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A Civilian Police Review Board Could Benefit the Homeless Community
Providing a Community Voice for Our Homeless Community
In an earlier article, we talked about the concept of citizen oversight of law enforcement in the City of Santa Cruz. Such a review board was formed in the early 1990s but was hamstrung by parochial politics and disbanded amid frustration with the process and a lack of substantive impact. But that board rose and set before the generalized public policies and ordinances aimed at the homeless in our community first gained acceptance and became local law. So now a new question must be framed in light of the present day disposition toward our homeless community. That question is: Can a new model of civilian oversight benefit our common interest in the protection of individual rights and civil liberties, including those of people experiencing homelessness? We found some interesting answers.
Our city continues to experience a growing concern for public safety coupled with an expanding mandate for law enforcement to use whatever means and methods they think best to curb the perceived uncontrolled growth of the homeless community. Our elected officials steadfastly support a marked and noteworthy increase in the number of sworn officers and seem little concerned about the chilling effect heightened police presence inevitably has on those considered to be less desirable members of the community, i.e., the homeless. But it is not the expansion of the police department or the overarching presence of law enforcement in our community that concerns us most. Rather, it is the almost complete lack of citizen participation in the development of these policies and the complete absence of civilian oversight of this ever-expanding aspect of our community that prompts these observations. And no segment of our community is more profoundly affected by this absence of oversight than the homeless.
It is often observed that police officer training is almost entirely devoted to intelligence gathering, weapons proficiency and police procedure. They are only tangentially trained in nonviolent conflict resolution and community relations, and particularly their interactions with homeless persons. And here we will say that this is not entirely their fault. The officer on the street is only as good as the training he or she receives and clearly they are not receiving the kind of training and input that would create not only an enlightened police force with a clear understanding of the challenges of homelessness, but a more efficient one as well. In our view, civilian oversight of law enforcement is the civic governance model that most directly addresses these issues.
The Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project respectfully suggests the creation of a nine-member Civilian Police Review Board composed of representatives of neighborhood groups, homeless advocates, medical and behavioral health specialists and social service providers who would be charged with review of police policies and procedures and tasked with oversight of our police department. To insure the independence of such a body, the board would consult directly with the police department and pass along advisory opinions to our city council. This is the only way to “depoliticize” the process while creating a clear line of accountability between the community and the police department. This is particularly important in light of the fact that our City Council has historically worked to criminalize homelessness in Santa Cruz and continues to enact ordinances that substantially abridge even the most basis human rights of our homeless residents.
This board must be given broad powers and cannot be restricted to consideration of already completed internal police investigations into allegations of police misconduct. A truly reformist board must be given the power to conduct parallel investigations to supplement and inform those conducted by Internal Affairs. Although ultimate decisions would continue to be the province of the department and its chain of command, a civilian review board with independent investigative authority would have the power to make recommendations to the Chief concerning disposition and discipline. This model would create a direct and substantive review process that would provide a voice to a homeless community that is often ignored and marginalized when their basic freedoms are abridged by police procedure.
On issues of operational policy and commitment of resources, any such board would need to have direct input to achieve any degree of real effectiveness. The objective of this input would be resource allocation and policing priorities that more accurately reflect the community’s concerns. It would also provide a more inclusive base of opinion about how best to make safe our city while giving equal weight to the preservation of civil liberties. For example, if the board recommended more money be devoted to the investigation of sexual assaults and less to enforcement of the so called “quality of life” and “camping ban” ordinances that exclusively impact the homeless community, then that policy could drive fundamental reallocation of resources. These are matters upon which reasonable minds will surely differ but it is a conversation we must have if a truly effective oversight process is ever to become a functional part of protecting the civil liberties of people whose voices are not being heard individually or collectively.
Finally, we say this. We have always found some considerable fault with the idea that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. Rather, we believe that we must let go the excesses and omissions of the past and make our own history, taking from it the lessons we learn along the way. This is the only sure way to chart a future that secures the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all our citizens, the homeless and the housed alike.