In response to a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest, Santa Barbara police created a barricade of officers in riot gear. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Amid the resurgence of the national Black Lives Matter movement ― and, more consequently, the groundswell of local support behind it ― Santa Barbara leaders have vowed to better serve black city residents. Specifically, they’ve promised to address longstanding grievances over police violence and public accountability, and to officially recognize regional black history and culture. 

Monday night, during a six-hour hearing on the city’s $145 million budget, $47 million of which was earmarked for the police, Black Lives Matter organizers and allies filled the City Council’s Zoom queue to hold the elected officials to their word. “We are here to cash that check,” said Simone Akila Ruskamp. “This is where the rubber meets the road,” said Walid Afifi.

The Council didn’t defund or dismantle the Santa Barbara Police Department, as some speakers demanded and other jurisdictions have vowed to do. But its seven members did take small steps toward reimagining the roles and responsibilities of law enforcement and adopting, as Councilmember Eric Friedman put it, “a more humane” budget that prioritizes social equity and people’s wellbeing over tickets and arrests. 

“These are changes that begin to transform our budget into one that reflects our community ideals,” agreed Councilmember Meagan Harmon. Police Chief Lori Luhnow seemed amenable to the ideas. “The next move in law enforcement is to have a more democratic style of policing,” she said. “And frankly, that’s really what it’s all about.”

Friedman outlined a menu of proposed amendments, which the rest of the council unanimously approved, while also acknowledging many critical details still needed to be worked out. First, Friedman suggested giving parking enforcement duties to the city’s Public Works Department. This, he predicted, would eliminate a perennial source of tension between police employees and the public. Similarly, he said, the city’s lengthy and complex special event permitting process ought to be transferred to a different, more appropriate department. 

Second, Friedman said the city should create no fewer than four new positions with some combination of mental health professionals, social service professionals, and code enforcement staff. “They would take on community priorities that have been delegated to police but are not police functions,” he explained. That would include asking homeless individuals to not sleep or loiter in front of stores. “A social worker could move them along, but also develop relationships to get the services they need,” Friedman said. 

In that same vein, he suggested the city formally accept a “co-response” team (i.e. an officer paired with a mental health crisis professional) that’s being offered by the county. A code enforcement officer would handle things like complaints over gas-powered leaf blowers, which are illegal in the city. 

Third, and perhaps most importantly, Friedman asked that a full, detailed analysis be conducted of the police department to determine how exactly officers spend their time. “That data will help us be more economical,” he said. Councilmember Michael Jordan heartily endorsed the idea. “I think that’s going to be an eye-opener about how much we ask the officers to do,” he said. “We’ll see the things that have just been given to them because not one else would do it.”

The council also voted to allocate $35,000 of city money for an annual celebration of Juneteenth, and to begin the process of creating a black community center. Councilmember Alejandra Guitierrez pressed Luhnow to reinstate beat coordinators ― the department is down to just one ― who often fill the role of a friendly and familiar liaison between neighborhoods and the department. Interactions are personal, Guitierrez said, and build trust in both directions. “I want them back,” she said. 

Multiple councilmembers urged Luhnow and city staff to keep moving forward with an effort to create a civilian review board. “We’re not afraid of any citizen review process,” she replied.

Questions inevitably arose over how these new efforts would be funded, especially now that the city has cut 5 percent across the board in response to COVID-19. City Administrator Paul Casey suggested possibly dipping into reserves. Many of Monday night’s public speakers insisted that the new $80 million police station being planned for the Cota Street Community Lot be downsized or eliminated altogether. Casey noted the COVID-19 cutbacks were already taking $2 million away from the project, but that the council may revisit the plan in its entirety if it so wishes.

Councilmember Oscar Gutierrez seemed most eager to have that conversation, and to have it soon. “I do understand that the police department needs a new station,” he said. “There are justifiable reasons why they need it. But right now, with the pandemic and what’s going on socially, I just feel like we need to re-examine whether or not the proposed building is exactly what we need.”

It was clear from the meeting that the council has been shaken by the events of the last three weeks. In particular, it forced some members to reckon with their own white privilege. 

Jordan said he’s taking cues from his daughters, one in her late 20s, another in her 30s, who possess very different perspectives “despite coming from two white parents.” He’s doing reading, he said, “for the first time ever” on the legacy of policing and the historical context that “reinforced the inequity in the social justice system that’s still with us today.” Jordan shook his head in disappointment at a public commenter who challenged the idea of systematic racism. “I was never raised to be a racist,” they insisted. That’s the point, Jordan said. “We’ve never been in the shoes of a person of color to get that perspective.”

Sneddon acknowledged the speakers who defended the police department and criticized suggestions of reform as a threat to public safety and as an affront to officers devoted to protecting residents. “We have so many wonderful officers,” Sneddon said. “This isn’t about people. And this isn’t about dismantling or completely doing away with policing. It’s about a system, a system that creates inequities.”

The late night ended with Mayor Cathy Murillo reiterating the need for a full analysis of the police department, as well as more transparency around its arrest data. “When is force used, and what are the demographics?” she asked. “What was the gender of the person, what was the race of the person, the age? We need to start teasing that apart. Is there anti-blackness, anti-browness in the community?”


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