A vision for community-driven policing reform in Salt Lake City

After five years helping individuals restore their lives from rock bottom, The Other Side Academy (TOSA) is sharing its best practices for accountability with law enforcement officials in Salt Lake City, Utah, hoping to challenge the status quo and inspire meaningful policing reform.

The Other Side Academy knows what it takes to transform harmful habits into positive behavior. Since 2015, it has opened its doors to people facing incarceration, returning from detention facilities, or struggling with substance abuse. The average student has been arrested 25 times, 90 percent have been homeless, and all of them have battled addiction. When they arrive, these individuals learn to use the power of accountability in relationships to help them break cycles of crime and addiction and set new paths for their lives.

TOSA’s two-year residential program helps participants better identify and manage the patterns and perspectives that lead to destructive behavior. In the process, they develop social and vocational skills that help set them up for long-term success.

In 2020, The Other Side Academy’s leadership team met with government and law enforcement officials in Salt Lake City on a compelling premise: could the same strategies they used to help people rebuild their lives also help police departments improve accountability and create a fairer justice system?

At the time of the meeting, the surge of protests and riots following the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police brought to a boiling point the civil unrest that had been simmering for decades. In Salt Lake City, as in other major cities, thousands of citizens participated in demonstrations calling to defund police forces and reimagine community safety. City leaders were eager for creative solutions and fresh ideas.

Dave Durocher, TOSA’s executive director, along with Tim Stay, TOSA’s CEO, and Joseph Grenny, the chairman of TOSA’s board, first joined a call with Mayor Erin Mendenhall and Police Chief Mike Brown to share their work and explain how their strategies might be adopted by police departments.

“It’s all of the little things that are going on that aren’t being caught” that enable negative behavior patterns to take root”, Dave says. In police forces, those habits can lead to a “don’t snitch” culture of silence or inaction in the face of prejudice. TOSA’s leaders proposed introducing tactics to the Salt Lake police force that make it harder for those “little things” to add up over time, including opportunities for direct feedback in small group settings.

“Moral culture is established by the hundred little actions that happen every day.”

Dave Durocher, TOSA Executive Director

The mayor and police chief responded well to TOSA’s ideas, and that initial conversation sparked a valuable, ongoing partnership.

Staff from the South Salt Lake City police department will visit TOSA this summer for in-depth training on building a culture of peer accountability. Students who were formerly arrested by some of the officers in the room will share what they’ve learned about how to create high moral standards in a community that often fails to uphold them.

Although the collaboration between TOSA and the Salt Lake and South Salt Lake City police departments is a new development, it’s made possible by the reputation Dave and his team have cultivated over five years in the community.

In its short history, TOSA has distinguished itself from standard rehabilitation and drug treatment programs. Between 2015 and 2020, 100 percent of TOSA’s participants were employed upon graduation, and only 12 percent were rearrested. This stands in stark contrast to the national average arrest rate of 77 percent.

Over time, as city officials and law enforcement saw the scale of TOSA’s impact, it became a trusted partner in the local justice system, providing alternative paths to incarceration and a powerful rehabilitation plan for people battling addiction.

“Rather than taking them to jail, [the police] call TOSA,” Dave says. “It changes the paradigm with the police, and the relationship between the police and the community, when they see that change is possible.”

Dave is realistic about the urgent need for fundamental change in police forces around the nation, but he’s also hopeful that meaningful results are possible. He believes that effectively transforming police culture and policy will require appealing to the altruism of individual officers — their desire to be known for genuinely serving and protecting the community.

“All we’re asking people to do is tell the truth, be accountable, have integrity, and do the right thing,” Dave says. “Then we’re teaching them how to hold each other accountable to ensure that it happens.”

Learn more about the Stand Together community’s policing reform efforts.