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California Wants Best of Both Worlds: Reform With More Cops

After the murder of George Floyd last May, Democrats across the state called for immediate police reform. Now as crime rates increase, many of those same lawmakers are calling for more officers. Can the state have both?

(TNS) — Last year, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, top California Democrats said reforming policing was among their top priorities.

This week, a bunch of them dialed 911 — or at least the political equivalent.

It was a reminder that the political road to redefining police responses is not going to be easy, quick or direct, even in the most liberal cities. And when confronted with a rise in crime — and a lot of public pressure to do something, dammit — the natural instinct of even the most progressive political leaders is to break glass and pull the alarm. Still.

It started Tuesday with San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. They've both said they want to change the way their cities are policed. They've both made moves to reverse the history of law enforcement disproportionately targeting minority residents in their cities. In 2016, federal monitors described the San Francisco Police Department as having "concerning deficiencies in every operational area," while Oakland's department has been under federal oversight since 2003, when the city settled a lawsuit that alleged civil rights violations by a group of officers known as the Riders.

Yet last week, on the same day, both called for more police and surveillance in their cities.

"It's time that the reign of criminals who are destroying our city ... come(s) to an end," Breed said Tuesday in asking for more police overtime to be able to put more cops on the street in the Tenderloin, where open-air drug dealing is rampant. "It comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerant of all the bulls— that destroyed our city."

On that same day that Breed called BS in The City, Schaaf asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to send California Highway Patrol officers to patrol The Town. She also asked for license plate readers to be stationed on nearby highways to address the "caravans of armed individuals engaged in mass robberies and coordinated thefts" in Oakland.

In her letter to Newsom, Schaff wrote that vehicles that are stolen or have switched license plates are often used in those crimes, "many of whom travel into and throughout the Oakland on the highways and main thoroughfares."

"The need for a system that can capture vehicle descriptions and alert law enforcement to vehicles associated with violent crime, in real time, has never been more apparent," Schaaf wrote. "Such technology can multiply law enforcement efforts in a focused, intelligence-based manner, while still balancing the important privacy interests of the community."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose district includes San Francisco, backed up Breed and offered a vaguely ominous coda: "There is an attitude of lawlessness in our country that springs from I don't know where ... and we cannot have that lawlessness become the norm."

Calling for more cops and more surveillance has been the norm for many politicians, civil libertarians say. A norm that hasn't helped change public safety.

"This kind of knee-jerk reaction approach to policy-making is exactly how we ended up with this racist system of mass incarceration in the first place," Yoel Haile, director of the criminal justice program at the ACLU of Northern California, told me.

"These elected leaders have pledged to support civil rights, to support Black Lives Matter and to support civil rights protections," Matt Cagle, an ACLU attorney and expert on government surveillance, told me. "So it's a really outrageous about-face to suddenly be advocating for surveillance without guardrails."

There's another aspect humming in the background: The media soundtrack playing in the political leaders' heads is a never-ending loop of outrage over high-profile crimes. Meanwhile, crime statistics tell a far more nuanced story. While homicides are going up — as they are in much of the country — other crimes are going down.

These mayors say they have tried — and are trying — to address these concerns with other solutions that don't involve funneling more cops onto the street. Breed has funded Street Crisis Response Teams. On Friday, Breed declared a state of emergency in the Tenderloin in an effort to quickly get more services to the neighborhood. Schaaf touts her city's MACRO program, which is Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland, a nonpolice response to 911 calls.

But that's not enough, they say. Now they need more cops. Schaaf praised the Oakland City Council for recently approving 60 more officers. She told the "Inside California Politics" TV show about "the mistake the City Council made last summer in cutting the Police Department. It was not necessary, and I'm very pleased that they've restored those cuts."

Oakland has counted more homicides this year than any other year in the past decade. Plus, as Schaaf wrote to Newsom, armed robberies are up 46 percent and carjacking robberies have increased 77 percent. Schaaf said Oakland must increase law enforcement while pursuing other solutions.

"We must do both," Schaaf wrote last week in a letter to constituents.

Haile said the answer in either city isn't more law enforcement.

"These conditions existed 10 years ago, 20, 30 years ago. They exist now," Haile said. "So if more policing, more incarceration was the solution, they would have been solved decades ago."

My colleagues Trisha Thadani and Heather Knight have written extensively about the pain and drug abuse and dealing and violence that is overwhelming the Tenderloin. The same crisis exists in Oakland. Residents in both places are desperately looking for help. Some want more police.

A poll of Oakland residents conducted in late October by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce found that 60 percent of the city's self-identified progressives wanted to either increase the number of police or keep it the same. The poll found that 43 percent of Black respondents wanted to increase the number of cops and 24 percent wanted to keep it the same. Among all people of color, the survey found that 70 percent wanted to keep or increase the police force.

Haile shrugged at the poll as a "sample" of public opinion. Yet he said he understands what's going on in these communities personally. He lives in deep East Oakland.

"We absolutely share the frustration about unsafe, unsanitary conditions (and) the generational trauma, the poverty, the violence, that these communities are experiencing," Haile said. "The question is really about how do you address the material conditions that we're all struggling with?"

Haile is frustrated that many cities and counties have not invested "at scale" in low-income housing, health care and drug abuse treatment. But "when it comes to just unleashing unlimited overtime or unleashing unlimited funds to police, the money always just magically happens to be there," he said.

He knows how this cycle works. He predicted that while flooding parts of San Francisco and Oakland with cops will displace drug dealers, the dragnet will also ensnare others, most of whom will be people of color. "And then, three months later, after the police go away or the overtime goes away, then what?"

"After all of that, after all the harm that's going to get created by policies like this," Haile said, "we're going to be right back to where we started with the problems fundamentally unsolved, millions of dollars wasted funding and expanding the police and the same level of frustration and problems will still exist."

On Friday — at a news conference with Attorney General Rob Bonta about what the state plans to do to crack down on organized retail theft — Newsom said he is sick of the "either/or" debate about whether to prioritize cracking down on crime or reforming the criminal justice system.

"You can't condone these (illegal) activities. (I) never have, I never will," Newsom said. "At the same time, you can do that and reform your system, reduce recidivism, improve your re-entry programs, address these underlying issues in real time. I'm just sick and tired of this either/or debate, which I think is rather lazy and unfortunate."

Politically, Republicans are gloating at the spectacle of Democrats calling for more police just months after saying many of their duties could be handled by non-law-enforcement types.

"On behalf of Republicans everywhere: Welcome, Democrats, to taking the right stance on crime," said Hallie Balch, the Republican National Committee's envoy to California.

"This would be a moment to celebrate, except that just about every one of them created the crime-laden California that they're now trying to rectify," Balch said. "So good job, for recognizing the mess you made."

Then again, Republicans aren't offering many innovative solutions other than more police — a familiar policy that now has more bipartisan support.


(c)2021 the San Francisco Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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