When I spoke to Julio Mateo for 90 minutes at the end of August, Kyle Rittenhouse had just days ago murdered two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Ruth Bader Ginsberg was still alive, and we hadn’t yet learned the inevitable news that the men who murdered Breonna Taylor in her own bed would face no consequences. Every time I sat down to transcribe my interview with Mateo, it seemed that some cloud in our national consciousness would shadow whatever it is I wanted to write.
Nearly a month later, Mateo’s message resonates even more clearly than it did before. Mateo, whom I’ve gotten to know a little bit over the past few years in the downtown Dayton scene, is calm, articulate, and thoughtful. He’s a consensus-builder by disposition who moved to the Dayton area to attend Wright State University and quickly ensconced himself in the sort of Dayton positivity movement that encompasses efforts like the Longest Table, the Downtown Dayton Partnership, and UpDayton.
But something has shifted for Mateo recently after months of involvement in the Community Police Council, particularly after George Floyd’s murder in May and the national uprising that ensued and touched Dayton. He’s gone from unabashed Dayton cheerleader to weary idealist. What follows is an edited (for clarity and conciseness) compilation of our Zoom interview and email exchanges.
Jason Harrison: I first met you as a dude about downtown, and like everybody seems to know who you are, but I’ve not really known or understood your background or relationship to Dayton. Can we start there and you just tell me when you got here and how you got involved with stuff?
Julio Mateo: I got here in 2002 as an exchange student. I was studying in Spain, where I grew up. I was at a school in Salamanca, which is away from my hometown. And that school when I was a junior developed a relationship with Wright State. It was the first time they had an exchange program with the United States. I had no idea what Dayton was, and I signed up mostly to learn English, and that’s how I got here. Eighteen years ago, almost to the day actually.
I came [back] for grad school [in 2003]. I did my master’s and my Ph.d. I didn’t finish my Ph.d, I did most of my school work for Ph.d. Around 2012 or so I took a job in a small company in Springboro doing research in human factors. So, decision making, cognitive skills, a lot of cross cultural competence training and research and modeling for the military.
It wasn’t until I moved downtown, which was in 2015, that I really started getting engaged. I connected to the Downtown Dayton Partnership, and Scott Murphy invited me to participate in the Start Downtown initiative, which was to create an ecosystem to support entrepreneurs downtown and to kind of promote that. So that was 2016, and that was kind of like where I got connected to a lot of people. It was mostly about how to make downtown more vibrant at the time.
Right around the same time I learned about UpDayton and I learned about the summit, went to the summit in 2016 for the first time. The Longest Table project was pitched, and I went to the first meeting they had, and I ended up becoming the dialogue committee chair, so developing the dialogue at the table, which is very consistent with the work that I’ve done. I didn’t intend to become the dialogue lead, but I ended up becoming the main point of contact for the person helping develop the conversation at the table.
From there what happened is the Gem City Market was also something that came up and what happened is from that whole process between Longest Table and other initiatives, cooperatives, and things like that, I became much more connected to other parts of town besides downtown. And I started learning and connecting with people from outside, and I became painfully aware of things that I wasn’t really aware of.
I was not very connected to things before 2015 or 2016. And it was a gradual process, right, because it started with Downtown Dayton Partnership and Up Dayton and eventually the Longest Table for example, started moving to different parts of town. So then you have like different meals on the east side and the west side and different areas and then you start like meeting people in those areas and sit at a table and then you start listening to people and you kind of learn about things that have to do with everything. It could be the opioid epidemic, it could be like, you know, blight, or abandoned housing and the impact that has on things like crime. All these sort of things you just learn from sitting at the table.
The Longest Table had a big impact on me and my process. I learned a lot about Dayton through the process. What started as an interest in downtown walkability and vibrancy and like you know the downtown core, it became much more, you know, downtown will be fine. But I mean there are a lot of things out here that are much more important.
Harrison: At some point you made your way into the work on policing issues. Talk to me about that process.
Mateo: In 2017, at the time at work we were wrapping up work with the Navy SEALS. We were asked to develop a weeklong training course for the new Navy special operators who were coming in, and we helped develop that and deliver that. The course involved some theoretical parts and there was a very big part that was in a village interacting with role players from other cultures. We developed scenarios based on interviews with former and current Navy SEALS.
We were thinking about how to transition this sort of training into other areas including law enforcement. So I actually reached out to the Human Relations Council and to the police department. I was trying to partner with them to apply for [Department of Justice] funds, but it didn’t really pan out.
The Human Relations Council then asked me to be a part of the Community Police Council because of this expertise specifically on cross-cultural competence training. I became part of the council in 2017 I believe.
Harrison: What were your initial impressions when you joined that effort?
Mateo: My initial impression was that it wasn’t what I expected. So I thought the Community Police Council was gonna be you know kind of, what it’s supposed to be. I thought it was gonna be a joint effort of people from law enforcement and people from the community kind of working together trying to figure out how to improve community-police relations. And technically I guess you could argue it is that but I think what struck me at first was how there was clearly two sides. It wasn’t a group working together to build this together, it was more of a, you know, it seemed to lead conversations in which the community is asking you know we think things should change this way, and law enforcement most of the time is explaining why things are done the way they are or asking how the community can help communicate their message or help people trust them more. It just didn’t feel like a joint effort or a team effort.
Harrison: You said when you first joined, you thought people would work together.
Mateo: Yeah, so I was expecting, they were asking me to join in part because of this expertise and this experience, and I was expecting them to be asking how they could improve kind of thing. You know what I mean? But it wasn’t that sort of like hey we want the input from community members to figure out how to improve or how to change. In hindsight now I hear this and I think I was very naive to think that. But at the time that’s how naive I was. Clearly as you got into it, it wasn’t a desire to change that brought them to the table.
Even when the description of how the community police council started, a lot of it was about having community help present the police version to the community in a way that is heard.
Listening to Mateo talk about what he expected on the Community Police Council was eerily similar to the way former Community Police Coordinator Jared Grandy described his initial experiences. The police were not seeking partners in the community through the council, it seemed, but rather a mechanism of co-option. The baseline assumption wasn’t that the police needed to change anything about the way they did business, but merely in the marketing of their actions. To them, it was a public relations problem and not a fundamental cultural or systemic issue.
After the George Floyd uprisings around the country at the end of May and the beginning of June, the City of Dayton scrambled to respond. What they came up with was a set of five, mostly underwhelming proposals for police “reform,” including five working groups that included dozens of community members.
Harrison: Has that restructuring addressed the lack of partnership (between the police and the community)? Ostensibly that’s why the reorganization happened is we want to make things better. Has the reorganization made things better?
Mateo: Okay, so first of all, I do not think…it has never been presented to us as a reorganization. I mean the CPC still exists the way it was before, although people are a little bit more confused about what our role is. We’ve been asking that question.
At the time, and we expressed this frustration, the CPC had been working for years. We’ve proposed recommendations, some of which are going to be the same recommendations that will be proposed by the working groups. The frustration was, why can’t we do both? Why can’t we implement some of the things that have been already developed in a room with police with commissioners with the city manager and implement that now and do the working groups. Those two things aren’t incompatible.
The positive thing I would say about the working groups is there is a higher level of transparency that I think is better than it had been at CPC. I still continue to have some skepticism about why this process has to be this long and whether or not the recommendations at the end of the process are going to be eventually implemented in a way that’s going to effect a profound change.
Mateo serves on the training working group chaired by City Commissioner Darryl Fairchild and Stacy Benson-Taylor, regional director for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees.
Mateo: Honestly, learning about the training that is currently received. It just reinforces this concept that there is more than the training that is being received. There is also a whole culture behind it. The training is all about the concepts of gaining compliance and police legitimacy and making sure that people are basically compliant with police orders.
From a community standpoint we want to create safer spaces, we want to keep the peace. I actually think the working groups, the way they are being developed right now, are creating a vehicle for the community to learn more about how the police work. I think that’s a positive thing. I think it’s critical to have a more informed public.
Even after all these years on the CPC, I hadn’t actually been shown the materials, what they actually teach the trainees. Being able to see that for me is a huge improvement.
Harrison: I’m wondering, having more transparency in the training, have you been impressed in a way you didn’t expect, like some of the training is actually pretty good?
Mateo: I wouldn’t say that. The de-escalation training that is received is almost exclusively about mental health crises. As a community member I would like to see de-escalation being a driver of any situation. Preventing escalation in a police encounter should be the driver whether I’m going through a mental health crisis or not.
Even the term de-escalation implies that the situation already is escalated. I think many times, the actions of the police officer could escalate.
The training that they have shared with us was actually developed by the Ohio Peace Officer’s Training Academy. It wasn’t developed by the Dayton Police Department for the Dayton Academy. They are required to teach it as the state provides it from what I understand. So in many ways we’re learning the minimum state requirements for teaching the subjects. And from what we’ve been able to gather, that’s primarily the thing they have been teaching at the Dayton Academy. The working group has the opportunity to recommend things to teach on top of that to enhance the training.
Looking at what is provided by the state, it does not make me feel any better. For example, when people talk about procedural justice, it’s a tactic to ensure or enhance police legitimacy. That ultimately is the goal, and they say that in the training. Therefore treating people fairly and respectfully is a means to an end. Which conveys a very specific culture, and it separates the community and the police. The language of the training really invites this separation.
Procedural justice is a term well-known in the academic literature on public safety. Here’s how a 2015 paper published in the St. Louis University Public Law Review explains the the idea.
“Procedural justice focuses specifically on judgments about the interaction between an authority figure and someone who is subject to that authority (such as a police officer and a citizen). Legitimacy, on the other hand, focuses on broader judgments about institutions such as the police, the law, or the government. Although the meaning of legitimacy is currently being debated by scholars, it is generally concerned with whether the authority exerted by an institution is rightful, proper, or appropriate. When the police are viewed as corrupt, brutal, or inept, citizens are unlikely to view them as legitimate sources of authority. In the U.S., several recent use of force incidents have led to a substantial legitimacy crisis in policing, particularly in minority communities.”
Based on Mateo’s description, it seems that the Dayton Police focus on the first part of the theory (the connection between procedural justice and legitimacy) but not the second, which is the perception by particularly black communities that the police are corrupt, brutal, and inept. The police, in other words, assume their legitimacy, while policed black communities try in vain to enact changes they need to see to address corruption, brutality, and ineptitude.
Perhaps no other recent incident illustrates the divide between the way that the City of Dayton—including the Department and its civilian oversight alike—views public safety and the way that huge swaths of the community experience it than the calamitous decision making that went into policing the local George Floyd protests.
Harrison: Talk to me about May 30, May 31. Wayne Avenue.
Mateo: There was a statement on Friday from the [Dayton Police Chief, Richard Biehl], saying that they were going to protect people’s right to express their First Amendment right. I think this is important, the way the situation was framed by the Police Department the day before the protest
The part I never understood [about what happened on Wayne Ave] was the decision to completely block the street, to create the dead end, to frustrate a crowd that had been marching peacefully. These actions are known to frustrate and create high emotions. They didn’t redirect the crowd. They didn’t block the highway if the highway was the concern. They didn’t allow for the peaceful expression of the demonstrators’ emotions and feelings.
There were also accounts of cruisers pushing from the other side of the crowd, and that eventually led to someone throwing something at a cruiser that was pushing from the other side. And the police were prepared to use tear gas and that’s what they did. If the goal was to keep it nonviolent and to protect people’s right to express their First Amendment right, there were a lot of other tactics they could have used. It just seems like these are tactics that have been proven to elicit this result.
Having been engaged in these conversations about how can we develop better community-police relations, I would have imagined that the consequences of tear-gassing the community should have been obvious to them by now. It was devastating. And it was not at all perceived to be a big deal by the Dayton Police Department.
Mateo was adamant that his interests are not traditionally political so much as he wishes to see transparent avenues for citizens to be able to make positive changes in their communities. The events on Wayne Avenue seemed to irrevocably change Mateo’s point of view about what community engagement means for him and completed his transition from an idealistic supporter of Dayton to someone acutely aware of how the power structure is failing its people.
He shared with me a personal journal he wrote in the aftermath of the Wayne Avenue protests.
“I am at a loss. I am frustrated, angry, sad, and honestly it feels like a punch in the stomach given all the work I have put over the past three years. I am so disappointed. And I know many of my fellow community members are also disappointed on the actions of the DPD. The CPC was not contacted or involved or questioned regarding those actions. Something needs to change.”
One of the most dangerous aspects of the Trump presidency is it obscures the systemic anti-Black nature of policing that could only exist with Democratic Party acquiescence and collaboration. The police tactics that Mateo found to be so devastating were praised by City leadership in the hours following the protests.
As I’ve gone back to look at contemporary statements from City leadership from the end of May and the beginning of June, I’ve been unable to find any language remotely critical of the Dayton Police Department’s tactics during those two days of protests.
“I’ve been talking to other cities across the state of Ohio and they have had the same experience,” Mayor Whaley told WHIO. “The protest goes fine, it is the dissipation of a couple of people trying to get around, trying to get on the interstate, trying to cause some problem. It’s not even the protests, it’s just these small groups. With what they do, they are not set to have their voice heard; they are set to destruct. And so we have to protect the community.”
The current City leadership has all the outward appearances of standing with Black protestors and women. But its actions—enacting curfews to quiet protests, using riot police known to escalate tensions, and launching tear gas some experts believe could have deleterious effects on women’s reproductive health—are at odds with authentically supporting Black Lives Matter and intersectional feminism.
For those of us in Dayton who agree with Mateo that the community needs a process for enacting change, the question is who is standing in the way of that locally? The easy boogieman for progressives over the last four years has been the president, but the more uncomfortable answer might just be the Democratic Party itself. That leaves Black communities stuck between an outrageously racist Republic Party and an outrageously cynical Democratic Party. There has to be another way.