Police Reform En Route?

By Jun Starkey   |   July 30, 2020

Santa Barbara City Council looks into forming civilian review board

The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer more than two months ago has shaken a nation that is still dealing with the fallout.   

Thousands of protesters remain in the streets of Portland in a tense standoff with police and federal agents even as the massive demonstrations against police brutality that swept the nation last month have mostly subsided.

Now comes the really difficult work: crafting policy reforms targeting police brutality.

Santa Barbara is among cities looking to make sweeping changes to its police department. Spurred by the protests, an idea that was once regarded as practically impossible has gained traction and the City is seriously thinking about creating a civilian review board.

“Civilian oversight of police is not a new or novel concept,” said Councilmember Meagan Harmon. “It is tried and tested, and when it’s done effectively, it has proven to have really important benefits for the community.”

The Santa Barbara City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday to create a community commission to help create a civilian police review system, plans for which will be later brought to council for a vote.

The move was a baby step, but an important first one for the City to begin looking at how the police department does business. In the complex scheme of city governance, creating a civilian review board is among the most difficult pieces of policy that a city can craft. It’s a legal, political, and social matter – three tips of a triangle that can lead in different directions.

Councilmembers Alejandra Gutierrez and Harmon will be working with City Attorney Ariel Calonne and City Administrator Paul Casey over the coming weeks to develop a framework for a community commission that would spearhead the civilian review board process, with a focus on creating a diverse and inclusive board.

“I think it is imperative that this committee reflect Black, trans, and disabled members of our community, indigenous and formerly incarcerated,” said Councilmember Kristen Sneddon. “And to have gender balance, and not just binary gender, reflected on the board as well.”

Many members of the community spoke in support of a review board, but also shared concerns with the possibility of the board not properly representing the community.

“We can no longer have systems that are committed to misunderstanding us and criminalizing our community,” said Simone Ruskamp, a community activist and member of Healing Justice Santa Barbara Collective. “It’s imperative that you listen to what the community is asking for, which is a review board, not a single auditor and not unattached experts.”

Assistant City Attorney John Doimas presented a report to councilmembers on Tuesday, which described three possibilities for a potential review board.

In one scenario, a review-focused system would examine the quality of completed police internal affairs investigations. The individual reviewer or reviewing body wouldn’t have the authority to conduct an independent investigation, but could make recommendations to the department based on original reports, or request further investigation.

A second option would have an auditor/monitor-focused system involving analysts looking for patterns in police policies or practices by reviewing data and reporting it to a board or commission. The patterns being examined could range from misconduct and use of force to issues regarding race or gender. The auditor/monitor could also make policy recommendations to the police chief, city administrator, or city council.

A hybrid system combines elements of the other civilian review options. According to the staff report written by Doimas, hybrid systems are often the best choice for a city.

“[Civilian review] is an important step but only one step towards equitable policing,” Harmon said. “It is about the self-determination of those who are most marginalized in our community.”

While it’s too soon to tell where this is headed, with a nation on edge over acts of police brutality, it’s likely that Santa Barbara’s days of internal police reviews are reaching their end.


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