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Capt. Taft, Encinitas host virtual law enforcement forum

ENCINITAS — North County residents participated in Encinitas’ first virtual Law Enforcement Forum on July 28 with Capt. Herbert Taft of the sheriff department’s North Coastal Station, and Encinitas City Manager Jennifer Campbell, asking a variety of questions about crime, traffic and racial bias.

The forum, which lasted approximately three hours, included a presentation on North County Station’s role in the community and a report on recent crime statistics, followed by a two-hour-long Q&A.

Taft opened the forum by sharing recent data collected by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, illustrating the nearly 25% decrease in property and violent crimes, current initiatives on de-escalation and racial bias training.

He also explained the sheriff department’s response to countywide concerns of racial profiling and acts of brutality which were addressed in June.

As the forum proceeded, Taft spoke about his leadership style and intention to keep the forum’s subject matter strictly on Encinitas rather than broader issues of policing, which have dominated the national conversation in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

Floyd’s death sparked international outrage and massive protests that swept across the country for weeks.

Aside from the most popular topic  — preventing racial bias and discrimination in area police departments — residents also asked questions about local traffic, underage alcohol use, marijuana regulation and enforcing both county and state COVID-19 health regulations, specifically with regard to large gatherings.

The first question of the evening concerned the legality of a large church gathering on Sunday, July 26, at Cardiff State Beach.

“We are trying to balance people’s right to free speech, being able to protest, and the Governor’s orders,” Taft said. “It’s a difficult position to be put into. Sunday’s protest occurred on state property on a state beach. If the state wanted to, they could’ve enforced that.”

The local group Encinitas 4 Equality (E4E) represented the majority of participants, inquiring into North County Station’s racial sensitivity training, department oversight committees, and the concept of “color blindness,” which appeared to spark some tension between Taft and E4E.

As previously reported by The Coast News, Taft has stated on multiple occasions he “doesn’t focus on color or ethnicity,” serving all residents equally.

“[Encinitas] is my goal and objective,” Taft said. “How can I better serve this specific community and increase the quality of life here in Encinitas.”

Mali Woods-Drake, a co-founder of E4E, asked Taft, “If you can’t acknowledge racial profiling is real and it happens in police forces, how are you going to lead this department?”

“Thank you for your comment, next question,” Taft said. “I’m not going to get into this debate with you on this topic.”

While the topic of “color blindness” resurfaced repeatedly over the course of the forum, both E4E and Taft expressed their desire to have more conversations in the future.

“Encinitas 4 Equality is looking forward to taking Captain Taft up on his offer to have standing meetings with our organization,” Woods-Drake wrote in a statement to The Coast News. “We believe this is a great opportunity for our leaders and activists, as well as the sheriff’s department, to come together and explore racial inequities, concerns, and rightfully founded fears our Community has around policing. We remain committed to ending violence and racism against our BIPOC communities and hope that the Department is open to this as well.”

During the forum, Taft agreed with the group’s concerns about a lack of regular mental health check-ups for county law enforcement employees.

Currently, the sheriff’s department does not conduct regularly mandated mental health screenings, only offering assistance to employees after incidents.

“I can’t even tell you the kind of trauma I’ve seen both in departments and in the military,” Taft said. “Having a regular check-up, that’s actually not a bad idea and I agree with you.”

“We see a lot of bad stuff and we don’t have a process where we require our folks to go in and just talk about how things are going,” Taft later told The Coast News.

Other issues discussed were the department’s request for additional PERT (Psychiatric Emergency Response Team) nurses and the public’s ability to write the County Board of Supervisors with questions regarding the station’s budget.

Candidates for local elections also participated, both actively and passively. Mayor Catherine Blakespeare and both candidates for the city’s District 2 seat, Deputy Mayor Kelli Hinze and Susan Turney also watched the forum.  Alex Riley, a candidate for the Encinitas City Council in District 1, inquired about a recent increase in parked cars along Coast Highway 101 in Leucadia. Mayoral candidate Julie Thunder asked whether Taft had ever heard of the organization “Encinitas Hospitality Association.”

In a conversation with the Coast News following the virtual forum, Taft reiterated the value of these types of conversations with the public.

“I think they need to hear these answers from the Captain directly,” Taft said. “I really like doing this. I do.”

Due to COVID-19 health restrictions, the City of Encinitas was prevented from hosting an in-person event and chose to host the forum on Zoom, allowing 32 active participants to ask questions from the safety of their homes.

The city also streamed the event on it’s live YouTube channel for those who did not sign up to participate but simply wished to watch. The full virtual forum and recent crime statistics can be viewed here.

Taft and the city manager’s office have begun looking for another date in the future to host a second law enforcement forum and will update the community with more details.