Policing the Police: Alternative to Incarceration

By: 
Stephen Downing

A month or so ago Patrick Kennedy, the executive director of the Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization (ICO), sent us an email asking if we could meet and discuss what we’ve been writing about in this column for the past six years; specifically the patterns and practices of the Long Beach Police Department.

We looked his organization up on the web, saw that the ICO had been around since 1998, that they worked through six different member congregations in Long Beach that are “united in pursuit of social justice for all residents of the community and promote congregation-based community organizing with no ideological agenda other than “a radical belief in and commitment to democratic principles and a profound respect for the individual and human dignity.”

There was more, but that was enough for us. We said yes to the meeting and after a two-hour conversation on our front patio about all the things in need of reform at Long Beach City Hall and the LBPD – which did not include any of the charter amendments currently under consideration by our city council – Kennedy leaned forward with a small grin and said, “You’re pretty much alone in what you’re trying to accomplish, aren’t you?”

Kennedy then invited us to take part in a symposium the ICO and its affiliate, the PICO National Network, put together for July 21, at St. Mary’s Medical Center. He titled the day: “Redefining Public Safety: Policing the Police – Alternatives to Incarceration.”

The meeting hall was packed with close to 250 attendees.

Lisa James, a bright, full-of-life organizer with Long Beach’s New Way of Life Reentry Project, set the tone, prepared us for what was coming and then turned it over to Jose Osuna, a formerly incarcerated gentle giant of a man who developed his executive skills over a period of nine years working with Father Greg Boyle’s Homeboy Industries – the world’s largest gang-rehab and re-entry program – prior to establishing a similar program – Restore INK – in Long Beach.

Osuna told us the story of how he came to see the desperate need for his Homeboy Industries skills to be brought to the city where he grew up and then introduced several of the people who benefitted from his Restore INK program to tell their stories.

They shared deep, heartfelt accounts of what it means to grow up in poverty, the power of the gang dynamic when there is no other outlet for belonging, how it feels to be stopped by police over and over because of the color of your skin, or being continually hassled because you are hanging with friends on a street corner.

Most compelling were the stories that contained the deep stab of injustice one feels each time a beating or arrest goes down for “contempt of cop” because an attitude toward or a complaint of police behavior is offered on those occasions that one grows frustrated and reaches the tipping point from the repetitive stops, unconstitutional searches and general harassment.

The stories were then supported with follow-up presentations from professionals like Kalyn Dean, a graduate of John Jay College of criminal justice who studied peacemaking and conflict resolution in the Middle East and consults with California’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission (POST).

Dean presented her “Live Free” module that addressed urban violence, mass incarceration and police brutality – all of which she sees as the primary contributing factors to a national distrust of police.

She pointed to National data that confirms a black or brown person is killed by police every 21 hours and 1,200 people are killed by police per year while another 50,000 are hospitalized after being injured.

She highlighted the historical and generational effects of policing in America; its roots founded in slave patrols and legalized terrorism and the institutional racism that comes from state codes like those in California that supported discrimination through restrictive covenants controlling where people of color could live which – not ending until the 1950s – served to ghettoize our cities.

Dean summed up her presentation with the observation that people’s experiences inform their trust of our institutional systems and that our public safety system has failed in its attempt to provide constitutional policing.

She said, “this reality has led to a severe trust deficit, particularly with communities of color who experience a disproportionate level of contact with police.”

Next up was Kayln Dean’s co-presenter, Larina Corbell, who walked us though the organization’s theory for change labeled HEAT,  which she described as people having a place at a Partnership Table, which she said, “Can be a place to build relationships with people who are not like us.”

Corbell said the concept for the HEAT Table involves community members, police, grass roots organizations, social services groups, clergy, students and the academic community.

“It is aimed at exploring opportunities, “ she said, “to do research on police policies, eliminate obstacles to transforming police methods and help us to implement new policy and practical solutions that are decided upon by the table. Solutions that can transform hiring (and training) rubric, implement a justice-based Bill of Rights and identify the more essential emergency responder services such as mental health and conflict resolution.”

The need for such a table in Long Beach became crystal clear by the time the next presenter finished.

Joy Tsuhako, a professor of sociology at Long Beach City College brought to the Symposium the kind of research data that should make every resident of Long Beach sit up, take notice and demand that Larina Corbell’s HEAT Partnership Table gets more than the lip service its received thus far from the LBPD.

Professor Tsuhako put her research up on the big screen and power pointed her way through data that tells a disturbing story of the second largest municipal police department in Los Angles County with a budget of just $211 million to fund police services for the Port of Long Beach, the airport, the Metro Transit system, City College, the Unified School District and – with what is left over – a residential population of 470,000.

The professor’s stats went like this: LBPD is responsible for 57 of 62 police killings in Long Beach between 2000 and 2017. The police department ranked fifth out of America’s 60 largest city police departments in 2015 for the rate of police killings per million people and 13th overall in the rate of police killings per population between January 2013 and December 2017 when compared to all police departments in the nation.

Since the year 2000 Latinos made up 43.5 percent of those killed by LBPD, blacks 25.8 percent and whites 20.9 percent. Their respective percentage of the Long Beach population is 40.3 percent, 13.5 percent and 28.8 percent.

Between police shootings and excessive use of force the Long Beach taxpayer has paid out at least $27.3 million since 2009 as the result of civil lawsuits brought against the city. The consequences for the involved officers are mostly sealed and unknown and most all of the officers remain on the job.

Professor Tsuhako also made the telling point (one that should be at the top of HEAT Table discussions) that our city leaders spend $187 per young person on positive youth development and $9,362 per young person on arrest and suppression.

When Professor Tsuhako wrapped up she posed the question: “Is this what public safety looks like for Long Beach?”

We agreed that it was – and we also had the opportunity to offer the symposium attendees a bit more by taking part in the panel on accountability that followed.

We offered our oft repeated mantra that there is little to no accountability within the LBPD – that the Citizen’s Police Complaint Commission (CPCC) is a paper tiger that serves only the public relations interests of City Hall and that current charter reform proposals by Mayor Robert Garcia to allow him to run for office for another four years be deep sixed in favor of Charter Reform.

Reform that gives the chief of police disciplinary authority, creates a commission of five to seven citizens to serve as his boss with policy authority over the department and an inspector general and staff hired and fired by the commission that is authorized to dig into every deep hole of corruption within the department and expose it to the disinfectant of sunlight and reform via public reports and open commission meetings.

It was our observation that a Charter authorized police commission could then set the HEAT Table, invite the participants – and help a disenfranchised community get the chief’s attention.

Following the symposium we asked several of the participants for their takeaway on the day.

Lisa James wrote: “One of the ways to make our community safe is by first admitting that the way policing is done in Long Beach is not working. The symposium was a success because the community came together to seek solutions to what is obvious, gun violence is not just a public issue anymore, and everyone who takes an innocent life must know the impact and do better. The hope is that public safety is not distorted but defined effectively for our community to heal. Lives are saved when relationships are won. The future of humanity depends on it.”

Kalyn Dean wrote: While I listened to the pain, frustration and generational trauma expressed by the Long Beach community during Saturday’s Forum, it was clear that Long Beach is seeking solutions to address its public safety needs. Due to the sheer numbers that show the Long Beach Police Department as having some of the highest death rates due to officer involved shootings in the country, reform in the areas of officer hiring, the department’s use of equipment, accountability and training are needed. I believe that the “Building Trust through Reform” initiative is a viable and necessary solution.

Professor Joy Tsuhako wrote: The stories shared were ones that all of Long Beach should hear. Young and marginalized people have been targeted, terrorized and oppressed in ways that are not only heartbreaking, but also inhumane and deadly. It was a powerful event that hopefully gives rise to more voices and organized action that will uncover the hidden reality of policing in Long Beach and help build a safer community that protects and invests in our most vulnerable residents.

And from Patrick Kennedy: “The pain in the room among presenter and participants and the raw number of people killed in Long Beach by law enforcement make it clear that we have a problem. We hope this can be the beginning of a process with the Long Beach police where we recognize that something is broken and where we work together to fix it.”

When the symposium came to an end we thanked Mr. Kennedy for the invitation and the incredible relationships that began that day. Kennedy smiled and said, “You’re not alone anymore, are you?”

Stephen Downing is a resident of Long Beach and a retired LAPD deputy chief of police.

stephen@beachcomber.news

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Great article. Your contribution is greatly appreciated by more people than you know.

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