REGION — A popular rallying cry at Black Lives Matter protests — “Defund the police” — has sparked a fusillade of policing reform proposals in San Diego County, ranging from citizen oversight committees and divestment to outright abolition of modern law enforcement.
Over the past few weeks, thousands of protesters have voiced their frustrations in the streets and at virtual city council meetings, pushing area leaders to reform local police departments and redirect portions of city budgets away from law enforcement and toward community outreach programs.
The Escondido City Council received almost 400 public comments at its June 10 meeting, many opposing the city’s $45.6 million police department budget.
Members of Showing up For Racial Justice have organized skate-ins for youngsters against racism and called repeatedly into Vista City Council meetings demanding police reform.
And in some cases, the pressure campaigns have worked.
Approximately one week after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, 15 law enforcement agencies countywide, including San Diego, Carlsbad, Escondido and Oceanside police departments, banned the carotid restraint, a controversial chokehold maneuver.
Michael Gennaco, a former Chief Attorney of the Office of Independent Review for Los Angeles County and founding principal of OIR Group, said more reform measures have been accomplished in San Diego County during the last 30 days than in the past decade.
“It’s remarkable the Sheriff’s Department and all the police departments banned the carotid hold in the aftermath of the (George Floyd) incident,” Gennaco said. “That kind of change is remarkable.”
Carlsbad Police Department took one step further on June 4 by implementing Campaign Zero’s “8 Can’t Wait” initiative to promote accountability, increase oversight and prevent officer-involved incidents involving excessive force.
But just one week after the initiative was adopted, a cell phone video depicting two Carlsbad police officers tasing, physically restraining and arresting an intoxicated Black male went viral on social media.
Within 48 hours, the department released body-camera footage from both officers and a timeline of events involving the arrest of Marcel Cox-Harshaw, a 27-year-old San Diego resident.
A police spokesperson said the officers followed the department’s use-of-force protocols, describing Cox-Harshaw as “extremely agitated,” fueled by a blood-alcohol content three times the legal driving limit.
Representatives from the North County Civil Liberties Coalition, North San Diego County NAACP, Moms Demand Action and Racial Justice Coalition held a press conference on June 19, stating that “the incident was escalated into conflict,” and Cox-Harshaw’s state of mind should have been taken into consideration by law enforcement officers prior to engagement.
Since 2017, the city of Carlsbad’s budget for its police department has grown from $34 million to a projected $45 million, with a majority of its funding going to personnel services, including salaries, retirement benefits and health insurance.
In the same timeframe, the Carlsbad Police Department has added 14 new full-time positions, including three full-time police officers to bolster the department’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT). According to this year’s point-in-time count, the city had 147 homeless individuals, with 94 of them living unsheltered.
But as costs have trended upward, the crime clearance rate has mostly gone down.
In 2014, the Carlsbad police had a 92% clearance rate for violent crimes. Since then, the clearance rate declined, hitting a five-year low of 46% in 2018 before rebounding to 58% the following year, according to city budget documents for fiscal years 2019-20 and 2020-21. Property crime has dropped from a 21% clearance rate in 2014 to just 12% in 2019.
By comparison, the city spent $2 million on Neighborhood Services in FY 2019-20, which includes establishing grants for community events and providing for engagement resources, community service programs, volunteer services, community education, code enforcement and mediation.
“Certainly, there should be a discussion about where tax dollars are best spent for any city or county,” Gennaco said. “There are gaps in our social services support system in any jurisdiction, whether it’s the homeless situation, poverty, income disparity — those are all larger issues. Because there has been insufficient support for that programming and social services, oftentimes the issue is left for the police to handle when they get a call for service.”
A program that has garnered national attention in recent weeks is White Bird Clinic’s CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), a crisis intervention program based in Eugene, Ore.
Originating from the larger counterculture movement in the 1960s, the founders of White Bird did not trust the police and wanted to provide a free, humanistic and compassionate health service to residents.
Kimber Hawes, agency outreach manager at CAHOOTS since 2015, said shortly after opening a crisis line, the clinic established its mobile response team, known locally as the “Bummer Squad.”
Teams were dispatched to nonviolent situations in used vans, providing assistance to people suffering from medical and mental health emergencies in Eugene and neighboring Springfield, responding to approximately 23,000 calls between both cities in 2018.
The success rate caught the attention of the Eugene Police Department, which elected to fund a partnership with CAHOOTS instead of hiring additional police officers.
Since then, the nonprofit has established 30 partnerships in the area, including several school districts, public transportation agencies, hospitals and drug addiction treatment facilities.
Hawes said the Eugene Police officers attend Crisis Intervention Training, hearing from different community groups and learning de-escalation tactics and how to best utilize services such as CAHOOTS.
“Most of the cops in Eugene are open to that feedback and seek it out,” Hawes said.
According to Eugene newspaper The Register Guard, officials from nearly 20 cities — including Austin, Chicago, Oakland, Denver, New York City and Portland — have reached out to learn more about CAHOOTS.
But Hawes, who serves as both a crisis worker and EMT, said a program like CAHOOTS requires community resources and support.
“The CAHOOTS team is a group of (police) abolitionists, just to be clear, but the process with abolition is that it takes a long time and it takes buy-in from the community,” Hawes said. “And this thought process that we completely need to disband the police right now, that is totally unrealistic. As a crisis worker, I don’t want to respond to a call where a man has a gun and is beating his wife. I’ve fought for my life at my job and I’m glad I could call the police. It’s not as simple as that.
“I think our entire society is a gray area and people like to take mental shortcuts and think in the extremes, but it’s gray. And what gray looks like is transitioning. So, what we need to focus on is yes, defunding, but also reforming what’s happening right now in order to move towards abolition.”
But as cities have reached out to CAHOOTS for consulting and advice regarding alternative public safety measures and services, Hawes worries the program’s ethos may change within these newly adopted models.
For Hawes, it’s not just about establishing underfunded outreach teams to appease public outcry and demands for reform.
“What I’m concerned about is that people are going to see this model and then put together some … Band-Aid version,” Hawes said. “(CAHOOTS) is not a Band-Aid solution. Every community is different. So, the Eugene community has certain needs. We have a large population of unhoused folks, so we need services for that. But I’m only as strong as our community resources. CAHOOTS is only as strong as its community resources.”
However, the reality of implementing such a program gets tricky in each jurisdiction’s “gray area,” including the need for traditional police services.
According to Gennaco, one of the factors that make American policing so difficult is the prevalence of firearms, which “presents a real challenge on how to keep everyone safe and find a way to problematically reduce crime,” which he thinks is still achievable.
“This all gets very complicated but when it comes to diverting those resources in another way, what are we going to do with the basic police services the majority of people want,” Gennaco said. “There are some basic services, and if not the police, who?”
Hawes said while there is still a need for armed police officers, programs like CAHOOTS are attempting to address the myriad underlying issues that lead people to resort to violent crime.
“There are situations where you need to take someone down,” Hawes said. “I’ve seen some of the craziest stuff. But that unsafe person that police are responding to and threatening the community, why are they there in the first place? Why do they have a gun in their hand? Why are they making other people unsafe?”