Civilian Police Review in Santa Cruz Could Help Homeless People

A Civilian Police Review Board is of critical importance in Santa Cruz in light of the fact that the City Council has historically worked to criminalize homelessness and continues to enact ordinances that substantially abridge even the most basic human rights of our homeless residents.


by Steve Pleich

I recently read a very excellent treatise on the concept of citizen oversight of law enforcement in the City of Santa Cruz. But that work was completed in the early 1990s, before the generalized public policies and ordinances aimed at homeless people in our community first gained acceptance and became local law.

The police review board that ultimately grew out of that concept was hamstrung by the parochial politics that persist to this day and was disbanded amid frustration with the process and a lack of substantive impact. As I read the article, I wondered aloud what relationship that model of civilian oversight had to present-day Santa Cruz, to our common interest in the protection of individual rights, including those of people experiencing homelessness, and to the pursuit of public safety. I found some interesting answers.

In my time as a Santa Cruz resident, I have seen a growing concern for public safety, coupled with an expanding public mandate for law enforcement to use whatever means and methods they think best to curb the perceived uncontrolled growth of the homeless community.

Indeed, one does not need to be a social scientist to understand that the dynamic balance between the presence in our community of homeless individuals and the duty to maintain public safety has shifted dramatically over the past few years.

I have watched our elected officials support a marked and noteworthy increase in the number of sworn officers serving in the police department, while seeming little concerned about the chilling effect that heightened police presence inevitably brings on those considered to be less desirable members of the community, i.e., the homeless people.

But it is not the expansion of the police department or the overarching presence of law enforcement in our city that concerns me most — or for that matter, even the effect such presence unarguably has upon the homeless. Rather, it is the almost complete lack of citizen participation in the development of these policies and the complete absence of civilian oversight of this ever-expanding aspect of our community that prompts these observations.

And no segment of our community is more profoundly affected by this absence of oversight than the homeless community.

It is often observed that police officer training is almost entirely devoted to intelligence gathering, weapons proficiency and police procedure. They are only tangentially trained in nonviolent conflict resolution and community relations, and particularly their interactions with homeless persons.

And here I will say that this is not entirely their fault. The officer on the street is only as good as the training he or she receives. And clearly, they are not receiving the kind of training and input that would create not only an enlightened police force with a clear understanding of the challenges of homelessness, but a more efficient one as well.

Every incoming police administration in recent times has called for a policy of positive engagement to bridge the perceived divide between law enforcement and the homeless community. In point of fact, if this chasm were not real and existing, there would be no need to call attention to it as a matter of departmental policy.

But what the police department has failed to recognize is that the homeless community itself knows a few things about public safety and the protection of individual rights.

It knows that law enforcement alone cannot make the community safe. It knows that true public safety can only be developed and sustained in an atmosphere of trust, accountability and inclusiveness. It knows that individual liberties are a bedrock value that must be honored and preserved. And it knows that community engagement is the foundation of wise and forward-thinking public safety policy.

So the question becomes: If we accept these statements as true, how are we to actualize them in ways that best benefit our community, including citizens who are experiencing homelessness?

I respectfully suggest the creation of a nine-member Civilian Police Review Board composed of representatives of neighborhood groups, homeless and behavioral health advocates, and social service providers who would be charged with review of police policies and procedures and tasked with oversight of our police department. Understand that when I say “oversight” I do not mean control.

The Santa Cruz Police Department responds to the nonviolent occupation of a vacant bank building. Bradley Stuart photo

Such a board would be committed to ensuring that Santa Cruz has a police department that acts with integrity and administers justice fairly and evenhandedly for all of its residents. However, to insure the independence of such a body, the board would consult directly with the police department and would pass along advisory opinions to the Santa Cruz City Council for informational purposes only.

That is the only way to depoliticize the process while creating a clear line of accountability between the community and the police department. This is particularly important in light of the fact that our City Council has historically worked to criminalize homelessness in Santa Cruz and continues to enact ordinances that substantially abridge even the most basic human rights of our homeless residents.

What powers would this new, modern Citizens Police Review Board have? If, as we say, the board is to be composed of citizen representatives, it cannot, for example, be restricted to consideration of already completed internal police investigations into allegations of police misconduct toward homeless people.

A truly reformist board must be given the power to conduct parallel investigations to supplement and inform those conducted by Internal Affairs. Although ultimate decisions would continue to be the province of the department and its chain of command, a civilian review board with independent investigative authority would have the power to make recommendations to the chief of police concerning disposition and discipline.

This model would create a direct and substantive review process that would provide a voice to a homeless community that is often ignored and marginalized when their basic freedoms are abridged by police procedure.

On issues of operational policy and commitment of resources, any such board would need to have direct input to achieve any degree of real effectiveness. The obvious benefit of this input would be that resource allocation and policing priorities would more accurately reflect the community’s concerns, providing a more inclusive base of opinion about how best to make safe our city while giving equal weight to the preservation of civil liberties.

For example, if the board felt that public safety would best be served by spending more money on gang suppression and less on petty theft investigations, resources could be allocated accordingly. If the board recommended more money be devoted to the investigation of sexual assaults and less to enforcement of the so-called “quality of life” ordinances such as the camping ban that exclusively impact the homeless community, then that policy could drive fundamental reallocation of resources.

These are matters upon which reasonable minds will surely differ and will ultimately be the product of a long public input and review process. But it is a conversation we must have if a truly effective oversight process is ever to become a functional part of protecting the civil liberties of persons experiencing homelessness both individually and collectively.

Finally, I will say this. I have always found some considerable fault with the idea that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Rather, I believe that we must let go of the excesses and omissions of the past and make our own history, taking from it the lessons we learn along the way. This is the only sure way to chart a future that ensures the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all our citizens, the homeless and the housed alike.

Steve Pleich directs the Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project in Santa Cruz.


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