Racial Justice in Santa Barbara County Law Enforcement: What Does It Take?

Supervisors Take First Step at Hearing, Request Reports on Lowered Incarceration Efforts

Santa Barbara Public Defender Tracy Macuga takes a knee is solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement during a rally held by her office on June 8, 2020 at the courthouse. Macuga agreed with the public's concerns for racial justice in law enforcement when speaking at the Board of Supervisor hearing on June 11. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Though some regard Santa Barbara County as a welcoming and inclusive place to live, nearly 100 residents cast a spotlight on one of the county’s ugliest truths Thursday. 

“Many people believe that racism doesn’t exist in Santa Barbara — that it is a safe place for everyone. I’m here to tell you it’s not,” said Mariah Jones, a speaker at the Board of Supervisors hearing on racial equity and the criminal justice system. 

“From the numerous times I’ve been called the n-word, to white women clutching their purses at the mere sight of me, to being followed around the store while trying to shop, and to the time a white man called my wife a ‘dirty Mexican’ because she was simply walking by. Everytime I leave my house, I wonder if this time will be the time that something horrible happens to me or my family for the color of our skin.”

The six-hour meeting was moderated by Wendy Sims-Moten, the executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County and a member of the Santa Barbara Unified School District school board, and Aaron Jones, the director of the Educational Opportunity Program at University of California, Santa Barbara. 

“Until we begin to acknowledge that law enforcement is based out of slave patrols, that there was no such thing as law enforcement in this country save for the organization of predominantly white men who had the legal authority to hunt and kill black bodies as capital, until we can see the connection to that, we will continue to be here,” Jones said.

The hearing comes in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer who held his knee to Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes while three other officers stood by and failed to intervene. Floyd’s murder was one of a string of murders and acts of brutality on black people and other people of color by law enforcement.

“I’ve been stopped by the police while cycling at night for no apparent reason and questioned about the legality of my status in this country,” said Pratik Raghu, a PhD student at UCSB. “I’ve been profiled by Santa Barbara police officers to the point I am weary of running in the evening.”

Raghu joined many other persons of color who shared their personal experiences with racism and the criminal justice system in Santa Barbara County and demanded some level of police reform. Most, including dozens of white allies, reiterated the demands of Black Lives Matter, particularly the three that relate to law enforcement — a condemnation of police brutality and reforms in both county sheriff and city police departments.

In addition to the six demands by Black Lives Matter Santa Barbara — which include preservation of black landmarks and funding for the Juneteenth celebration — other points prevailed throughout the hearing. Many called for celebration of black art and culture by displaying murals and lifting up businesses owned by people of color; abolishing the Sheriff’s Office’s use of choke holds; moving toward a community-based policing model; and defunding the Sheriff’s Office and reallocating funds toward mental-health and rehabilitation programs instead.

The supervisors, though they don’t have the power to grant all of the Black Lives Matter demands, largely supported them and voted 4-0 to request a report back from the county’s criminal justice partners on their efforts to reduce incarceration. The report must include data and show any progress of keeping the incarceration rate low. Fourth District Supervisor Peter Adam was absent.

“When it comes to the phrase ‘defund the police,’ I think what people mean is reenvision how public safety works, from the 9-1-1 call to on the street,” 3rd District Supervisor Joan Hartmann said. “Transparency is the key here.”

Hartmann agreed with many of the suggestions the speakers had, like not sending sworn officers to nonviolent incidents like mental health or homeless calls. She said the aim of the law enforcement system should be that jail is a last resort and every other avenue is explored first.

Sheriff Bill Brown, who spoke after the public comment period, argued against his department reallocating any of its funds and said, “We should not let what happened in Minneapolis discredit or define the hard work of the men and women of the Sheriff’s Office.” 

Many public commenters and some of the supervisors said that the zero bail initiative that was enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the jail is proof that the police can be defunded. It has allowed the release of most people charged with misdemeanors and low-level felonies without bail and instead receive services or with supervision in the community. The jail population is currently at a historic low. 

Brown did not agree and said that it is still too early to tell if the zero bail initiative was successful or not. He also said the Sheriff’s Office already has rehabilitation programs and partnerships with Behavioral Wellness. 

When it came to demands to abolish the choke hold and to update the department’s use-of-force policy to center around deescalation, Brown similarly focused his comments on what the Sheriff’s Office is already doing, but he did not directly agree or disagree with the demands. 

Brown said that the policy service the department uses, Lexipol, continually updates the deputy manual and has a legal team that reviews it regularly. He also said the 12-page use-of-force policy “specifically addresses the sanctity of human life” and has included for 10 years that a deputy must intervene and report another deputy using excessive force unnecessarily.

“The solution to the national issue is not to gut or defund the good work of the local police,” Brown said. “I have no doubt that change is coming, but that change needs to be reasoned with the input of others taken into account.”

District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Public Defender Tracy Macuga, and Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman also spoke, and many of their comments regarding the demands for public safety and criminal justice reform were in contrast to Brown’s.

“I know from being a frontline public defender for 28 years, what the community said today is what needs to happen,” Macuga said. “There has to be a reinvestment of dollars that we continue to throw at public safety and invest it in our community. ” 

She recognized that the “ship has sailed” as far as some of the demands to halt construction on the North County Jail, so she suggested taking the $24 million in the budget that is dedicated to rehabbing the old South County Jail and putting it toward the community instead. 

Heitman also disagreed with Brown’s statement that it’s too early to tell if the zero bail initiative is successful without risking harm to the public. 

“While zero bail went beyond what some of us are comfortable with,” Heitman said, “it also highlighted the fact that many people were incarcerated who didn’t need to be.” 

Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart wrote a letter to the state’s Chief Justice and to the Santa Barbara Superior Court asking for the zero bail initiative, which was meant to be temporary, to remain. He said that it was granted and will continue.

Santa Barbara City College Trustee and Isla Vista Community Services District manager Jonathan Abboud also spoke at public comment. He offered more examples of how the county could cut funds from the Sheriff’s Office and redistribute them to community programs like reining in overtime policies, which costs the the county millions of dollars a year alone. He suggested not allowing sworn officers to respond to nonviolent calls involving mental illness and homelessness and instead to send a mental-health care worker.

Abboud said he mostly wanted to echo the sentiments of Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt, the president of the Santa Maria-Lompoc NAACP, who spoke earlier in the hearing. She said the NAACP wishes to see more transparency for police misconduct records and disciplinary histories so the public could view them, a ban on police use of knee holds and choke holds, citizen review boards for law enforcement agencies as well as a statewide one so a fired officer can’t be rehired somewhere else, and anti-bias training for every county employee. 

“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are just as outraged as those who are,” Lyons-Pruitt said.

Hart gave moderators Jones and Sims-Moten the “last word” of the hearing. 

“Black lives matter,” Sims-Moten said, “365 all day, every day. Black lives matter.”


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