Fresno Mayor-elect Jerry Dyer sat for an interview with The Fresno Bee on July 21. The interview focused on what Dyer would do for the Black community of Fresno when he takes office in January 2021. Dyer spoke freely about how his upbringing, experiences as a police officer and chief of the Fresno Police Department, as well as deep conversations and studies about the experiences of ethnic minorities, have transformed his views.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q. The first years of your service with Fresno PD were not stellar. You got into trouble on duty and off duty, and you said you did things that even today will be considered a violation of department policy. At some point, you asked for forgiveness and were forgiven, and your life turned around. So how have all these various experiences — played into your own view of the criminal justice system, in terms of who deserves a second chance and who doesn’t?
A. I think everyone deserves a second chance. Yes, God gave me a second chance in my life with my family and my career. And obviously, my second chance with Him was when I was born again, and I gave my heart to the Lord.
I can tell you that prior to knowing Christ, I was a pretty callous person. I never shed a tear.
I grew up in a very tough home where you shook hands but you never hugged; the words ‘I love you’ were really never exchanged. And so that’s how I grew up, and then I moved into a profession. That was a very tough profession. You saw things that really no human mind can process — the types of violence you see, children being shot, molested, abused, and it can have a hardening effect on your heart.
When I gave my heart to the Lord, there was a softening that occurred in my heart. There was a desire for me to go back and all those people that I’ve hurt over the years to seek their forgiveness and I’m a firm believer in forgiving and love because that’s good.
And so I love people because I’ve been forgiven. I don’t judge people, whether a person is out on the street and is homeless. I question how they got there; I just know we can’t leave them. There are people who have involved themselves in the life of crime. I look at it from this perspective. No 1 — criminals are not born; gang members are not born; they evolve, because they don’t have the proper parenting; they grow up in a disadvantaged neighborhood where they are recruited into gangs, and they don’t have a fair chance in life from the start.
However, from the police officer side, we also were in a position to have to hold people accountable and keep people safe. And so at times, it was difficult for me because I’m a very compassionate person with a very soft tender heart that wants to give everyone a second chance. But at the same time, I was entrusted as the police chief in keeping people safe. And so sometimes, those two would clash internally. And I had a challenge with that throughout my career.
Even with officers, when officers would do wrong, I had a desire and responsibility to hold them accountable, and, in many cases, fire them. Unfortunately, I fired probably 100 police officers in my time as the chief. But there was also this internal side of me that wanted to give them a second chance, and a third chance because I knew they were out there trying hard and protecting people, so there’s been that side of me, where the two have had clashes.
Now that I’ve been away from the job, it’s really different for me. It’s almost like my eyes have been opened. Some days, it feels like I was never a police officer which I believe is going to be good for me as I become mayor. I’ll never forget where I came from as a police officer and the experiences that I’ve learned from it and leadership lessons along the way.
Q. How can you separate your police officer self from the mayor of Fresno?
A. I believe it’s a God thing. I believe that God called me to the place where I had an opportunity to run for mayor, and to be fortunate that the people of Fresno voted to entrust me with that responsibility. But, the people voted for me and supported me based on my law enforcement leadership. And what’s ironic today is that it almost feels like I was never a police officer. And so as more time passes, I believe it’s going to allow me to become an even better leader as the mayor and be more visionary and broader in my scope. Yes. and, in many ways, I’m glad that I’ve gotten to the point where I look at my previous career as something that is in the past, so I’m a different man today.
Q. There are lots of studies about Fresno, including the Atlantic magazine article of 2018 about racism and segregation, but particularly, about the police, and the arrest rates for people of color, particularly African Americans. The report states that in all the arrests, African Americans in the southwest Fresno area represented almost a quarter of the arrests made, even though they were 7.5% of the population. How are you going to deal with that?
A. I think it’s important to look at the history of Fresno. We’re No. 2 in the state of California in concentrated poverty. And we know that poverty unfortunately is higher in the southern part of the city, although it is creeping up north, but primarily, it occurs in the southern southwest part of Fresno.
When you look at the segregation that has occurred in our city, as was depicted in the article by the Atlantic, there was redlining that occurred, where certain races could only live within a certain neighborhood, predominantly African American, as well as Chinese, at that time. And, and then you look at some of the covenants that occurred and where. Whenever you purchased property in an affluent area, you had to sign an agreement that you would never sell to a Black person.
Those things have caused segregation. It’s built into our educational system — in the fact that our students of color were not receiving the same educational opportunities as others.
And it also spilled into the family, and where we ended up with families — many of our children growing up without fathers in the home, and many of our children being raised by grandparents.
I said all that to say that there’s a reason why oftentimes, our youth are involved in criminal activity. While they grow up in certain disadvantaged neighborhoods, they get recruited into gangs. And then ultimately, the impact of that is we have crime in certain areas more than others. And that crime is what draws police officers into that neighborhood for the purpose of trying to keep people safe. And as a result, you end up with disparate numbers of arrest with people of color in those neighborhoods. It’s not in my opinion done in a way to oppress, although I know that sometimes, for people that live in those neighborhoods, it feels oppressive. If I lived in those neighborhoods, it would feel oppressive as well, but the overall intent is to try to keep people safe.
When you look back to where we were in the 80s and 90s in the city, where we were having 90+ murders every year. We were a city that was under siege. We had multiple drive-by shootings that were occurring nightly. We had home invasion robberies occurring multiple times per night; carjackings — we were a very very violent city to the point where the police chief at that time, deployed the SWAT team into those areas. Those areas, oftentimes were in the southern part of the city; that style of policing involved going after gang members, a high concentration of police within certain neighborhoods led to the traffic stops, although I really believe that there was a strategic effort to target those individuals that were involved in gangs and not randomly stopping people.
The reality is ultimately sometimes people of color, really, truly felt that they were being targeted. And I understand that completely. And, and so that’s why you see the numbers as they are, not just in Fresno, but across the United States of America. That’s been a discussion point for many years.
Q. What does racism mean to you?
A. Racism to me means when you make decisions that are based on a person’s race that have a negative impact on that person, that is discrimination. And I’ve read much on racism. We really have one race. It’s the human race. Then there are different ethnic groups within the human race. And what we have is discrimination based on ethnicity, and so, racism is when people discriminate against a person based on what they look like.
Q. Is it always conscious?
A. No, I believe, without a doubt, I just watched an hour-and-a-half long documentary by Anita Phillips, and it’s called “Body Language.” And it is an incredible documentary that I think everyone should watch. And it’s a recent documentary. In that documentary, she talks about a study that occurred with preschool teachers.
And they took a number of preschool teachers and they had them watch a video — a group of young preschoolers of different colors and just ask them to watch and observe. And then they asked the preschool teachers ‘we want you to now look for bad behavior’.
What the preschool teachers did not know was that there was technology that was tracking their eyes. And as soon as they said, ‘look for the bad behavior’, automatically, the eyes of the preschool teachers went to the African American kids. Did they do that intentionally? No, I believe it’s based on culture. I believe it is something that has been; I don’t know if it’s inherited, or learned, but I do believe that we have in our society today that we have some form of racism that has become unintentional. There’s intentional racism, for sure, but I believe there’s unintentional racism as well. And it’s implicit, which is why it is so important that we as people in leadership, myself included, take a deep dive into our own heart.
And to see what are those things that we’ve done in the past to contribute to that feeling of racism, which is why I’ve been reading and doing journals from a book called “One Blood” by John Perkins, and watched the Phillips video. I’m part of a group of individuals — African Americans and whites — and we have open discussions about the issue of race, so it’s important that we all look inside, and I believe that’s a first step: to listen to learn, to understand the feelings of others and why they hurt; to put ourselves in the shoes of other people who are not our color, and to try to understand why they feel the way they feel.
And I can tell you my heart. God has allowed me to see the world differently.
Q. Do you think that your view of racism has evolved since the start of the study or maybe over the years?
A. Of racism, I’ll just say this, I grew up in the town of Fowler. If anyone says they are colorblind, I don’t believe they’re honest. Because we see color. The difference is — I grew up in a town where we didn’t talk about race. My best man at my wedding was a Black guy. My wife is Hispanic. I played basketball; my closest friends were African American. And so, race wasn’t that issue for me when I grew up; we were a very diverse community, and we were all over each other’s houses, so that issue wasn’t there. However, as you go through life, things can happen that cause you to be more cognizant of race, whether that’s experiences in law enforcement or experiences in life in general.
But I do know that I have become much more aware of things that are said, things that are done, systems that are in place that ultimately can have a negative impact on people of color. And it wasn’t that long ago, when we had redlining right here in Fresno. It wasn’t that long ago that we had these covenants in place and that there was segregation.
That’s a recent history. Sometimes we have a tendency to say, ‘well wasn’t that a long time ago? Can’t we just move forward?’ And I’ve been guilty of that. And the reality is, No, we can’t.
It wasn’t that long ago, and no we can’t move forward until we’ve gone back together, and addressed those issues. How we do that is something I think we’re having discussions on right now in America.
Q. Another terminology that I want you to define for me, white privilege. What does it mean? How do you define it?
A. Well I think white privilege means a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and I’ve been educated on this recently myself to the point where I have a better understanding. Because when you say, white privilege, it can be offensive to a white person.
Because some people can say that my father, for instance, didn’t have white privilege. He grew up without a dad; he grew up in a poor home; he experienced poverty, had to drop out of school. Everything he has today, he worked for.
So that’s really not what white privilege is about in my estimation. It’s about the overall system. We can’t ignore the fact that we had slavery in America, and the wrongfulness of slavery in America.
And I believe that’s the start of white privilege, the people who had slaves were white people who had Black slaves. That’s the start in my opinion of white privilege and things have gotten better obviously; people can say well haven’t things gotten better. Of course, things have gotten better. I would hope they wouldn’t get worse.
But we have so far to go in terms of recognition of where we’ve been and things that we now need to do to make amends.
Q. What do you think of Black Lives Matter?
A. Well, I believe that the Black Lives Matter movement has stemmed from a tremendous amount of frustration in the fact that people feel the systems aren’t changing and their voices aren’t being heard. And therefore, there has to be another way for their voices to be heard. And that is through the movement — the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s easy to say All Lives Matter, and they do. But I understand the reason for Black Lives Matter. It was said to me recently by a pastor that he would have preferred if it said, ‘Black Lives Matter too’.
And, and so the movement itself. I believe, when it’s done in the appropriate manner, has opened the eyes and the ears of many people in America, the majority of people in America, I might say today. I wouldn’t say that. Five years ago, no. Not even last year, I believe, now.
And as I shared with a very close friend of mine on the west side, because there was a concern that if we don’t move quickly and make changes now, that we’re going to lose the moment, because we’ve lost the moment in the past. What I shared with him is for me, this isn’t a moment. This is a conviction. And I hope there’s a lot of people that feel that same way that this is an important time for all of us. People in positions of leadership need to search their hearts to use their influence to make the changes that are needed to where people feel included and inclusive.
Q. Do you believe in Black Lives Matter?
A. I believe in the movement. Yes. I also know that there are people who tried to hijack the Black Lives Matter movement with some of those things, but the Black Lives Matter movement is, in and of itself, I believe has been beneficial.
Q. We talked about the Atlantic but also the Wall Street Journal’s 2018 article which concluded that Fresno was one of the worst cities for African Americans, and Fresno is the only city on the west coast that is on that list. And the article cites racism and poverty; it cites discrimination and some of the things that you’ve already mentioned, and the education system; for example — the schools in the southwest Fresno areas are always ranked at the bottom in the API scores and statewide. So it’s hard to keep from despairing when you look at the situation, but this is the Fresno you are inheriting. What are you going to do about it? What are your first steps?
A. Well, No. 1, it begins with a vision. It really does.The vision that I have for Fresno starts out with an inclusive, prosperous, beautiful city where people take pride in their neighborhoods and community.
Q. How would you get them to that point?
A. No. 1 is, we understand why we have poverty in our community. I believe we all understand how that occurred, although there’s a lot of research as to why it occurred. We have to address the two issues that I believe are key for us. No. 1 is that we need to become one Fresno that drives everything. And that means we have to come together to be united as a people, people in the north, people in the south. People who are white, people who are Black. How? It begins when people feel included and communication is part of that opening up to search our hearts — communicating with one another, talking about those things that perhaps we haven’t felt the freedom to talk about in the past. For me, it is listening. I’ve been going out on this listening tour, listening journey, meeting with people who were some of my most vocal non supporters and hearing from them — meetings that may take two to three hours, and listening to people in terms of where they are today and why they feel the way they feel.
And it’s really not a time for me to explain who I am or defend things that have occurred, but to listen. And then the next thing is to do something about it. So we unite. And the next thing we have to do is recognize that the No. 1 issue we face at the moment is poverty. And we also know that poverty is primarily not exclusively, but has a devastating impact on Black people.
So, we have to improve our economy; it’s called economic mobility, job attraction. That’s going to be a primary focus of mine — first thing I am doing — I am hiring a consultant (all privately funded) and we just finalized the scope that he will utilize for his search.
We have to assess our own resources here in terms of what we are able to attract in terms of new businesses to prosper. What have we done in the past that has been successful? What have we done that hasn’t been successful?
We have to identify what are those businesses that would be uniquely situated or fit for us, and strategically target those, whether it’s in the light industry or tech world. But we have to go after those types of businesses that are going to provide livable wage jobs. That’s not to say we exclude those companies that provide opportunity jobs because we need those at the $15 to $16 level as well.
Q. Will you commit to appointing members of the Black community to senior positions in your administration?
Q. Would you be able to tell us who?
A. I already have an individual that I, in all fairness to him, his employer hasn’t been notified. I can’t be public with him yet, because it wouldn’t be fair to his current position.
I will make sure that in my administration, we’re going to be very cognizant of the fact in our hiring, to make sure that we’re reflective of our community in positions of leadership.
When I was a police chief. I promoted nine deputy chiefs; two of those were African American; two were Hispanic, I can tell you out of our last 10 deputy chiefs, that’s a second highest position, at least 30% are African American; the commitment is easy.
Q. The city doesn’t have a great record of attracting, and retaining Black talents, once they come here. So they come and leave very quickly. And they said there was such intense scrutiny and maybe, racism. So what will you do differently?
A. Well, I can’t correct the past, but I can commit to not repeating the mistakes of the past, and to make sure that we are recruiting the very best talent that we can for the city of Fresno for our leadership position. I’m in the process of doing that now.
I am confident that people of color will be represented in that leadership. And I’m also confident that we will have a culture in our city that does not discriminate.
And let me tell you how I’m going to do that. I want listening sessions and learning sessions for all city employees, 3,500- 3,600 employees, where we’re going to take time out of our busy work schedules to learn about the various ethnic groups in our community; the history of where we are today, discriminatory practices, and it’s going to be focused on every single employee so that they can understand their co-workers as well as the community better. Those educational things have to occur frequently. We have to implore people to do more soul searching, to watch documentaries, and we bring them in and let them see documentaries like “Body Language” by Anita Phillip, different books that we have out there, understanding the history of the Mason Dixon line. All of those things — that is what’s going to prevent us from having the feeling by certain people of color that they are discriminated against — a more inclusive government.
Q. Would you have an advisory board on race?
A. I would have multiple advisory boards, because I think it’s right. We’re too diverse, to just have one board. One is — I’m going to have a faith-based advisory board that’s going to be representative of all faiths and all races. I am going to have a Youth Leadership Council that is going to be made up of youth, primarily of the high school, college age, so that I can hear from all of them sometimes, so their voice gets heard.
And then I’m also going to have an advisory board or panel that will be made up of folks from various ethnic groups in our community. I know that I’m going to need a more concentrated advisory of that. And that would be based on people.
Q. Whose advice do you rely on when you’re considering issues that primarily impact the Black community. Do you have a few people or anyone in particular?
A. Pastor DJ Criner; I respect Pastor B.T. Lewis greatly, Pastor Paul Binion and Oliver Baines. I respect all of those individuals greatly, and I have them on speed dial. There are some other individuals as well, that I believe are well connected in the community. But when I’m making decisions or when I’m seeking advice and counsel. And I’m going to continue to utilize those people and more.
And there’s a group of individuals that I’m meeting with right now Pastor James E. Parks, brilliant individual, Pastor Jymme Foote; these are individuals that are well connected in their communities. But it’s also important for me to still rely on them because that’s part of the faith community. It’s important to me to rely on our youth, and that’s the purpose of me forming this youth council. I want to hear from some of these individuals that are out there, Aaron Foster is a dear friend of mine. I believe I’m very connected with the Black community and have been for many years, and will continue to be.
Q. Going back to the Fresno Black community. In addition to all the things they deal with, their economic well being has been decimated by the pandemic. The CEO of the Black Chamber of Commerce told me that slightly more than 40% of Black owned businesses are gone, and she expects that the number may get even higher. Look at employment — the intersection of poverty and race; then look at the number of people who have died or have gotten the virus; it’s mostly in the impoverished communities. How do you begin to reverse these catastrophic impacts on communities that are suffering?
A. This pandemic is unprecedented, and it’s not over, and so we don’t know what the end looks like. We don’t have a cure. Yet, We don’t have the vaccine. And so what we do know is it has an impact on everyone, but a disproportionate impact on people of color — Hispanics and African Americans — based on the research. And that’s on the health side, not to mention the number of people who are losing employment.
And we do know that there’s a disparate impact that has occurred on people of color. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that many of the business owners — many of the African American business owners and Hispanic business owners, Southeast Asian business owners — may not have the capital, the savings that they needed to endure something like this. That is the reason we have money from the federal government, the Cares money, the $91.7 million is to be utilized for those businesses that are suffering, so that we can keep them afloat.
And I know we’ve given out some loans. We’ve given out some grants in the city. but we have to do more, we have to get that money distributed even faster, but that money is also being utilized to build a health clinic which is sorely needed. And it’s also being utilized for mobile testing units; it’s being used for contact tracing. So it sounds like a lot of money but it’s really not. But what we do know is we need to get as much of that money as we possibly can. into the hands of business owners, into the hands of people who are going to lose their homes, can’t pay their rent; that money has to be distributed quickly. I know the council and the mayor are doing that now.
I’m not in a position to influence where it goes and how fast it goes, but I can tell you it’s my belief that it needs to get in the hands of people who are already suffering.
Q. Name the Black person on your own transition team.
A. Terrence Frazier. He’s going to be a part of that transition team. I can tell you D.J. Criner will be a part of my transition team. Some of these may not be a surprise. But there will be several other individuals on the transition team — Matthew Grundy from Habitat For Humanity will also be there. So, I can share with you some of the things that are written here. No. 1 thing is to establish a vision, which I have; establish priorities, and talk about those priorities; establish your transition team; divide that transition team by expertise based on priorities, then develop your 100-day plan, your one-year plan, and put together a five-year strategic plan.
Q. What are you going to do? You talked about the lack of trust or faith — to start bridging the gap between the Fresno PD and the Black community. Are you thinking of community events?
A. Well first, first off, I think there’s a significant amount of trust that’s already their foundation.
You know I’ve put together my team in southwest Fresno, an organization called “Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life”. And we did that.
Nineteen plus years ago, every Tuesday, there were 60 to 70 community members that came in to the southwest district station to plan neighborhood events where hundreds of people would come together; Fresno police officers would barbecue for the community members; we had bounce houses and face painting for kids and opportunities out there; booths set up for people to get educated, and we had Santa’s village set up where we gave away toys to disadvantaged kids, thousands and thousands of kids.
So much of that good work has been done; the foundation has been laid. However, there’s a whole lot more work that needs to be done in building trust in our community and I believe it all begins with communication, increased communication openness and a willingness to give each other a chance.
Q. On community policing. I had a chance to meet Mark Salazar in west Fresno, very much involved with the West Fresno Family Resource Center. He was around and doing great things with the kids. Would you encourage more of that style of policing?
A. I do believe there is more of that that people do not know. Mark has done an exceptional job of making people aware of that. He’s done an incredible job. But there are other commanders out there that have done a really good job as well, but sometimes, I don’t think they market that as well in terms of getting that out to the public, but certainly, Mark is head and shoulders above anybody in terms of community engagement with youth, taking kids to Disneyland, to the coast, kids that have never left their neighborhoods, being very engaged in partnerships with the West Fresno Family Resource Center, setting up the after school program there for kids with boxing and computer labs.
You know what people don’t know is how much police have really done to bridge that gap.
Q. The City Council allocated some money to Advance Peace in the current budget. You opposed this community effort. Have you changed your mind?
A. In the past, yes, here’s what I opposed — not the concept of Advance Peace, because we have a model, Mayors Gang Prevention Initiative, where we used a million dollars of city money. We purchased with private money, a tattoo removal machine to remove tattoos from the faces of gang members. We provided bus stipends. We provided job skills and job training. I personally went out to employers to ask them if they would hire gang members that have been through our program. So, I’ve done a lot to give gang members a second chance. So, I think just because I did not feel that this, as it was presented, was the right model, doesn’t mean I don’t have a heart for gang members or providing second chances, or believe in Aaron Foster who had those monies initially going outside of the valley to an organization.
There were also a lot of other concerns in there and the fact that I don’t know that we had done the necessary work to put together a good comprehensive program. I believe we have now. And that program today, Fresno Advance Peace — all of the dollars that are being spent are used to hire local people who used to be involved in gangs.
Everything that we’re doing today is going to be done outside of the city government through EOC who’s going to oversee the program. The police department will provide them with the names of individuals who are the most active shooters, and they are going to oversee that program with the community and there’s multitudes of funding, so sometimes, just because we don’t get the first program doesn’t mean ultimately we don’t get the best program, which I think we did.
Q. Eight years from now, how do you think the Black people in Fresno will remember you?
A. I want to be remembered as the person who cared and gave everything for the community. I did. I really did. I gave 18 years as a police chief, 40 years as a police officer. I left it all on the field, and perhaps that is why, as I look back now, I don’t miss it because I gave everything I had. And I’m going to do the same as the mayor, but I want people to know that I cared, I cared about all the people. I care about people who are from disadvantaged neighborhoods. I care about the young kids who grow up in environments where it’s very difficult for them to succeed because of their starting point. I want people to know I cared about those kids. I love inner-city kids.
And I want to be remembered as a mayor who cared. I’m not a politician. I happened to get elected, the first time I ever ran for office, and I never thought I would. But I know that I’m in a position of leadership today because God has a plan for the city. And I’m praying that he uses me to carry out that plan. And I know much of that plan has to do with reaching out and lifting people out of poverty, especially people of color. And I also know that part of that plan is unifying the city. And I am going to unify the city, because I’m going to humble myself and go before the people and listen.