Ortiz: A call for change in public safety
A police officer keeps watch on protesters in San Jose. File photo by Luke Johnson.

As a supposed win-win for the community, the San Jose City Council approved a multimillion-dollar training facility for the San Jose Police Department and a law enforcement reform plan that creates a community process entitled “Reimagining Community Safety.”

This process establishes the Reimagining Community Safety Advisory Group, which should serve as a forum to engage the public on the future of law enforcement. It is still to be determined if this committee’s establishment amounts to anything more than a ruse to distract local advocates from San Jose’s $45 million investment in a law enforcement facility.

Simultaneously, other cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles have moved forward with plans to divert funds from their police departments and reinvest them in social programs. It is certain that if our city is to make progress on equity in law enforcement, a drastic paradigm shift is needed.

It has been said before, but the word “radical” simply means to grab something by the roots. If our city government is preparing for the future of public safety, we need to focus on the root cause of society’s problems and not the final output of our systems.

We cannot blame a member of the houseless community for “bringing blight into our neighborhood.” The blame is on a system that allows for houseless people to exist without proper mental health services and equal access to transitional housing. The solution to community safety is not to criminalize our young adults for hanging out on the street.

As a society, we need to understand that our young people have not had equal access to a fully-funded education system, positive role models and career pathways that can prepare them for a job that pays a sustainable wage. We need to reach these youth before they’re shot to death by city-issued bullets in an apartment complex on the city’s East Side. We cannot stop bullets with bullets — we can only stop them with jobs and investments in our community.

Focusing solely on our police department and our past approach to law enforcement is not the solution for the future of public safety. By the time uniformed police are required to be involved in a public safety concern, our system has already failed us. No amount of investment in police training will solve police-involved shootings, but investing in mental health services and mental
health training will solve the need for militarized police. Without a different approach, the current system will continue to be the problem, and that problem will spread to all stakeholders who are involved regardless of their intentions.

Many conversations around police reform attempt to address situations after a tragedy occurs, but this approach fails to realize the root cause of unlawfulness. Commitments from cities promising appropriate police retraining have long been used to calm the public with little evidence showing effective results. The Minneapolis Police Department, for instance, created stricter use-of-force policies, implemented training on implicit bias and diversified the department’s leadership in recent years. However, that did not stop the killing of George Floyd.

Furthermore, the type of chokehold used by a New York City officer that killed Eric Garner in 2014 had been banned for more than a decade before that homicide. Police officers have too many expectations of them for their role in public safety. We expect
them to be soldiers, social workers, drug and alcohol counselors, educators and mental health professionals — all while expecting them to enter into potentially dangerous situations without concern for their safety.

It is time we seriously consider exploring opportunities to reallocate police department functions to other city departments or community-based organizations where an alternative emergency response system would deploy mental health professionals as first responders.

Police are not marriage counselors and cannot take the place of city-funded domestic violence prevention measures. Youth interactions with police officers rarely result in beneficial outcomes that allow for the individual’s development as a productive member of society. The California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that it costs California taxpayers $81,000 a year to house an adult offender.

A 2019 study by the San Francisco Chronicle stated that it costs Santa Clara County taxpayers $531,400 a year to house a juvenile offender annually. We need to move away from punitive approaches to intervention and invest in restorative practices that are more cost-effective, focused on solutions that have proven to work and will remove the burden on the American taxpayer.

For the newly-formed advisory group to carry out an effective and inclusive community engagement process rooted in equity, the families of those lost to police violence must be at the center of the discussion. No amount of research conducted on police violence or racism embedded in government institutions can take the place of gathering input from those directly impacted by police brutality. Most police-involved shootings result from a mental health crisis. Families of loved ones lost know this to be true.

For our community to heal, the voices of those most affected by state-sponsored violence must be treated as a priority stakeholder that can provide meaningful input for the new way the police department and community-based programs intervene on these social needs. Those who are closest to the pain are closest to the solution. If we can address the concerns of those most affected by police violence, we can begin to solve the significant divide that exists between law enforcement and the greater public.

The future of public safety will look less like a $45 million-dollar training facility for police officers and more like the expansion of youth programs in our working-class neighborhoods. We cannot resort to outdated strategies of reform and training that produce zero results for our community. We need to address these social ills by investing in alternative approaches to public safety, such
as paid job training for the unemployed and underemployed, housing for our houseless population and alternative first responder strategies.

As long as we continue to focus our attention solely on law enforcement, a positive future with community and police relations will be out of reach.

Peter Ortiz represents East and Downtown San Jose as an elected trustee to the Santa Clara County Board of Education. Ortiz was recently appointed to the Reimagining Community Safety Advisory Group.

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