot better than if we were just doing it straight full time.

Amelie: Like, straight computer time, yeah.

Jessica: So true. Holden came and gave me a taste of the kombucha he’s making today, right in the middle of the day. I’m like, "You wouldn’t get this, you know, during normal school." Well, we’re so grateful that you’re here, and my kids are prepared a little bit for this conversation. I don’t know if you have ever watched the series "Blackish?"

Sgt. Jefferson: I have, yes.

Jessica: Okay. We are obsessed with it. We have been bingeing on it every night now, for a couple of months. We’re trying to pace ourselves. And we watched one episode a couple of months ago, that was filmed in 2015, after Tamir Rice was killed, and we just… it was such a moving episode. So, we refreshed ourselves, watched it again last night and then after that, the kids prepared some questions. So, Amelie, you were gonna kick us off, what do you wanna know?

Amelie: Well, like, what part of your childhood like stands out to you the most and like, really influences you and like your life today?

Sgt. Jefferson: I grew up in a small town called Tyler, Texas, just right outside of Austin. And I never got to see the big city of Austin growing up. And I was a cheerleader, was involved in sports, and things like that. Some of my experiences coming up with having to deal with law enforcement were not as positive. So, some of those things pushed me to wanting to try and make some sort of a change. I thought I could make that change in teaching, and I said, "I’m not for sure if I’m ready for the classroom." And then I veered into wanting to be a probation officer because I love working with kids in some kind of way, but I like outside and I like being able to be flexible. So, I did some ride outs with the police department there in Tyler and found this is what I like, I really wanna do this. So, I applied here in Austin, and here I am today 23 years later.

“Some of my experiences coming up with having to deal with law enforcement were not as positive. So, some of those things pushed me to wanting to try and make some sort of a change.” Sgt. Jefferson

Amelie: Yeah.

Jessica: Twenty-three years?

Sgt. Jefferson: Yes ma’am.

Jessica: Wow, that’s amazing. Okay. Holden?

Holden: Well, what does a typical day in the police department look like?

Sgt. Jefferson: It depends on your job. If you’re on patrol, it varies because you can be headed to a hot call, that’s lights and sirens. Or you have a slow day to where you’re actually making stops, you know, searching your area for, you know, violent offenders, things like that. So, it does vary. With my job that I have now, I’m a supervisor in our community relations area. And what I do on a regular basis is I do get different issues and complaints in from citizens, that my officers patrol their areas specifically. And we drive in and address those specific issues that are happening in those areas. So, whether it be a barking dog that’s waking people at night, or cars that are parked illegally, things like that, they vary.

Jack: Well, when you were a kid what did your parents tell you about the police?

Sgt. Jefferson: I grew up in a single-family home, it was just my mom, and she had seven kids. So, when we grew up, we didn’t have, and were not able to have, a lot of her there in the house. So, we had to find and mend our way on how we were going to grow up and wanted to be. So, we were basically finding our way. But one thing I did find and learn within my house… I did have a brother that I learned a lot from because he did not go the right direction. And he stole from me, he did a lot of things. And I found myself having to call the police on him. That was not a fun experience. Today, talking to him, he ended up going to jail. Now, he’s out and we are able to sit next to each other, and actually speak to kids that are at risk, letting them know how they affect the family. Because he really affected our family when stealing things from us, because of addictions, things like that. He now realizes why I had to call the police on him, and that made an impact on him in his life. And he can actually stand now and say I kind of helped save him.


Looking Back at the Past

Jessica: Wow. So, you mentioned that growing up, you had some not so positive interactions with the police in your town, could you get into a little bit of those details?

Sgt. Jefferson: Well, when we were a group of kids, if we were in certain areas, doing certain things, they would really come in willy-nilly and hard on us on the area of town that I lived in, which was not very, you know, influential, it wasn’t very upstanding. Then we would find other kids that were having, you know, beer parties things like that that were just in the open, and they were just allowing them to have those parties, which we found that that was unfair at the time, but not really at the time knowing how to explain that as being unfair. And who do you complain to? Who do you say something to? I don’t know how to… we didn’t know how to say anything about it at the time without having a lot of fear.

Jessica: Were there Black police officers that would patrol your neighborhood? Do you remember? No.

Sgt. Jefferson: None.

Jessica: It was all white?

Sgt. Jefferson: All white.

Jessica: Okay. And there wasn’t a sense of necessarily, "Oh, these people are here to know my name, to shoot hoops with me and my friends and…"

Sgt. Jefferson: Never.

Jessica: Never. Okay.

Sgt. Jefferson: Completely different aspects to what you see now in policing, completely different.

Jessica: Okay. So, did you eventually… who gave you this vision that a police officer could be a part of the community? Because my understanding of police, and maybe that’s what else we can ask is, what do you feel like the typical role is that the average person in America says, "This is the role of police?" Maybe you could answer that.

Sgt. Jefferson: Well, the word community service… community service has changed so many different ways over the years. Community service the way it was, in my time, maybe you just driving down the road saying hi to miss Jane, or hi to Mr. Joe sitting on the porch. It’s evolved now. And it has to be more, because it’s not just about riding down the street as an officer and saying, "Hi," it has to be more than just that. It has to be building a relationship. If you’re not building a relationship, that’s not community service. And I think now, in some aspects, we try and do that, if you have time. i]If you don’t, we’re so far from that. And that’s where things start falling apart in a community is when you can’t build that relationship or don’t have time to build those relationships.

“That’s where things start falling apart in a community is when you can’t build that relationship or don’t have time to build those relationships.” Sgt. Jefferson

Jessica: When… now I’m totally dominating the conversation. So, I’m gonna ask her a question then you think about what you’re gonna ask next. I should have known this is gonna happen. When did your parents first have the "talk" with you? Or did your mom do that?

Sgt. Jefferson: I did not have that conversation.

Jessica: Okay.

Sgt. Jefferson: No, it was a single-family home with seven kids. She worked every day. We never had that conversation. The conversations that we would have amongst each other as peers, because most of my friends at the time were African American, were just hit or miss conversations. It was never really a focal point. So, for me, growing up in Tyler, race was there. It was prevalent, we even had a place that you can go into to get food, and African Americans go in one door, and whites go in the other door. And that was understood, and you knew which door you came into. Did we focus on that as a problem, per se? No, we did not.

Jessica: It was just this is how life… this is how it is.

Sgt. Jefferson: That’s just how life is. And did I have white friends? One of my best friends was white, yes, Melissa. And I went to her house every day. We played, we never had race issues that ever came up. Her parents treated me, you know, with the utmost respect. And we just never really, back then, focused heavily on that, which I feel was a deterrent for me. Because I feel like I missed out early on learning more about my culture, where I came from, my history, things like that. I feel like I missed out on that I’m now trying to pick up on and understand and learn more about now.


Understanding the Nuances of Life

Amelie: So, like, you talked about how your mom didn’t really tell you about the police, so you got like a lot of influence from your friends. Did that like, help you form your opinion of the police? And like, what was your opinion of the police?

Sgt. Jefferson: My opinion of the police when I was growing up, I thought they were mean, I thought they were horrible. I didn’t like the police. No one liked the police, in my neighborhood, back then. I think a lot of that has to do with not understanding, not taking the time to understand, you know, I guess what their job was, what the role is, how and why they do things and if they should be doing certain things.

Jessica: So, what sparked us to have this time with you was initially just the conversations that are happening in our home. And for children, nuance… takes a lot to understand nuance. And obviously, being able to witness and see the murder of George Floyd really takes you to a very visceral place in your heart. And for my kids to, sort of, see that unroll before their eyes were was a real challenge. And Amelie, I thought you might share a little bit, what was that week like for you?

Amelie: Well, it was really hard because I never really talked about police brutality or anything like that. Obviously, because I didn’t really have to, which is sad that people even have to talk about it with their kids. But like, it really hit me because like, I watched the video. And I didn’t watch the whole thing because I just… I didn’t wanna see like, all of it. But it really scared me because it really hit me like, this is a country that I live in and my brother has to grow up in this. And like, that was just really hard because I don’t want him to have to fear the police because that’s just sad. And he shouldn’t have to fear the people that are like, supposed to protect us. So, what did you feel, in that week? And what was your take on it?

Sgt. Jefferson: After watching the video, I was heartbroken. I was angry. I was ashamed more so than anything. I felt betrayed. I had a lot of negative mixed feelings when this happened. But I also had to take a step back and say, "This is the time that we have to make change." And I had to toughen up when it came to that.

Sgt. Jefferson: When it came to that…because believe it or not in a lot of jobs that you all will go into in your life, you may find even as a female because… not just African American, but even as a female, you’ll find yourself being, as a minority. And as an African American, you will be a minority. And you’re going to be faced with things that you have to make decisions to say if I should say something or not because this is not right or didn’t feel right. And after that… and we started having protests after that. It was hard because I could feel their tension. I could feel the anger. But I also knew I was on this side of the barricade as well and I had a job to do. It bothered me. It bothered me to have to stand there and look at them to say, "I understand, I know where you’re coming from, I understand." Because I know on this side of the barricade, I’m dealing with some of the same things inside and inside my agency.

So, I felt the need to say something at that point because I had gone for 23 years and not said anything, and just turned my back and just let things go status quo. And so many of us have done that. And a lot of us, now we’re ready to say we should say something because it’s not right. Because how’s that affecting you all if you decide to come and be a police officer? It’s not gonna be a good environment. So, trying to change the culture at that point was one of the big things that I felt we needed to do.

“And we started having protests after that. It was hard because I could feel their tension. I could feel the anger. But I also knew I was on this side of the barricade as well and I had a job to do.” Sgt. Jefferson

Jessica: Wow. So even having a public conversation like this on a podcast is newer for you as far as, okay, taking a stand and speaking up?

Sgt. Jefferson: I actually did a couple of other interviews, actually voicing thoughts and my personal opinions on things that affected me and how it affected me within the department. I wasn’t able to kind of speak on other people’s thoughts only on my own, and things that I know I have experienced, you know, since I’ve been there as a female and as an African American. But also, coming forward and addressing what the actual issues are. And in doing that, I had to find myself doing my homework also because you can’t just go throw out an allegation and not have facts to back it up. If you wanna make true change, make sure you have those facts to back up what it is that you’re actually making the argument on.

Jessica: There’s a lot of facts that support systemic racism in the police department.

Sgt. Jefferson: And for one, yes. When we started our research, I started looking, a few years ago, into our issues with being able to promote… I mean, being able to recruit African Americans in the police department. I started seeing that we would recruit maybe five here, and then we were losing four, we would only graduate one. And I said, “There’s something wrong here, I don’t understand.” So, I started asking questions. I went over to our recruiting and asked, "Is there a reason why we’re not getting African Americans in? One of the reasons that the males were not coming in, is because of dreadlocks. That was in our policy. It was written in a policy, that if you’re having the dreadlocks, you can’t get accepted into the academy, so.

Jessica: God, that is racist.

Sgt. Jefferson: Well, this was something that was written and has been written for so long, and no one has really addressed it. So myself and a partner of mine, Chandra Ervin, we went on the tangent to say, "We’ve got to say something." So, we did, we brought it to the attention of everyone back last December. The policy still didn’t get changed. We brought it up again. I had a meeting with one of our assistant chiefs last month, Chief Gay, he listened and said, "You’re right. There is no reason that we should have that policy there. You’re right, it needs to be changed." And he authorized the change of the policy. So that was a huge step, I mean, in the right direction.

There’s other things and it’s a matter of just sitting down and listening and trying to understand. Because a lot of people wouldn’t understand how your hair being a certain way, is not right, it’s just not. And we had a meeting, during the meeting one of the girls addressed some of the people in the meeting and said, "It cost a lot of money for my hair to look like yours." And it does. "And whose standard of professionalism are we looking at?" So those things got addressed during that meeting, and it was wrong. And I addressed the issue and said, "If you have recruiters that are going to a lot of your HBCUs, your universities, you’re gonna see a lot of African Americans with dreadlocks, and they’re smart. Some of them are going for master’s degrees. So how do you tell that professional person they can’t do a job because of their hair? It’s not right." So that was one of the milestones that we did overcome, and I’m so grateful because now it doesn’t prevent that… you know, as a stigma from African Americans to join the police department and come in.


Creating a Space for Open Dialogue

Jessica: Well, Jack definitely appreciates that. He loves his dreadlocks.

Sgt. Jefferson: They look nice.

Jessica: And I’ve never said this out loud to you, Jack, but, you know, I think part of the reason I have given a lot of pushback on his hair, and it’s because I’ve just been worried about his safety. And I thought, "Well, if he has a clean-cut haircut, then maybe people are gonna be more likely to treat him with respect." But in essence, it’s like putting whiteness on him, you know. So, I’m happy to say I’m in full support of his hair. His hair is beautiful. It grows naturally like this. But it is something that I think about, and especially now that my kids are out and about, we really raised them to be responsible, but also very independent. And we live in the urban part of Austin, and they go off. They go off to the grocery store, they go to Starbucks, they will go grocery shopping for us and put stuff in their backpack. And if they want to cook, they’ll go buy the stuff. And now that my kids are at this age where they’re not just the, "Oh, the cute little kids," anymore, I am more aware of how they are being perceived. And how do I protect them?

So, I’m curious, since you are an Austin police officer and knowing that my kids are about town, I’ve told you the area of Austin that we live in. There’s definitely some spicy people in the area. Yeah, and we’ve gotten to be friends with some of them. But what would you say safety looks like as my kids are out and about? And how should they interact? Actually, what… I’m kind of rambling now. But boys, why don’t you… y’all share with her what happened this week?

Holden: Do you want to tell the story? I’ve told it many a time. How about you start I can finish.

Jack: Well, we were playing in the ditch and…

Amelie: You probably need to elaborate on what that is.

Jack: Yeah. We were playing in this, like, sewer system, I guess. That’s in a sewer system on a rainy rainy day so it was really full, and we were playing around. And when we were leaving two cops pulled around. And we were like, "Wait, are we not allowed to be in here or something?" And then they were like, "Are you guys being safe?" Because they were wondering if we were being safe since the water was pretty high and…

Jessica: I look very negligent right now. Gosh, this is sounding really bad, but that’s okay. We’re gonna go for it, it’s okay. I told you I let them be independent. Okay.

Jack: And so, after that… Well, actually, after that, he just said, "Okay, well just… if it gets any deeper, make sure you’re being safe." So, he got out and then he left. And then, well he left, but one police officer just stayed there. Meanwhile, we’re biking back. And when we were biking back, Holden was like, "Come on, stay on the right side, we’ve got to follow the rules. There’s a police watching us." So yeah, and he was like, "He’s probably still looking at us. Come on, let’s go."

Holden: Yeah, we were like… he was just making sure we’re being safe. But Jack and I both got really scared when they showed up.

Jessica: Yeah. So, in their retelling the story, I’m thinking, were they suspicious of these kids? Were they really? Were they acting as community servants in my neighborhood? I mean, I don’t know.

Sgt. Jefferson: Well, you as a parent are doing the right thing. It’s open dialogue in the home, being open and upfront about this conversation. Sometimes these conversations are tough conversations to have when it comes to race. It really is. I can’t speak for every officer out there. Do we hire some bad apples? Yes, we do. I can’t tell you we don’t have bad apples. But I can tell you, the department does strive to wean those bad apples out. But sometimes that’s kind of hard to do. You know, can I look at someone and say, you know, "You’re racist, I can’t hire you?" That’s… there’s no way to be able to do that.

So, they are looking at other ways of trying to wean these things out. It’s a very difficult thing to do. Doesn’t matter where you’re working at, if you’re at a big company, or small business or the police department or wherever, you’re going to have bad apples. So, when you decide to go into the workforce, you as kids, 15, 16 you’ll get your first jobs, you are going to experience different levels of disparity. You, ma’am, will probably gonna be… as a female, you’re gonna experience that somewhere in your life.

With that, open dialogue is key. Have it with mom. That’s the key thing. Have it with mom. Let her know how you’re feeling what you see, is this okay? Is this right? You know, is it okay for me to feel this way? And as for Jack, he’s gonna be… feel comfortable coming and dialoguing and talking with the family to say, "You know, I’m feeling like this, this is the way I’m feeling. Is this right? Am I looking at this right? Or could it be something else here?" But also pay attention because we also pay attention like to my granddaughter in school, because, you know, things happen in the classroom with the teacher, and we have that open dialogue.

As I said, it’s gonna be tough conversation sometime, because he may explain something to you as to how he feels about something that you’re like, "No, there’s no way you can feel that way. Why would you see that? How could you see that?" But he’s the only one that’s gonna be able to see that, in that light. And these are things that we’re having conversations about in the department because a lot of things that we say as African Americans, a lot of the other officers are like, "How can you see that that way? There’s no way. How do you see that?" But we’ve lived this, we’ve lived this life, our entire life. And we’ve been in this skin to see what race looks like, what racism looks like to us, and what it feels to us. And unless it’s explained or we have a conversation to explain it to people, they won’t understand. So, the open dialogue is key, it is.

“We’ve been in this skin to see what race looks like, what racism looks like to us, and what it feels to us. And unless it’s explained, or we have a conversation to explain it to people, they won’t understand.” Sgt. Jefferson


Breaking Down Systemic Racism

Jessica: You’ve said the term bad apples. I feel like I’ve heard that term from people that want to dismiss that there is systemic racism, you know, saying there’s a few bad apples. But you did just explain more of an intrinsic systemic racism policy around hair. I mean, there is no policy around how white people can have their hair. So, you’re in the police department and, what does it look like to be a reformer right now? So, you are saying, following the murder of George Floyd and then Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and so many that happened right in a row. We’re all in lockdown. It has our full attention. I mean, this has happened for centuries, for generations, but you would say you’re having new conversations.

Sgt. Jefferson: First off, what we have within the department, we have policies and procedures. And we also abide by what state law says and how it’s written. And a lot of people without understanding, again, it’s understanding, we have to a lot of times ask the community to come in and actually read what the law says, what an officer can and can’t do in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. It tells you what an officer can, can’t do, when we can do certain things, when we can’t do certain things. And some of those things are a little vague, some people feel that way. When I’m allowed to use deadly force, that’s when I fear for my life or someone else’s. Some people feel that’s not enough. This is where we have to work on changing what the law says and how it’s written. And this is what I advocate for, for my community, is this is something you’re not happy with, this is something you want changed. This is something you have to protest. You have to come forward into the legislature to say, "This is what I want changed."

“When I’m allowed to use deadly force, that’s when I fear for my life or someone else’s. Some people feel that’s not enough. This is where we have to work on changing what the law says and how it’s written.” Sgt. Jefferson

Within the department, it’s my job to look at our policies and procedures to say, "I don’t think this is right, I think this is where we can make change here," an actual change. For systemic racism, when you’re looking at how you’re transferring people, how your placements are within the department, your grooming standards, those type of things lead towards your systemic… when it comes to systemic racism. Some people’s definition of that is different. That’s my outlook on it because in order to change a culture in a department, you have to start somewhere. And for me, if you’re already starting at the beginning with recruiting, it has to start with, I’m allowing who is acceptable, who’s qualified, into this department. It has to start there.

Then we move into our training. Training is critical when it comes to systemic racism because that’s the core of your culture you’re building within this person, the mindset that you’re building. One of the things I’ve asked and presented, which I think they are looking at it right now, is how we train and the way we train. If I’m starting a police academy, and the initial things that I’m learning is, arrest, shooting, rent-chasing people, pursuits, things… Those are all things that you’re learning early on, where does the community relations come into play? And normally, it’s later in the academy. To me, that needs to be first.

I think those things being first can be introduced early on into the mindset of an officer. It also introduces the community and lets the community members who may be a handicapped community member, mentally ill, African American, Asian. All these different aspects of a community can come in and tell those new recruits what they need, what I need from you when you come here. Also, it opens up the ability to be able to open your mind to different solutions to problems. And it’s not always an arrest. Because most people coming in, the newer officers, they only wanna make arrests. That’s all they… write a ticket, make an arrest. There’s other ways that you can handle situations. So, if we start with that, that’s building upon solutions that you can come upon, not just arrest, if last resort is an arrest, we will make an arrest. But there’s other ways on how to handle things. So that’s one of the things I think they are looking into, that I’ve suggested into implementation into the Academy, which I think will help.

Jessica: I wanted to ask… I asked Amelie what that week was like, following George Floyd’s murder. What was that like for you guys? So, like, for you Jack?

Jack: For me, I was kind of confused about it. And I was wondering… because when people told me I was like… when people told me how it happened, I was confused because I was like, "So that police was acting like he didn’t notice it was happening and that he was killing a dude? And he was just ignoring everybody who’s talking to him?" I think at that point if there is anybody of any other race who was telling him, "Dude, stop." At that point, he’s disrespecting everybody, not just Black people. And then confusing me like why he does that. And like, if he had… so if he has parents that… like he made his own opinions, he has parents looking at the news they’re like, "Well, that’s my son? What’s he doing?" And they get so confused and it just hurts them. And I just don’t know what to think about that.

“I think at that point if there is anybody of any other race who was telling him, "Dude, stop." At that point, he’s disrespecting everybody, not just Black people.” Jack Honegger

Jessica: Holden… Thank you for sharing. Holden, you were gonna ask a question that I think is relevant.

Holden: I guess after the week of George Floyd’s murder, I kept hearing, "Defund the police." Could you explain like, what that means?

Sgt. Jefferson: Well, defund the police means taking funds away from the police department. I don’t want you all to think that that’s a negative thing. And it’s not just that… we are okay with defunding to an extent. Defunding for us – when they were going to place part of the money into other areas, for example, mental health. That is a huge area right now that we are okay with, we are okay with you placing those funds there with mental health programs. Because for us, we feel as though a lot of the calls, the attempted suicide, things like that, that we respond to that deal with mentally ill clients is great, you know, if we’re gonna get them some help, if this is where it’s going to go. If this alleviates some of our call load with that, we’re okay with that. One of the areas that we’re upset about and don’t technically agree with is right now our department is going through a huge overhaul when it comes to retirees. We’ve had a vast majority of retirements since January.

Jessica: Oh, really?

Sgt. Jefferson: Oh, yes. And I hate I didn’t bring the number. But it’s huge. So, because of that… normally, within a cadet class, you’re replenishing those people. So, with defunding, they decided to cancel the cadet class. So now all the people that we were losing, we can’t replace now. So that puts us short, we’re short. And that’s the main thing I’m bothered by because we can’t have that cadet class now.

And with that also comes a cutting of services. One of the areas our chief had to look at and revisit was our community relations area. We had six sergeants, and I am one of the sergeants that’s gonna be cut from a job. So, I have to go and find another job within the department. And I understand my chief’s decision to do that. I respect and understand that. So, I have to find a different job.

Do I love my job? Yes, I love my job, working directly with the community, but I do understand. Do I feel like it’s going to hurt us? Yes, it will, it’s going to hurt some of the other services that we were able to provide. Because I’m also losing four officers out of my unit as well, they have to go back to patrol. So on one hand, it’s a good thing, they’re going back to patrol, and it fulfills the patrol aspect, but on the community relations, things like that, that’s gonna hinder some of the services that we were able to provide.

Some of the other areas are Explorer Program, where we’re able to have young people come in to learn more about the police department, to learn what it’s like to be a police officer. You get to go with the officers to different… and gain volunteer hours. So, you also get to experience what it is to be a police officer. And a lot of those kids that are there have gone on to college, have done very well, gotten scholarships, because of the volunteer hours, things like that. So, programs like that are gonna, unfortunately, be cut. So, there’s a give and a take to defunding. But our chief right now is trying his best to find other ways on how to manage what we have, with the little that we have now because we’ve lost so many officers. So that part of it really hurts. That bothers me more than anything, of not being able… And this next class that we had that was already recruited, half the class was minorities. So that was a heartbreaker, it really was.

Jessica: Because you’ve been spending all of these years trying to get the recruitments up.

Sgt. Jefferson: Trying to get all these, yes. And half the class was minorities. So that was troublesome for most of us. So that’s kind of our take on the defunding. So, it’s mixed emotions there. Yes.


Knowing When and Where to Speak Up

Jessica: What would be ‘the talk’ like right now? How would you tell my children to act around a police officer?

Sgt. Jefferson: Basically, the main thing is, knowing that everything is recorded here in Austin. We have body-worn cameras. It was very troublesome to hear, I think it was in Louisville, here recently, they didn’t have body cams. That was troublesome to hear. We have body cams. And I extremely tell people, if that little light is flashing, it’s recording.

Jessica: So, look for the body cam.

Sgt. Jefferson: Yes. If the body cam is on, it’s flashing, just know that whatever you say is also being recorded. So, if you feel you’re being stopped and something’s wrong, ask the question. It’s okay. And officers are having to learn, it’s okay for someone to ask the question “why?” Why are you stopping me? They should be able to tell you why you’re being stopped. If they’re not, there’s a problem. It’s okay to ask that question. And I will ask you, ask that question, why are you being stopped? And a lot of times, it’s a control thing. So, some officers feel as though they’re losing control by having to tell you why they’re stopping you. They feel as though I shouldn’t have to tell you why you’re being stopped but you should. And you should feel free to ask that question.

If there’s something you feel is wrong or inappropriate, make sure… On our uniform, our name and our employee number is always there. Get the name and the employee number of the officer. Because there is a place that you can file a complaint or come tell mom, “This is the officer’s name and his badge number. This is what happened in the conversation. I think he was rude, or I think he said some inappropriate things,” things of that nature. And express that to mom because mom is gonna be able to tell you firsthand, "We need to file a complaint," because she’s gonna be the one to have to do that.

Jessica: I’m hearing what you’re saying and I, for the sake of protecting Jack, I don’t want him to ask why. I mean, there’s just too many, as you’ve said, bad apples out there where that could end up him up in an arrest.

Sgt. Jefferson: The main thing Jack has to realize, the bad apples are there, comply. Because there’s a time and a place that we will be able to argue this if it’s wrong. The main thing is just to comply, keep your hands where the officer is able to see them at all times. If he ask you something or to do something, even though you know, in the back of your mind, this is wrong, even if… just comply, because there will be a time and a place that you can argue this. But right there, when you’re being stopped, is not the time and the place to argue that, because that’s where things start escalating.

“There will be a time and a place that you can argue this. But right there, when you’re being stopped, is not the time and the place to argue that, because that’s where things start escalating.” Sgt. Jefferson

So, we wanna keep things de-escalated. But we don’t want to have the kids escalate it by running, by arguing, by yelling, screaming. Things like that escalate a situation. So, if we can keep calm, it looks better. Keep calm. Show your hands, see what they want, answer their questions. If you know it’s wrong in the back of your mind, "I know he’s just messing with me, I know he’s just doing this." But do know, there’s always a time and a place that you will be able to make that argument. But right there is not gonna be the time and the place to do it. Okay?

I love this. And I love that you are doing this, and I thank you for doing this. We need more parents to do this, and to have this conversation. Because for so long, we don’t have this in the home, in the household. And when things like this start happening, it makes things more harder for them to have to deal with peers, things like that. But whatever’s presented from home and from mom goes a long way with them. It’s not just something they’re learning out on the street.

Jessica: Well, we like to wrap up this podcast by asking our guests how they are going scared. And what we mean by that is, we know that courage is not the lack of fearlessness, it’s being afraid and going anyway. How many women are in the police department?

Sgt. Jefferson: With so many retirements right now, that’s hard to really say because we’ve had a ton of them. But I will get back with you on that. I can get you an actual…

Jessica: Okay, but it’s a small percentage.

Sgt. Jefferson: It’s a very small percentage, very small. It’s not very many.

Jessica: Okay, single-digit.

Sgt. Jefferson: No, its.. I’m going to say a double-digit, but I don’t know exactly.

Jessica: On the low end of the double-digit.

Sgt. Jefferson: Uh-huh. I do know, as far as African Americans, we are down from 1,800, we may have the high 200s right now. We were in the 300s but a lot of them are retiring right now. So, we’re losing them faster than we’re getting them in right now. And that’s one of my fears that… that’s why I started this quest on finding out about African Americans coming in because we started losing more than we’re gaining. And in the next 10 years, you’re not gonna have very many in there at all. And the picture that’s painted, it’s not gonna be really good at all. So that’s what started the quest, is finding out why we’re losing so many or not able to get that many in.

Jessica: So how are you going scared?

Sgt. Jefferson: Well, you know, I am eligible to retire right now if I choose to. I love my job still, though. I love what I do. So, I’m gonna see if I can hang in there about another two years because I am still enjoying it. But in that quest, I have to continue to say something. If something is not right… There was a memo sent recently that I knew did not sound right, did not look right. I forwarded that to my chiefs, because I said, "This is not right." So, I have to still be that advocate and that voice right now, to stand up and say what’s not right, and just let them know, this is not right. And it’s not in all essence to get someone in trouble or anything of that nature, this is for education purposes, fighting for more equality for everybody in the department. Because if I’m not saying something, there’s others that are African American that are afraid to say something and they’re not because they’re afraid of retaliation. And that’s huge right now in our department.

There’s a lot, because as you can see from the Tatum Report, we had several officers from that investigation that drove way far to see her, away from the city, away from the department. Because they were scared that if they said something and the department found out that they said something, sanctions will be brought against them, such as they’ll have investigations brought against them, or they’ll be transferred out, or you won’t get a job you put in for. So those things do happen and they’re afraid. For me, I’m okay. I’m okay if you give me the worst job in the department.

Jessica: Instead of offering a link to follow Sergeant Jefferson, I wanted to take this opportunity to encourage you to seek out these kinds of conversations and find safe spaces to ask hard questions. It was that episode of Blackish that helped my kids to begin to see different sides of the conversation. Also, we listened to a Daily episode interviewing a Black police officer in Flint, Michigan. And you know, maybe you agree with some of what Officer Jefferson had to say, maybe you don’t. But it’s not so much about agreeing and disagreeing and taking a side and going into a conversation about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about talking and learning and growing. And some of this posture of my kids behind the scenes after scrolling through social media doesn’t seem to take on a posture of listening. And so, I was really proud of them for doing the research for having this conversation, and I really hope that it was helpful for you.

Before we go, I would love for you to review and rate this podcast because it helps people find this show. And if this episode was helpful for you in any way, maybe you learned something new, then post it on Instagram and tell other people to come and tune in to this episode. Our wonderful music for the show is by my good friend Ellie Holcomb. Going Scared is produced by Eddie Kaufholz. And I’m Jessica Honegger. Until next time, let’s take each other by the hand and keep going scared.