Santa Clara County supports new policies for Sheriff’s Office use of force
From left, Assistant Public Defender Damon Silver and Sheriff Laurie Smith heard reports from the Sheriff's Office Thursday as part of the Public Safety and Justice Commission meeting. Photo by Katie Lauer.

In a direct response to curbing police violence and misconduct, Santa Clara County lawmakers Tuesday began “re-envisioning” use of force policies and daily functions of the county’s Sheriff’s Office.

The Board of Supervisors unanimously supported the reform measures, introduced by Supervisor Joe Simitian, following the nationwide uproar and calls to defund the police after the killing of George Floyd while in custody.

The package of policies mirrored the “8 Can’t Wait” campaign, which includes banning chokeholds, requiring warnings before shooting and the duty for officers to intervene, stopping excessive force.

But Simitian also went further, including plans that might prohibit hiring deputies – including lateral transfers – with a history of excessive force or misconduct complaints, limit the acquisition of “military-style” weaponry and equipment and ban the use of tear gas and rubber bullets as crowd control options. These policies join recent years’ efforts requiring body-worn cameras and implicit bias training. These “more ambitious” policies will come back to the board Aug. 11.

San Jose city officials are also considering banning rubber bullets for crowd control after police and sheriff’s deputies fired rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters gathered in downtown San Jose last month.

Additionally, a list of lethal and less-lethal weapons and equipment within the Sheriff’s Office will be made public, and conversation will begin on how to ensure emergencies are met with the best-trained staff for the issue, such as Behavioral Health employees.

“It is important that this is the beginning – not the end – of the commitment,” Simitian said, balancing his support for responsible law enforcement with an understanding that the criminal justice system is deeply flawed. “Too often people have seen concern by their elected officials fade quickly into the night. We can’t let that happen in this case.”

Joined by Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith, Simitian said he hopes Tuesday’s vote provides a tangible process to addressing concerns of police brutality and racial biases, especially as the Sheriff’s Office earned an F on Campaign Zero’s policing score card, ranking 55th out of the state’s 58 sheriff’s offices.

Michael Gennaco, project manager for the Office of Corrections and Law Enforcement Monitoring at the county, asked the Sheriff’s Office to review current policies and training to ensure the new standards are executed. Gennaco and the OCLEM will return to the board Aug. 11 with a timeline for all policies to be updated countywide to reflect modern best practices and California law.

While Simitian hopes this plan is an aggressive yet sensible formula for reform, he knows that “some will think it goes too far (and) some will think it’s not far enough.”

That’s where community conversations come in.

Supervisor Susan Ellenberg, who serves as chair of the Public Safety and Justice Commission, has scheduled three community conversations in July, where residents can share their thoughts on county actions and personal experiences with law enforcement. People can register to attend online.

Public opinion about confrontational policing has been on display since the first day of protests in San Jose May 29, but a handful of speakers on Tuesday suggested reaching out to community agencies to respond to non-emergency incidents.

The idea, while it sounds radical to some under the moniker “defund the police,” isn’t new.

In the 1970s, Bill Wilson Center CEO Sparky Harlan worked for a nonprofit contracted by San Mateo County to de-escalate 911 calls related to drug overdoses, mental health crises and civil disturbances. She told San José Spotlight earlier this month that she and others are prepared to take those calls again — whenever the county gives the green light.

“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.”

Supervisor Dave Cortese supported that idea, but emphasized that Tuesday’s vote did not authorize redirecting funding for that type of outside agency cooperation. He suggested that conversations begin now before the county adopts its budget in August to figure out how to carve out Sheriff’s Office dollars for appropriate agency responses.

Smith was on board.

Because her deputies do not have the same level of training as Behavioral Health Department staff, for example, Smith said bringing those workers alongside law enforcement to calls in the field would prove beneficial, especially for calls relating to homelessness.

That support was echoed by Vic Ojakian, Santa Clara County Board co-president for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. According to Ojakian, around 30 percent of fatal shootings in the county involved people with mental health conditions, while that rate is closer to 50 percent nationally.

When asked what changes have already been made since the death of Floyd in Minneapolis, Smith said the state recently removed training for the carotid response, which renders a person unconscious by restricting the neck’s blood flow to the brain, for officers across California.

But the longtime sheriff said she’s not ready to share information with an outside independent oversight agency, saying she’s not comfortable with the agreement she received two weeks ago.

“I assure you, once I meet with additional attorneys on it, we can come up with some kind of agreements on disclosure of information, that’s by law confidential,” Smith said, adding that she proposed civilian oversight back in 2016.

But that action wasn’t fast enough for Simitian, who said any “slow walking” of this agreement is unacceptable .

“We’ve worked long and hard to get to this point,” Simitian said. “It’s time to make it real and it’s long past time that we bring some sense of urgency.”

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

 

Sheriff Laurie Smith letter

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