Close division over the composition of the Santa Barbara civilian police review board

As the Santa Barbara Community Training Commission moves much closer to the big unveiling of what the proposed civilian police review board will look like, members of the commission crafting the new oversight board remain deeply divided on the role that law enforcement officials and those close to them could and should play in it. By a vote of 6 to 5 last week, members of the Training Commission voted to exclude from eligibility any current or retired law enforcement officer or any immediate family member of anyone charged of law enforcement.

This issue has been the subject of lively discussion among Commissioners over the past two months. Those who oppose giving law enforcement a seat have stressed the need for ‘independence’, arguing that the commission should be as independent as possible from the agency it oversees. . On the other hand, proponents of allowing former law enforcement officers stress the importance of “collaboration”, arguing that in order for the new board to build and restore relationships between the police department and community, a collaborative relationship must exist. The vote would have been deadlocked 6-6 if Commissioner Mary O’Gorman, who worked as former County Supervisor Janet Wolf’s chief of staff, had not resigned in early November 2021 after such a debate.

Under the proposed rules adopted by the Training Commission vote, it is doubtful that O’Gorman – a former probation officer – would have been eligible to serve. It’s certainly the case that training commissioner Louis Reynaud, a former Oakland police officer, wouldn’t. Reynaud, who is black, noted that he last served as a police officer in 1990. If the hope was to improve collaboration and build trust, “I would say it’s a valuable experience.” Reynaud noted that he was the last person selected for the Training Commission, suggesting it was because of his police background. He said he kept his comments to a minimum during deliberations.

But other commissioners, like Rick Sander, said it was vital to the community that the new oversight board be truly independent of the police department. Roster chairman Gabe Escobedo — currently running for state assembly — had expressed openness to limiting membership to retired law enforcement officials and those who served outside the county. from Santa Barbara. This language, while tempting to some, was not enough to change the straw vote.

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The Training Commission was appointed last summer in response to local protests that emerged following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Its charge was to design a bespoke police oversight board to meet the specific needs of the community of Santa Barbara. Members had to meet virtually due to the pandemic, with little participation or engagement from the community.

It is only now that the final outlines of the new oversight entity are beginning to emerge. First, the Training Commission recommends an 11-member oversight board where community members can feel safe to voice concerns about the conduct of Santa Barbara police officers or the department as a whole. Beyond the new oversight board, the Training Commission recommends the creation of a police oversight office and the hiring of a police oversight officer. This position would be empowered to carry out independent audits of the department – for things such as routine traffic checks – and to review the deployment of the force.

Acting Police Chief Barney Melekian expressed support for the concept of a police review board, saying they can build trust between the department and affected communities when done properly. Melekian and others in the department expressed concern, however, if such a body was driven by an anti-cop attitude. Speaking about the proposed eligibility requirements, Melekian said, “I find this language problematic.”

If members of the Training Commission were comfortable encouraging young people between the ages of 18 and 24 with “lived experience” of either being homeless or arrested or convicted of crimes to apply, he said , then the lived experience of someone with law enforcement training would also be valuable. “I would ask you to reconsider that language,” he said. “It’s a bit exclusive.”

Last week’s vote may be the final word in a year-long process, but it’s still just the beginning. Once the final draft text is in place, it will be made public for review, comment and feedback. A survey will be conducted to take the temperature of the public. Based on what they hear, members of the Formation Committee may choose to revise their proposal. It is only after all this that the results will be transmitted to the municipal council. And then the whole process will probably start all over again.

CORRECTION: Mary O’Gorman worked as former County Supervisor Janet Wolf’s chief of staff, not her administrative assistant, as appeared in an earlier version of this story.

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