“During this process, did you put yourself at risk?” That was the unexpected question Santa Barbara City Councilmember Alejandra Gutierrez asked Gabe Escobedo Friday afternoon. For the past 13 months, Escobedo has chaired the city’s ad hoc commission charged with recommending the structure for a police oversight committee that would be appropriate for Santa Barbara.
“Growing up, I didn’t have a positive relationship with police,” Escobedo answered. His father spent much of his life behind bars, and the idea of meeting in a room with Santa Barbara Police Lieutenant Shawn Hill — or any uniformed cop armed with a gun — Escobedo acknowledged, generated “a lot of anxiety.” His voice shook a little as he recounted all this.
But in the past 13 months, he and Hill have met many times to hash out details of civilian oversight, and now he no longer feels anxious to be with Lt. Hill. The moral for Escobedo is that the creation of a civilian oversight board can help bridge the gap of distrust some community members feel about the police.
Escobedo’s response sparked an outpouring of emotion from city councilmembers who were about to grapple for the first time with the proposal recently adopted by Escobedo and the other 10 members of the Community Formation Commission.
Gutierrez herself acknowledged that she initially didn’t trust Hill — despite having two relatives and a close friend in law enforcement — because of her own mixed experience with police officers. He allayed her concerns by showing up in civilian garb, she recounted, and it didn’t hurt that he came bearing a vanilla latte.
Generally, there was support for the concept of police oversight among most councilmembers. But it was unclear whether there was enough support to pass the specific proposal adopted by the commissioners.
“There’s room for refinement,” Councilmember Eric Friedman said, adding, “We’ll get there.”
What Friedman wants is for Escobedo to get together with Interim Police Chief Bernard Melekian — a supporter of police oversight but not of the existing proposal — and craft something they both can live with. “If we don’t get it right, we could do damage,” Friedman said. “There’s still a little ways to go.”
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On the table now is a hybrid structure which includes some changes to the first draft of the proposal that the ad hoc committee had originally put together: Seven members of a police oversight commission with two alternates would be appointed by council. Retired law enforcement will be eligible to serve, which initially was not the case. And there would be one independent police monitor position that would be contracted out.
At issue now is the extent to which Escobedo and Chief Melekian might be able to find the requisite wiggle room to forge an agreement. Melekian has expressed openness to the creation of a police oversight commission but has made clear his discomfort with the creation of an auditor-monitor position.
But Escobedo — when asked by Councilmember Kristen Sneddon what functions he’d prioritize — said that the independent police monitor position was key since only the independent police monitor would have legal authority to review personnel files of officers named in misconduct complaints by members of the public. (Such complaints have averaged 20 per year for the past five years.)
Legally, the appointed members would have to rely on the monitor’s assessment regarding the adequacy of the internal review. If they determined the review was lacking, they could petition the police chief for an additional examination, and failing that, the city administrator could be requested to have an outside investigation.
Former police officers, the head of the Police Officers Association, and business owners — who argued the proposed review board was “a solution in search of a problem,” spoke to the council. Many argued it would hamper efforts at recruitment and retention of new and existing officers. The department was the target of only eight complaints in the past year, they noted, and force of any kind was deployed in only one-tenth of one percent of all law enforcement contacts.
Supporters of the proposal, notably outnumbered, countered that Black people made up 8 percent of all use-of-force instances while only representing 1.3 percent of the city’s population. Critics of the proposal, they noted, tended to be White, wealthy, and retired cops. That so few complaints were filed, they argued, was not surprising. Who would appeal to the police for redress after being roughed up by the police?
Members of the formation commission stated repeatedly that Santa Barbara was fortunate to have the progressive-minded leadership of acting Chief Melekian and Lt. Hill; they stressed that their proposal was not precipitated by any specific instances of police misconduct, but was rather a “proactive” effort to build trust by those portions of the community alienated from the police department.
Mayor Randy Rowse echoed Councilmember Friedman’s sentiments. “This is going to come to a good end,” he stated. “I’m not exactly sure what it looks like.”