Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

The City of Santa Barbara is moving closer to forming a civilian review board with Wednesday’s meeting of the Community Formation Commission. A tangible product of the national calls for police reform that followed the death of George Floyd, the commission has been tasked with recommending a model of civilian oversight to City Council that would provide additional supervision and accountability for Santa Barbara’s police department.

Since the induction of its 15 members this February, the board is very much in the beginning phase of its work. But it is making progress. “The training wheels are officially off,” said Commissioner Gabriel Escobedo at last Wednesday’s meeting.

Escobedo, who serves at the commission’s chair, said he encouraged commissioners to embrace difficult discussions and talk openly with each other, stating that both were vital to the board’s success and longevity. “To be brutally honest, we only get one shot at this,” he said.

The meeting began with procedural orders of business, which included voting on a motion to direct city staff to create a contract with NACOLE, National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, a nonprofit that provides support for independent civilian committees. Upon listening to a presentation from Cameron McEllhiney, director of training and education for NACOLE, the commission voted unanimously to recommend the organization be brought on as a consultant.

“We’re not looking for civilian oversight that is just window dressing,” McEllhiney said when introducing NACOLE’s mission. “We want it to actually be able to do the job that it sets out to do in a community.”

Civilian oversight is a rapidly growing field. At the beginning of 2020, there were approximately 200 committees to cover the country’s 18,000 law enforcement agencies. But by June 2020, NACOLE was assisting an additional 130 jurisdictions, all of which were in some stage of the committee forming process, McEllhiney said.

Despite the field’s exponential growth, there is no overarching blueprint for successful oversight. Civilian review efforts must be tailored to the specific needs of the community, McEllhiney said. To do this, she stressed the importance of transparency and communication with the public, including taking the time to conduct community surveys and focus groups. “I cannot stress how important stakeholder outreach and community input is to the process,” she said.

Above all, McEllhiney cautioned against knee jerk reactions when adopting oversight methods, citing hasty decisions as the main reason for oversight failure. “It needs to be well thought out,” she said. As a resource for the committee, NACOLE will provide a team of facilitators and trainers, including McEllhiney, who possess a specialized knowledge of California policy.

After voting in support of NACOLE, the commission again voted unanimously to approve four working groups which will report back to the entire commission: Research and Review of Each Oversight Model; Data and Analytics; Policy, Training, and Hiring Practices; and Community Engagement and Outreach.

The commission members are Christian Alonso, Ana Alicia Zepeda, Gabriel Escobedo, Kim Johnson, Rachel Johnson, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Jacob Lesner-Buxton, Jordan Killibrew, Serafina Chavez, Demo Adamolekun, Mary O’Gorman, Richard Sander, Leandra Harris, and alternate member Louisa Wood who voted for Lesner-Buxton who was absent on Wednesday. 

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