This is part 1 of a 2-part article
Ninety-nine people, a near record number of participants, showed up for the city of Sebastopol’s first meeting on police policy and race last night.
Mayor Patrick Slayter kicked things off by saying, "What we want to work on tonight is designing the process of how we want to analyze where we are and where we want to go.”
After saying he was sorry that a single department — the police department — was under scrutiny that night, Slayter said that the city’s goal was to have all city departments, including the police, be “in close alignment with the values of the community.”
“We’re not here in an accusatorial way; we’re not here for culpability; we’re not here for blame-placing,” he said. “What we are here to do is start the process of education in order to get the services that we desire in alignment with the values that we hold as a community.”
Vice Mayor Una Glass got down to particulars.
“Just about everybody in the nation has been appalled by what they've seen, starting with the George Floyd episode and others. There's been a huge reaction of many people throughout the nation and that includes people on our police force that are also appalled and upset. So, what we're doing here is making sure that an incident like that never happens on our watch.”
Acting Police Chief Greg Devore decided to use this moment to give a personal explanation of his own journey in law enforcement and his own reaction of shock after watching the video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
“I was horrified,” Devore said. “It made me — I'm just gonna say it — ashamed to be a police officer. So I just want you to know I'm with you, I hear you and I want to work with the public to make sure that nothing like that happens in this city.”
The evening’s main speaker was attorney Jerry Threet, a Sebastopol resident and the former director of IOLERO, which provides civilian oversight for the sheriff's department. In addition Threet was a deputy city attorney for San Francisco and also worked for the Department of Justice. He has an extensive background in community organizing around the issue of police oversight.
Threet began by laying out some central questions.
“The key question that's been posited here is, ‘Are the values of our Sebastopol community reflected in the policies, practices, procedures and trainings of our police department?’ It's a really great question, and it breaks down into a couple of pieces.”
“First of all, what are the values of our Sebastopol community with regard to policing? I don't think we should make assumptions about what those values are. We should ask ourselves another question: How do we find out those values? Once we get a handle on that, we have to match them up with the current policies, practices and procedures and training of the Sebastopol police department. So how do we find out exactly what the state of the police department is with regard to those things? That's a second question.
“Once we have those two pieces of the puzzle, we're going to be asking a different question: Should we do something to change or transform our police department in the way it operates to reflect community values? And if so, how should we do that? And underlying all of that is, what processes can be used to gather the information we need to answer these questions and make that decision?”
Question #1: What are the community’s values with regard to policing?
Threet suggested several ways to go about finding out what the community’s values are about policing, including looking at past city documents and proclamations on the topics and looking at other sources from outside of our community that might embody some of those values, such as President Barack Obama’s Report on 21st Century Policing.
He also suggested that the city do some intensive listening sessions to help suss out what the community values on this topic really are.
“Right now, we want to do things like community listening sessions, roundtables and large town halls — if it's possible to do that in the future,” he said. “Could we set up targeted focus groups with disadvantaged communities that might feel more comfortable providing their input (in that setting).”
He also said the city should check if there are barriers to participation, such as language or cultural barriers.
Finally he asked the city to consider, “Should there be an institutional process moving forward for getting periodic input from the public on these issues after we get through this initial phase?”
Question #2: How can we get a better understanding of how the police department really works?
Threet had several suggestions for getting a better understanding of how the police force is really operating in Sebastopol. He suggested three approaches: a survey of public perceptions, an in depth analysis of the department, and a data review.
In terms of public perception, he said, “There are different options for that: we could do customer service surveys, contacting folks who've had interactions with the police department and asking them what they thought about this. We could use polling of the population generally … and again, we could go back to the focus groups, roundtables and other methods where we sit down with folks and gather information directly.”
He also suggested looking deeply at the department itself, gathering data and information, as well as looking at “the policies, practices and procedures of our officers, and then comparing that to the existing best practices and the desires of our community,” he said.
“If you're going to do that kind of thing you really want to have a very broad consultation where you talk to the community; you talk to the rank and file officers, both past and present; you talk to the Police Officers Union and to the leadership of that union … to get their view of agency management of past leaders and present leaders; talk to folks out in the sister agencies like the sheriff's department, Santa Rosa PD and other agencies that interact with our police departments; talk to other city government leaders, nonprofit service partners, even going out and talking to folks like plaintiffs’ attorneys who may have some particular perspectives.”
And certainly we want to compile and review data from the police department and analyze that — for example, things like what happens in police stops or what are the data on use of force. And then finally, you'd want to put all that into some sort of database or report so that members of the community could look at that and start giving feedback.”
Rather than trying to examine every policy in the voluminous police manual, Threet suggested homing in on those “which ones deserve our focused attention.” He suggested looking at the use-of-force policy, policies on bias, as well as policies that address how the department interacts with vulnerable populations such as immigrants, the homeless and youth.”
He then went on to discuss in detail questions of transparency, responsiveness to public complaints, and public participation in hiring, as well as different kinds of police oversight models.
At the end of his talk, he mentioned some of the news solutions that have been suggested as part of the public dialogue around the phrase, “Defund the Police.”
“I would be remiss if I didn't mention several other things that are in the public discussion right now … Some of those include whether police departments — and our police department in particular — should have a more focused mission than it currently does. And if that's true, should we be shifting resources or some of the services currently performed by police department to other service delivery models?” he said. “There's many suggestions that we should have restorative justice training and programs within departments that police our communities and that the departments should have more robust partnerships with community organizations.”
Collaboration and diverse voices
Threet said that in all these discussions collaboration with the police department was going to be key, but that getting diverse voices in on the conversation was equally important to the final outcome.
“Honestly, the one thing I think it’s important to bring up right at the front is the issue of equity. And that question really is, Should the voices who have historically been excluded be given some sort of special considerations process?”
Threet also said that he was feeling cautiously optimistic about this particular political moment.
“Finally, I just want to say this is really a unique moment in history — something I haven't seen in my lifetime — where there might be a great deal of political will to creatively reimagine how we’re doing this.”
Part 2 of this article will explore Threet’s ideas on police oversight and discuss the many ideas and issues that more than a dozen speakers brought up during public comment.