Community Formation Commission members Louis Reynaud (left) and Rich Sander (right) disagree over whether former cops like Reynaud should be allowed on the city’s police review board. | Credit: Courtesy

The vast majority of city residents have little direct experience or firsthand knowledge about how complaints filed by citizens against the city police department are currently handled, but more than half of those polled in a recent survey expressed confidence that the results would be more trustworthy and transparent if the city had a police oversight board to review the process.

Based on a survey of 1,040 city residents — and eight 90-minute focus groups involving 56 residents — pollsters with the Center for Court Innovation found that 37 percent trusted the outcomes of the Santa Barbara Police Department’s internal complaint process and another 29 percent disagreed. Thirty-five percent professed not to know enough to have an opinion. But 50 percent said they’d have more trust in the outcomes if the city had an office of police oversight to oversee complaints of police misconduct. Fifty-six percent reported they’d have more trust in policing in general with such a board; 60 percent said they’d think the process was more transparent; and 62 percent said that the department was more transparent. 

“This is 20 percent higher in perception from the existing process,” stated Elise White, deputy research director of the Center for Court Innovation, which conducted the polling and focus group sessions on behalf of the city’s Community Formation Commission, the ad hoc body appointed by the City Council in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by police to explore the creation of a police review board.

The political winds have shifted dramatically since the formation commission was first created at the instigation of Healing Justice and others roused to action by the Black Lives Matter movement. When the commission’s final proposal — still in the process of evolution — makes its way to the City Council for review and possible adoption later this month, it will likely encounter some significant resistance over sticker shock and scope of authorities. Interim Police Chief Bernard Melekian went emphatically on record supporting some form of police oversight two weeks ago but expressed his opposition to the draft plan then under consideration by the formation commission. The poll results have come out since then, and the commission — while still not taking final action — appears poised to make significant changes to their initial proposal. 

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Perhaps the most contentious and polarizing issue has been the role former law enforcement officers would be allowed to play. Earlier this year, the commission twice voted to exclude — both by 6-to-5 votes — any current or former law enforcement officers from service eligibility on the oversight board. In addition, they voted to exclude any immediate relatives of current police department employees from service as well. 

Eighty-four percent of the poll respondents stated they believed the oversight board should represent the full spectrum of the city’s diversity, especially when it came to groups “experiencing historically challenging relationships with police.” Strikingly, 65 percent of the respondents believed that those with law enforcement backgrounds should be allowed to serve on the commission. Of those, 23 percent believed there should be a period of at least five years since prospective commission candidates last served. Even more striking, 68 percent favored excluding family members of people with law enforcement background. The thinking there, White explained at a formation commission last week, was that such individuals had all the possible bias and baggage of someone with law enforcement experience but none of the actual expertise. 

The issue has proved intractable among members of the 11-member commission as well. After two particularly passionate debates last week, the commission voted 5-to-5 (with one abstention) on a proposal that would allow those with law enforcement backgrounds — in counties outside of Santa Barbara County and who have been retired at least five years — to serve. Reflecting just how split the commission is on this matter, it’s telling that the commissioner who abstained, Rachel Johnson, had voted both in favor and against excluding those with law enforcement backgrounds in the two prior straw votes. (Straw votes are non-binding but are useful for gauging the inclination of a given body or a given subject.) 

Speaking at some length in favor of allowing former cops to serve was the commission’s only former cop, Louis Reynaud, an African American and director of the University Center and Events Center at UCSB. “I don’t think anyone here has had more run-ins with the police than me,” Reynaud declared. In fact, he was pulled over by Santa Barbara police officers his first day in Santa Barbara. Reynaud spent six years as a cop in Oakland, he said, trying to reform a department that he said elicited 50 complaints a day as opposed to the 20 per year filed against Santa Barbara officers. “Obviously, I lost that battle,” he said. “I get the plight.”

While working patrol in Oakland, he said, the “I got the crap beat out of me” complaint was an everyday occurrence. In Santa Barbara, he said, most of the complaints are of the bad-attitude variety.

Reynaud argued that true police reform can happen only if there is reform of the police culture; that can happen, he said, only when trust is extended between the community and its police officers. By excluding those with law-enforcement experience, Reynaud argued, the commission was effectively saying, “‘We want their trust, but we’re not willing to trust.’” Reynaud said he’d spoken with members of many police review boards throughout the state; even those with the ability to enforce discipline and subpoenas, he said, “have no effect on police culture” unless there’s an element of trust. 

Equally adamant in making the opposite argument was Rich Sander, one of the three now running S.B. ACT, a nonprofit agency that attempts to better coordinate the multiplicity of nonprofits and government agencies trying to get homeless people off the streets. 

“The police department does not need its voice raised,” he declared. “It’s not the one being marginalized.” 

The oversight board, he said, is designed to give people a voice who are not comfortable with the police, who he said already have a guaranteed seat at the table of any police review board because they’ll have an officer assigned as departmental liaison. “What specific lived experience does this person bring other than creating an unsafe dynamic within the group?” Sander asked.

Sander reached out to Reynaud, saying he valued his experience and has never meant to slight his value. Being a police officer, he said, “is an honored position.” As a result, people defer to officers, giving their opinions greater weight. “I weigh it more in my own mind,” he said. “That’s part of our society.” 

While the commission has yet to finalize its vote, it’s clearly headed toward a compromise that would allow police officers at least one seat at the table, though without making any guarantees they’d occupy it. Likewise, the commissioners seem intent on reducing the number of commissioners from the 11 initially proposed to seven with two alternates.

In addition — and perhaps most crucially — the commissioners have agreed to reduce the number of staff members needed to conduct the auditing and monitoring function of the proposed Office of Police Oversight from two to one. And that one, it appears, might be a contract employee, at least for the first five years. Currently, there’s considerable political heartburn among councilmembers over the $600,000 price tag a two-person office would cost. With a budget deficit of $3 million to $5 million and public employee unions clamoring for raises, even the most police-reform-minded of councilmembers are expressing second thoughts. 

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