Gabe Escobedo | Credit: Credit: Jun Starkey (file)

After more than a year of long and grueling meetings, members of the city’s Community Formation Commission are about to launch a public outreach campaign for their first draft for a new Civilian Oversight Board engineered “to ensure that [the Santa Barbara Police Department] is responsive to the concerns and needs of all members of the Santa Barbara community while promoting transparency and accountability and building public trust between the community and the SBPD.”

This Tuesday, three members of the 12-member commission briefed the City Council on the status of their proposal — running about a month behind schedule — and how they intend to take the public’s temperature before finalizing the proposal they hope to take to the council later in April. To this end, commission chair Gabe Escobedo — a member of the city’s Planning Commission and now running against Supervisor Gregg Hart for the State Assembly seat — announced the commission would be conducting an online survey and hosting a series of stakeholder meetings, each one involving eight to 12 people. Based on what the commission hears, commissioners may make additional changes and modifications to a proposal that first emerged out of the local Black Lives Matter response to the George Floyd murder two years ago.

Among the more charged issues the commissioners will track is who is — and who is not — eligible to serve on the new 11-member Oversight Board and who can be hired to staff the new Oversight office. A narrow majority of the commissioners opted to exclude anyone — by a 6-to-5 straw vote — who ever served in law enforcement, any city employees, or anyone immediately related to anyone who ever worked for the Santa Barbara Police Department. Members of this board will be recruited from organizations “with an interest in civil rights, immigrant rights, disability/mental health rights, racial equity, social justice, and that also have an interest in public safety and criminal justice reform.”

A majority of commissioners contended the exclusions are necessary to establish the independence required to oversee the police department. A minority argued that the experience provided by former law enforcement officials could prove invaluable and that by denying them, the commission undermines its own cause. However they are chosen, the board will meet monthly and the members be paid a stipend of no more than $400 a month.

Proposed for the nitty-gritty staff work of reviewing departmental policies and practices will be an Director of Police Oversight and a staff assistant. Excluded from consideration will be anyone ever employed by a law enforcement agency within Santa Barbara County and family members of current or former police department employees. However, applicants with experience with other law enforcement agencies would not be disqualified, Escobedo stated. Many oversight professionals have law enforcement experience, and to limit that, he said, would cut Santa Barbara’s oversight board off from a large reservoir of potential applicants.

Councilmembers didn’t delve into such controversies but instead asked questions about what kind of questions would be on the survey and which stakeholders would be included. Commission chair Escobedo stated they were reaching out to youth — ages 18-24, law enforcement, people experiencing homelessness, nonprofit social organizations, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) advocates, and the business community. Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez asked, “What can we do to support you?” Escobedo said the council could fund the consultants assisting the commission for another month. “This has been much more work than any of us anticipated,” he said.

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