WHY NOW? About 10 years — and two police chiefs — ago, Santa Barbara city police hung out around certain spots famous for their breakfast burritos, like Super Cucas on the Westside, favored by recent arrivals from Mexico. As customers pulled out of the challenging parking lot at Cucas, some would find themselves pulled over by city police. Maybe there was a taillight issue. Many were undocumented and didn’t have driver’s licenses. Pursuant to state law, their cars were impounded and towed off to the nearest city-approved tow yard. It was a veritable police rodeo.
The police chief at the time, Cam Sanchez, emphatically denied any targeting was going on. Just as emphatically, he defended the practice. It complied with state law, he said. And it made the roads safer. Leading the charge against this practice was an unlikely crusader, the smart and ornery Russell Trenholme, a retired Midwest college professor turned eye-glass-franchise mogul who was lucky enough to retire to Santa Barbara. Being a former college professor endowed with gobs of dough, Trenholme issued a report denouncing the practice. Based on the existing rules and regulations, Trenholme charged, it took 30 days and $2,000 for impoundees to get their cars out of hock. For otherwise law-abiding working stiffs, this amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, Trenholme objected, for the crime of eating a hearty breakfast.
He requested Sanchez authorize a 20-minute grace period in which drivers could call a legally licensed friend or relative to drive the car away. But after talking the matter over with Sheriff Bill Brown and the California Highway Patrol, Sanchez declined. “The consensus countywide was that this was not going to be debated,” he stated.
I dredge up this ancient history now because this Friday, the Santa Barbara City Council will hold a work session on a proposal to create a police oversight board. There are those who contend that the proposal is just another local solution in search of a national problem — woke-ism run amok — that does not exist in Santa Barbara. Since the murder of George Floyd two years ago, the political winds have shifted drastically away from the Great Reckoning that gave rise to this proposal. And at a time when City Hall is looking at a $3.8 million deficit, any oversight board — no matter how it’s constituted — will cost some money.
For those councilmembers inclined to chuck this baby out with the bathwater, I’m saying remember Chief Sanchez’s words: “This was not going to be debated.”
With all due respect to Chief Sanchez — a good guy and the only Latino to serve as police chief in the last two centuries — some things need to be debated. And for such debates to be meaningful, they need to be given a meaningful platform. They need not rely on the generosity of some wealthy and ornery progressive like Trenholme. As a matter of social policy, that’s akin to waiting for lightning to strike in order to light your campfire.
That’s where the police oversight board comes in.
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It offers an avenue for the public to review how many complaints are filed against members of the department, the nature of these complaints, and their disposition. The good news, it turns out, is that there have been roughly 20 a year for the past five years; most are for cops with attitude. The number of times city police use force suggests that ours is an astonishingly restrained and disciplined department. But not until Black Lives Matter happened did those numbers start to be released.
The latest iteration of the proposed new commission is far better than how it started out. There are still important details over which people of goodwill can, and do, disagree. I’m not here to quibble the details. I’m here to remind any councilmembers now having second thoughts of one thing: The push to rethink the function and delivery of law enforcement was taking place right here in Santa Barbara years before a knee was placed to the neck of George Floyd. I know because I attended more of these than I care to count.
Often, they involved mental-health advocates howling in the wind about officers not being adequately trained and of people experiencing acute mental-health crises winding up beaten, jailed, or even dead. Others involved high-stakes discussions by high-ranking government officials dissecting how it was that people of color seemed to wind up behind bars so much more frequently their white counterparts. These discussions, while extremely invaluable, have not been engineered to engage the public. Typically, they take place in obscure rooms with low ceilings at meetings attended by über-insiders who answer to acronyms most people never heard of.
This conversation needs to be expanded. It needs to have a permanent address. And it needs to be sanctioned by City Hall. And, no, this has nothing to do with “defunding” the police, perhaps the world’s most suicidally self-defeating slogan of all time. The simple fact is that cops have an impossible job. They are expected to deal on a daily basis with problems that can’t be solved with a gun, a badge, or a command-and-control voice. A billy club is not a magic wand. This is about creating an official public space to conduct a crucial conversation.
Two years after Cam Sanchez shined on Russell Trenholme, the State Legislature along with then-governor Jerry Brown signed a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Two years later, that law went into effect. I have no idea how many cars got impounded during those intervening four years. And I can’t say for certain things would have played out differently if we’d had a police review board back then. But I am positive it would have been a much broader conversation. And I’m betting that a lot fewer people would have had to walk.