Jamal Walker wears many hats: pro baker, soul singer, and most recently, Community Relations Coordinator with the Grass Valley Police Department. As the national conversation around police reform blew up in the wake of George Floyd, questions have inevitably been raised locally. Walker, who has roots in social justice advocacy, is committed to improving the way we communicate about policing. We caught up with him to better understand his philosophy of community engagement and his insights after one year on the job.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Were you born here?
I grew up in the Bay Area. As a kid, I would come up here during the summer and hang out in the country. I decided to come up here for a few months to get a breather from the city as a young man, and I just never left. I made my home here and raised my kids here, got married here, worked a variety of jobs. I worked at the old Denny’s. I’m also a singer and I started my own DJ business. I learned how to become a scratch baker at Flour Garden. I worked at the Briar Patch for several years.
When did you become involved in issues of social justice and policing?
In 2011, I co-founded a social justice group called Creating Communities Beyond Bias. It was the first time that I got back into doing any kind of intentional social activism. I’ve always been involved in that kind of work by happenstance. I was raised in an activist community.
Did you create Communities Beyond Bias as a response to anything specifically?
There was a Latino family that had gotten jeered out of one of the local parks. It was a pretty big deal in the newspaper at the time. So [my friend Bill Drake and I] both thought: What would it be like if we started some kind of an organization that could help people in our local community work on these issues around racism?
And how did you become involved with the Grass Valley police?
Recently, with all the changes in the world, I had certain people reaching out to me saying, ‘Jamal, how can we stem the tide? How can we work on this issue of racism and policing locally?’ I got to talking with our police chief, and said. ‘Hey, what do you think about creating a position so that I can do this work formally? To be a liaison between the community and the city and law enforcement.’ He thought that was a good idea. He took it to Council and we created the position.
And what is your day-to-day like in this position? Have you been doing ride-alongs?
I’ve been doing ride-alongs with all of our officers here at GVPD, getting to know each person a little bit. I’ve been having conversations about: What does defunding the police mean to you? How are all of these rallies and protests — whether it be BLM or, Back the Blue — how’s this all affecting your guys’ jobs? It’s been very instructive for me to see what police work looks like here in Grass Valley, as opposed to whatever ideas I was holding in my head, which were neutral to favorable to begin with.
How has your experience of working with police informed you about policing as a political issue?
First, I’ll say my experience is limited to Grass Valley PD because I don’t work for the NCPD or Sheriff. I learned that police wear a lot of different hats. They talk with members of the community, even people who are quote-unquote, ‘causing trouble’. For example, they don’t make a lot of assumptions about the homeless. They partner a lot with different organizations within the county that help provide services for people who are dealing with homelessness and all of the attendant problems that come with that.
How can we make the conversation about policing less toxic?
Is there a middle ground? I think there absolutely is. It requires both sides to be willing to listen to one another. My approach is always personalizing the experience and looking at myself and going,’Okay, where do I need to grow?’ I’ll give you an example. In 2016 when Donald Trump was running, I was thinking there’s no way we can have this dude in office. But at the same time I knew so many people that I respected that voted for him. My first reaction was to disassociate myself with these people. And then I thought: ‘Wait a minute, you know a lot of these people closely. So why don’t you take the time to actually go sit down with some of these folks?’
It’s not about satisfying our own ego…
Absolutely. I’ve adopted that attitude and found it very helpful. I saw points that they had, especially about the left. We have to be more willing to talk about these things.
Going back to the issue of policing, where do you think the GVPD can improve based on what you’ve seen?
I think in general, we have to acknowledge that there are systemic issues with respect not just to law enforcement, but the judicial system as well. Law enforcement can only do so much. They are first responders in the system. They have to respond to every single call. It might be just as simple as, ‘Oh, I saw somebody climbing this fence over here.’ Or, ‘There’s a homeless person out on the street.’ Anything that you can imagine that could generate a call for service, they get.
Do you have any kind of final thoughts or anything you’d like to say?
I’d like people to reach out to me with their concerns regarding what’s going on in the community and things that they want to see change and be made better. They can reach me through my email, firstname.lastname@example.org.