Months after protests calling for changes to how law enforcement agencies interact with communities of color rippled throughout the U.S. and Peninsula, Portola Valley hosted a panel Monday to discuss how the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office and court system are responding.
The discussion was broad-ranging and not specific to Portola Valley problems, although the town contracts with the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office to provide its law enforcement services.
The panel was moderated by Henrietta Burroughs, executive director of the East Palo Alto Center for Community Media, and featured six panelists: San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos; county District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe, attorney Kevin Allen, a member of San Mateo County's Private Defender panel; Rev. Lorrie Owens, information technology CTO at the San Mateo County Office of Education and president of the NAACP San Mateo chapter; Captain Christina Corpus of the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office; and Michael Smith, a candidate for the Redwood City Council who serves on the boards of the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Activities League.
Burroughs asked the participants how their organizations had adapted to public calls to improve relationships between law enforcement agencies and communities of color in San Mateo County.
Bolanos said that he felt the sheriff's office was very diverse, which makes people of color feel more comfortable interacting with his office. "I think we already reflect the community," he said.
Corpus said that the sheriff's office is working harder to listen to the community and striving to hire more women in law enforcement. "We continue to look for people that understand our communities," she said. "Just because someone speaks Spanish, they may not understand the culture," she added.
However, other participants pushed back, arguing that while having a diverse law enforcement staff is an important element of promoting equity within the law enforcement process, the data still indicate that the outcomes are worse for people of color, specifically Black and Latino residents, than for white individuals, when they interact with the county's law enforcement and court systems.
"One of the first steps law enforcement has done – and in all cases needs to do … is reach out to the community and acknowledge there is a problem with law enforcement and people of color," Owens said. "[Statistics show that when we have arrests and instances of use of force, it tends to be more people of color who are affected than people not of color."
She talked about how, decades ago, as an African American college student in San Mateo County, she worked a graveyard shift and was often pulled over in the early hours of the morning by police in a jurisdiction she declined to name and asked, "What are you doing here?" Meanwhile, her white male colleagues working the same hours never got pulled over, she said.
"Black folks are eight times more likely to be arrested in San Mateo County," Allen, the private defender, said, adding that if they are more likely than white people to be arrested, they are probably also more likely to be charged and incarcerated.
District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe agreed that there are disparities; his office takes the cases that are brought to it. He added that he supports ending cash bail, and has since 2018, when a state law first passed that would allow cash bail to be eliminated in California. It faced opposition, and this year the matter is on the ballot in the form of Proposition 25.
He added that he's taken on some efforts to add diversity to his office, but the current status is "nowhere it needs to be."
While he said his office had planned to bring in speakers like Owens to talk about the experiences of communities of color in the court system, he admitted that sometimes, "you get crushed in the business and you don't do it."
He added that his office recently created two committees to explore how the office interacts with the community and how it uses its power, and develop recommendations and best practices to promote racial and social equity.
Participants discussed many of the challenges relating to addressing what can be strained relationships between law enforcement agencies and communities of color. One barrier to a more comprehensive approach, Allen pointed out, is that there are many city police departments along the Peninsula that operate independently and each may have different policies or internal cultures when it comes to interacting with people of color.
Smith said he'd like law enforcement agencies to take a broader, comparative approach when considering policies. He lived for two years in Seoul, South Korea, a city where the community's relationship with police was highly productive and generated trust and mutual support, he said.
Burroughs asked what the sheriff's office has changed specifically since the protests earlier this year in response to the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings that called for local reforms to policing.
Bolanos replied that the sheriff's office had made some changes since Sheriff's deputies fatally tased Chinedu Okobi, an unarmed Black man, in Millbrae in October 2018. Bolanos said that after Okobi's death, the sheriff's office developed a new use-of-force policy with the input of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), put automatic external defibrillator devices in its vehicles and added "less lethal" weaponry to its arsenal of tools for interacting with the public. He defended the less lethal weapons as intermediate steps that officers can use before engaging in the use of deadly force with individuals that pose a threat to officer safety.
Other panelists, such as Owens, raised questions about why the county authorized about $1 million earlier this year to buy the office new Tasers, given the pandemic-related restrictions of the county's current budget. However, she did support recent steps by the sheriff's office to adopt six out of the eight "Eight Can't Wait" policies that many communities nationwide are asking law enforcement agencies to consider in an effort to restrict the use of force by police. The recommendations the office has not fully adopted are requiring a warning before shooting and banning shooting at moving vehicles, according to its website.
Allen noted that his office is tracking the use of less lethal weapons by police and law enforcement agencies to identify patterns through an internal database within the private defenders' office.
One attendee asked about how the sheriff's office uses facial recognition technology. According to Corpus, the sheriff's office only uses facial recognition technology in violent crime cases, and faces audits to ensure compliance. Only specialized units use the technology, she added. Wagstaffe noted that facial recognition findings are not considered as evidence that is admissible in court, and his office does not permit search or arrest warrants based on the technology.
Another attendee asked about the sheriff's office's cooperation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE. Bolanos explained that the sheriff's office does cooperate with ICE in the jail system, in accordance with the California Values Act. The law says that local law enforcement agencies can choose to cooperate with ICE on immigration enforcement matters for people who commit serious, violent felonies, but are not required to.
Allen said that people have been picked up by ICE right outside of the jail, and this can cause disruptions with the county court systems when people are removed to immigration court in the middle of another court process. "No one's sure how that happens – I don't think there's blatant cooperation," he said. But there is a sense that when undocumented immigrants are taken into custody, they feel pressure to bail out quickly or face immigration enforcement, he added.
Another question the sheriff's office faced was about body cameras. When are they required to be on, and what are the consequences for officers that don't turn them on? Bolanos responded that personnel are issued body cameras, but that it is not appropriate or practical in some situations to have them turned on; for instance, in responding to a domestic violence or sexual assault call in someone's home. The office has disciplined people who don't turn the cameras on when they were supposed to, he said.
Allen pushed back, noting that during 9-1-1 calls, the tape always runs and can later be used as evidence, sometimes with sections excised if needed. "I think the cameras protect both sides," he said. In a domestic violence call, he added, a perpetrator could turn on the officer and put him or her in a vulnerable situation. If the officer's camera is not on, the case becomes word against word, he said. It's better, he argued, that the evidence exists somewhere and the district attorney's office decides what is appropriate to be made public. "The cameras should run," he said.
Owens added that while she doesn't get pulled over now unless she's done something wrong or potentially embarrassing – like driving at 80 miles per hour – she wants the officer's body camera to be on. "I'm not going to do anything, but the officer doesn't know that," she added. "It should be on at all times ... in case it's needed to validate one statement versus another about what really happened."
Smith, who said he works as a corporate strategist, said he'd like law enforcement agencies to embrace the concept of transparency, which he said is critical for establishing trust and support with the community.
Another option to build trust in the community is to consider establishing stronger civilian oversight processes, Allen said.
"We're not going to make strides unless there's some type of trust between organizations," he added.