As calls ring out to defund police departments across the country, South Bay community organizers weighed in on why the topic is important and what defunding could look like in Santa Clara County.
“With my nephew being executed while unarmed by a covert response unit with an AR-15 to the head, I asked myself, ‘Why are these police using military-style weapons? Why are there special units out there?’” said Rosie Chavez, a community organizer with Silicon Valley De-Bug, whose nephew Jacob Dominguez was killed by police in 2017. “The money used for those units and those weapons could be used elsewhere.”
Chavez and four other panelists addressed the issue Sept. 2 in a meeting organized by Santa Clara University’s ACLU NorCal Law Club and Black Law Student Association. Leah Messin, co-president of the Black Law Student Association at SCU, said the idea of defunding police warranted an in-depth discussion.
“It’s very complicated,” Messin said. “People have a lot of questions about how our system works.”
Messin said she and other students started organizing the events in late June amid widespread protests against police violence.
More than 200 people tuned into the meeting, according to Ardy Raghian, president of the ACLU NorCal Club. He said students organized the talk out of their own desire rather than a school assignment and that SCU’s Interim Dean Anna Han encouraged people to attend following the racial profiling of a Black professor on campus.
“It isn’t the first time that it happened on our campus,” Messin said of the incident. “It just was one of those things that we as students of color have always been aware of.”
Hundreds of people demanded San Jose defund its police department when the City Council in June approved the department’s budget of roughly $449 million. Chavez said Silicon Valley De-Bug has sent letters to the city and county demanding changes in the respective police departments.
“Everybody in our city needs to know where our hard-earned tax money is going,” Chavez said. “Until you’re directly impacted, you don’t know what’s going on.”
Laurie Valdez, another De-Bug organizer whose partner Antonio Guzman was killed by police in 2014, said some of the funds allocated for police should be used to help support the victims of police violence.
“Defunding the police to me is to make the officers feel it in their pockets,” Valdez said, noting when police officers are involved in a fatal shooting, the city often puts the officers on paid administrative leave.
“Right now, none of the families or the children are entitled to support services for counseling for the trauma they suffered,” Valdez said.
She said the current system amounts to city taxpayers paying police to kill, rather than protect, members of the community.
Derrick Sanderlin, an organizer with Sacred Heart Community Service, had trained San Jose police officers against racial bias for years before he was shot by police in June.
“I see defunding the police as one important step towards imagining a world in which we care about the people that we love… a world where police are no longer needed,” Sanderlin said.
Valdez agreed defunding police was important but stopped short of saying police should be abolished.
“We’re not trying to say ‘Get rid of them all,’” Valdez said. “We want to try to make them so they’re not at war with us.”
Valdez said it was important for the city to provide support services for the children left behind by police shootings to prevent those children from growing up to be “broken men.”
David Ball, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law and one of the panelists, agreed, saying people who commit acts of violence were often victims of violence growing up. He said the money spent on incarceration and police services could be better used to give support for children who are victims of violence.
“You don’t need to wait until someone has acted out in violent fashion,” Ball said.
James Burch, policy director of the Oakland-based Anti-Police Terror Project, said defunding police departments is a tough job.
“A lot of politicians know that if you speak out against the police, you’re risking your entire career,” Burch said. However, he said activists were able to convince Oakland to create a task force to explore defunding the Oakland Police Department by 50 percent.
“A year ago, we were laughed out of City Hall for these demands,” Burch said. “The defund movement is spelling out the contradiction of how much we’re investing into law enforcement.”
Contact Sonya Herrera at [email protected] or follow @SMHsoftware on Twitter.