Santa Clara County nonprofits primed to take over policing, funding for social needs
Nearly 100 people gathered at San Jose City Hall to commemorate Juneteenth, which had a renewed call for action this year. Photo by Luke Johnson.

Calls to defund the police have spread nationwide, as communities grapple with police brutality following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and San Jose’s militarized response to otherwise peaceful protesters in late May.

While some support complete abolition of the San Jose Police Department’s proposed $449 million budget, the discussion for many Santa Clara County nonprofit leaders presents an opportunity to reallocate some of those dollars and responsibilities to local organizations for social needs, instead of sending armed law enforcement to non-violent emergencies.

“I’m not saying we don’t need any law enforcement,” said Sparky Harlan, CEO of the Bill Wilson Center, which provides support services for homeless youth, families and adults. “For me, defunding looks at how we repurpose a big chunk of the money and narrow the scope of what police departments do.”

This concept isn’t new to Harlan, who worked for a nonprofit contracted by San Mateo County to deal with 911 calls such as drug overdoses, mental health crises and civil disturbances in the 1970s.

She’s poised to take on those issues again – here in Santa Clara County – as soon as police relinquish those responsibilities. But the county also needs to loosen restrictions on staffing requirements, she said, as requirements for licensed staff who don’t have 24-hour availability ultimately lead to police deployment.

“There’s plenty of people in the community that can be trained that already have this experience,” Harlan said. “The idea is that as your community learns that there’s these workers out here that are reaching out, you get the buy-in from them.”

This week, police chiefs from San Jose, San Francisco and Los Angeles penned an op-ed addressing these calls for defunding. While pushing for reform and admitting room to improve, they also welcomed the idea of redefining their officers’ roles.

“We are eager to begin community conversations of alternatives to sending police officers into situations where mental health, violence interruption and harm reduction approaches by trained professionals in those disciplines may offer more effective community-centered resolutions,” the opinion read. “Investing more resources in our neighborhoods will reduce the over-reliance on police, while keeping these communities safe.”

A modern example of this work is most notably in Eugene, Oregon, where the White Bird Clinic’s “Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets” program handles mobile crisis intervention without police. The program, known as CAHOOTS, currently takes on 20 percent of all 911 calls, with police backup is called in for less than 1 percent of events.

Alison Brunner, Law Foundation of Silicon Valley CEO, supports moving away from over-reliance on police. She said she thinks less police involvement goes further than reducing police brutality – it also decreases subsequent legal issues, such as evictions or deportation, from issues stemming from a lack of social support. This is especially true when Black and minority communities disproportionally experience negative outcomes, she added.

Looking at mental health crises, for example, Brunner said mobile crisis units should be able to mediate situations and pursue non-punitive resources, as opposed to police civilly committing people through 5150s or Laura’s Law.

“I think that we have to really look at when people are calling and what are the crises that people need help for, and knowing that we can really transform and humanize our responses,” Brunner said. “My greatest hope is that (the Law Foundation) would be out of business.”

But to Harlan’s point, those mobile response teams need contracts filled by people willing to respond to calls at all hours of the day, like nonprofit staff, advocates said.

“We already have some of these exact solutions that we’re talking about with defunding of police money,” Brunner said. “I think there’s a building of trust for people with mental health disabilities to be trusting in that system, if the opportunity is not to lock them up for days in a deplorable environment and instead make a choice of trusting and giving them like dignity and agency.”

The key to success – for Harlan’s work in the 1970s, the CAHOOTS’ efforts in Oregon and Brunner’s ideas – is gaining public trust for this community-driven problem solving, instead of continuing trauma and wariness against law enforcement, especially within Black, Latino and other minority communities.

But being suspicious of police is common for Africans living in America, according to Yvonne Maxwell, executive director of Ujima Adult and Family Services, an African-centered behavioral health and support agency in San Jose. This rings true whether they’ve lived here for generations or recently relocated.

“African people don’t trust the police and frequently police are the face-to-face perpetrators of state violence that we encounter historically, perpetually and persistently,” Maxwell said. “African people learn to respect the law for its ability to punish, not for any relationship with its justice.”

She said reimagining police is critical to managing officers’ role in society, through actions like moving responsibilities of non-violent, social needs to nonprofits.

However, she said distinctions of “violent and non-violent” incidents also need to be clearly defined, as those terms can be driven by racial biases. For example, she said she’s worked with one African youth who was charged with strong-armed robbery – a felony – for pushing and taking $1 from another youth.

But as the conversation of reexamining the role of police begins, Maxwell said society cannot be complicit because the impacts continue to affect minorities and feelings of hopelessness grow in the meantime.

“We work with individuals with family stories and their own stories of police brutality or mistreatment and help to emotionally process the impact,” Maxwell said. “In group treatment sessions, stories are shared and the feelings of oppression are overwhelming.”

Contact Katie Lauer at katie@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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