Ken Wallentine gazed out on a sea of faces that looked very much like his own and found it unsettling.

He was speaking in St. George last month at the annual conference of the Utah Chiefs of Police Association. Wallentine, chief of the West Jordan Police Department, is president of the association.

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In front of him was a ballroom filled with people that were almost exclusively white, middle class and of a similar age. There was one Black man, a friend of his. He didn’t see anyone of Asian or Latino descent. There were two women — in an audience of hundreds.

“There were so many people in that room that likely went to the same school or a school like it, that were likely of a similar political persuasion, that probably go to the same church, or most of them,” he says. “I thought, ‘We’re missing a lot of voices here as police chiefs, a lot of voices that could inform us about the people in our communities.’”

Wallentine knew and respected the vast majority of the officers at the conference. This wasn’t about who was there. This was about who wasn’t.

West Jordan Police Chief Ken Wallentine authored an essay, “Wanted: Not Like Me,” that went viral on social media. | Lee Benson, Deseret News

“I don’t know quite how to describe it, but it was an awakening for me,” says Wallentine. “It was like, ‘Wait a minute, you know you’ve been talking about these issues of diversity of opinion, and diversity of experiences and diversity of voices for years, and it’s true we have made it very much a goal (in West Jordan) to make our police department have the voices of our community so we have significantly increased our representation of persons of color and the number of women we’ve hired. But whoa! Once we get to the top it’s people like me.”

First thing he did when he returned from St. George was sit down at his laptop and unload all these feelings into a 1,300-word essay that he posted on LinkedIn — the 63-year-old chief’s lone social media outlet.

He titled it “Wanted: Not Like Me.” It wasn’t exactly “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” but almost 60 years later it carried a similar sentiment. (Find it on web at linkedin.com/pulse/wanted-like-me-ken-wallentine.)

“I wrote that piece largely to share with a couple of my kids that are cops,” Wallentine says. “I had no idea it would get the response it did. I don’t even know how to use Twitter.”

But a lot of people who read the post did know how to use Twitter. In addition to the more than 500 views the essay got on LinkedIn, Wallentine’s words began showing up on Twitter, Facebook and other online forums.

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The emails and phone calls have been flooding in ever since. There was one call from a person who said they didn’t think that was an issue a police chief ought to be talking about. Otherwise the response has been overwhelmingly positive and encouraging.

Many have been from the men with badges who look like him.

“It’s been rewarding to hear from a number of police chiefs, at least a dozen, maybe 20, who said, ‘Yes, this is the kind of diversity we want and yes, it is OK to be speaking about being more inclusive in real terms,’” he says. “I think some folks felt something and maybe, just maybe, the next time they hire, the next time they have a social event, the next time they have an opportunity, perhaps they’ll make a choice to include a person, a culture, a voice, that they wouldn’t have chosen otherwise.”

Wallentine’s comments are not a knee-jerk reaction to the current Black Lives Matter climate. The chief has been concerned about equality and inclusion long before a policeman kneeled on George Floyd’s neck last summer. The last vacation Wallentine took before the pandemic lockdown was a tour with his wife of civil rights sites in the South. He’s been a member of the NAACP for more than 30 years.

“Did it affect it?” he says of the George Floyd incident. “Sure. Did it motivate it? No.”

“You battle racism by teaching people to value others as individuals,” he says. “We try very hard to live by the motto that ‘you matter like I matter.’ We teach our officers to be outwardly focused, to see people as people with needs, values, goals, objectives, weaknesses, challenges – not as obstacles or tools or objects. That’s our approach. I know it works for me personally, I think it works for cops.”

Diversity and inclusivity, he feels, “gives the police more legitimacy. It gives us another voice in our midst, another portfolio, another basket full of life experiences.”

“So many times we’re sitting around taking counsel from one another about how to address a policing problem and, by darn, we all have the same experiences. Now someone comes into the room who has an entirely different life experience and they offer up a solution that at first might seem a little weird and a little uncomfortable but we try it on and maybe it works, or at the very least someone with another experience says, ‘Here’s how that makes me feel.’ We grow legitimacy from the inside out.

 “And I guess more than anything else, at the end of day we will have done what is the right thing to do and we’ll have given meaningful respect to those words that all men, and women if I can add, are created equal.”