New chance for policing reform in California


In the wake of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, and after so many other wrongful use of law-enforcement force in recent years, there arose out of another American crisis a number of opportunities for reform.

Sadly, yet perhaps inevitably, though there was a time when many citizens of different political stripes could agree on what a number of those reforms could be, many of the most important opportunities for change were lost among both the bad rhetoric and now the perception that crime is on the rise and that police departments must be fortified, not reformed.

It was partly the fault of lousy slogans such as the unfortunate term “Defund the police.” Even if what that really meant was “Change the way we fund our police departments by providing more funding to other ways of ensuring greater public safety,” that subtlety was lost in all the noise.

The really sad part about the lost opportunities is just how much agreement there was around the fact that clearly police officers are in no more position than the rest of us without deep training to deal with the many severely mentally ill people they encounter as part of their duties.

The need to redeploy monies to fund more mental health professionals trained to deal with such people is apolitically clear. It just got lost in the national shouting match about Black Lives Matter and the Thin Blue Line.

It needs to be regained.

Well, to borrow another slogan from the political civil wars, “By any means necessary.” Because a new analysis by CalMatters shows that simple finances may make it imperative that California cities adjust the way that we now pay for police officers.

It’s been tough for cities to hire officers and for counties to hire deputy sheriffs in recent years. There are complexities involved, but one reason is clear: Who needs to take on a tough, dangerous job when instead of everyone respecting you, so many hate you just because you wear the uniform?

No wonder so many cities in the state are well below the number of officers they have budgeted.

Police departments have responded to the hiring crisis by upping starting salaries.

And now, by offering huge bonuses.

“Just five months ago, Alameda Police Chief Nishant Joshi faced a dire staffing crisis. Almost one third of the 88 sworn positions in his department were vacant, giving him 24 jobs to fill as quickly as possible,” CalMatters’ Anabel Sosa reports. “But Joshi’s city council in April gave him something exceptional to lure candidates to Alameda: a $75,000 enlistment bonus in addition to regular pay that starts at $110,000 a year.”

And, yes, it’s working: “After receiving 170 applications from all over the country, the Alameda Police Department now has enough officers enrolled in academies to bring its projected total vacancies down to 10 by early next year.”

Super good news. And here’s the bad news: Those are unsustainable salaries and bonuses for city taxpayers to afford in the long run. And in the medium run.

The good news: California cities and counties should take this fiscal opportunity to get back to working on the reforms that Americans can truly agree on in the way law enforcement works in this country.

Police officers did not sign up to be psychiatrists or mental hospital attendants.

While it’s good in the sense of having enough cops on the streets that the Los Angeles City Council, for instance, “approved a four-year $384 million contract for police officers that sharply raises starting pay and provides retention bonuses to officers with as little as two years of experience,” as CalMatters reports, there is no reason to allow this new fiscal reality to sink the hopes for reforming the way law enforcement works.

So long as we have more trained mental health professionals — along with more simple traffic regulators, more paper-pushers who aren’t certified police officers — we don’t need as many people in uniform. And now that we can’t afford it, let necessity be the mother of invention.

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