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A Civilian Police Review Board Could Benefit the Homeless Community
by The Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project
Wednesday Apr 30th, 2014 12:12 PM
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.

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by Linda Ellen Lemaster
(homes4everyone [at] Wednesday Apr 30th, 2014 2:57 PM
This is very thoughtful and certainly overdue in Santa Cruz County.

In general I don't like supporting the growth of more "separate but equal" helping resources for homelessness survivors in our area. We truly and desperately need to restore the USAmerican "Safety Net," and enlarge it enough ugh to include everyone here.

Instead of our decades-old bigoted public policy that pretty consistently goes like this: "If you see a growing need or outdoors gathering group, make it illegal." As a community (or intersecting sets of communities, if that's your cup of tea) this is an idiots' approach to policy because so much "intelligence" gets lost and buried, as you can see with the burgeoning underground survival systems we have now.

Otoh, when it comes to oversight (and public education) it is time for All Hands On Deck. This could help.

Thanks, Steve
by Razer Ray
Thursday May 1st, 2014 12:37 PM
...and any one created now will also be toothless and even more useless given the authoritarian nature of the current, and probably any future Santa Cruz 'government (A misnomer. They are "administrators", of commercial and rental property owner's interests). Without OVERSIGHT power (eg being able to demand documentation from the SCPD and other police-like BUSINESSES like False Alarm, who STILL aren't on the same page in regard to the law and will never be because their job IS TO GO OUTSIDE THE LAW AS A para-police HARASSMENT/DISSUASION SQUAD only to be [laughingly] 'rebuked' when they call the police to further harass you because you question their illegitimate 'authority') it would be nothing more than repressively de-subliminating to people who aren't affected by police abuse, and used AS A WEAPON against people, typically poor people, who are because "You have your (toothless) 'police review board", and even LESS recourse to legal avenues to challenge police power abuse.

That is how it worked before, anmd that is how it ALWAYS WILL operate.

Get this. The POLICE ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS AND HAVE NO LEGALLY BINDING REQUIREMENT TO PROTECT YOU, from them or anybody else, and they don't. Nor will they cooperate with anything that requires them to do so.

BTW, how's that city council police prioritization committee doing? (snigger)
by G
Saturday May 3rd, 2014 8:25 AM
Ignoring the obvious, unjust laws (that the local ACLU continues to abide), 'The Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project' writes...

"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?"

"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."

The only way? I can think of at least one other; investigate, prosecute and incarcerate (for crimes against humanity) those that promote, enact, and enforce bigoted and unjust laws. Extreme? Ask victims of unjust laws if such a remedy is extreme! Radical? Review the recent commentary from the United Nations Human Rights group, when addressing the criminalization of homelessness in the USA (in short; "Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading"). A solution? Certainly a more effective deterent than legitimizing unjust laws by 'reviewing' their fundamentally unjust imposition. Humane? Certainly more humane than the enforcement of unjust laws. Just? Certainly more just than 'droning without trial' those that create and impose such unjust laws.

Perhaps one day organizations like the local ACLU and 'The Homeless Persons Legal Assistance Project' will stop collaborating and standing with oppressors; instead taking a firm stand AGAINST oppression. That continues to be my wish.
by Robert Norse
Sunday May 18th, 2014 5:45 AM
Steve's concerns about anti-homeless paranoia and police harassment of the unhoused population are well-placed.

Lack of citizen oversight as well as participation in police policy are also important considerations.

An expanding police department--fueled by Take Back Santa Cruz paranoia is indeed escalating the problem.

Not to mention the infiltration of police directly into civilian politics (e.g. Zack Friend's Supervisorial seat, Deputy Chief Clark's "homeless crime wave" report of 2012 rebranding "sleeping" as some kind of terrifying menace).

If training is "almost entirely devoted to intelligence gathering, weapons proficiency and police procedure" as Steve suggests, that bodes ill.

However, Steve's proposal for an advisory body of experts to consult with cops and "pass on" proposals to a fatally-compromised City Council is not helpful and denies the experience of the past. The prior board had the power to authorize independent investigations (which they only did once--in the case of police violence against those protesting the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999). It also had subpoena powers it never used. And its nose was so far up the ass of the SCPD during most of its tenure that it couldn't even defend its own members as when Steve Clark announced he was creating a political file on Commission member John Malkin.

A police review board that is part of the local government also has the disadvantage of being fatally weakend by the Copley decision of 2006 which largely neuters all such boards:

Steve advised me recently that some of his proposal apparently comes from conversations with the current "independent" Police Auditor Bob Aronson. Bob, while a nice guy, has never issued an independent written report in the 11 years he has been on the Wilson-Bernal payroll. (The two City Mangers during that time were Dick Wilson and Martin Bernal)

Aronson was making an annual salary over the bones of the dismembered Citizens Police Review Board for which he previously worked as consulting attorney. I believe a man of integrity would not have taken such a position, particularly since his reports don't reach the public.

The CPRB was killed by the City Council in January of that year after it had begun researching display of force, class and racial profiling, and other controversial issues the Council wanted buried.

See "2nd Reading on CPRB" at and the following comments for more details from that time period.

Steve's concerns are valid,but as is often the case with his "middle of the road" proposals, they don't really either take into consideration past history or remain stalled with caveats about the "politically possible." Getting seats on the boards of different bodies like the ACLU and the SCCCCR may seem politically enticing with the promise of successful top-down manipulation. But where's the action on racial and class profiling? if you sacrifice principle on the way up to be "respectable", you'll lose your way.

Or as the old chestnut goes, "if you don't stand for something, you can fall for anything."

Independent privately organized agencies such as Copwatch, Public Records Searchers, & Direct Action Protests (such as public hearings and press conferences to investigate and publicize police abuse) may be a better place to put resources.

Steve needs to stand up to demand action on well-documented police abuses against homeless and poor victims like Office Vasquez's "face-to-the-sidewalk-slam" of Richard Hardy ( or Officer Hernandez's "Hands Up and Drop That Food Plate" attack on a family at a Salvation Army Thanksgiving meal ( This may compromise his back-slapping amiability with city leaders and Take Back Santa Cruz higher-up's, but will restore his credibility on the left.
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