Policing problems

Conservative camp a no-show at City Council candidate forum on law enforcement issues

Chico City Council candidates Alex Brown, Scott Huber, Rich Ober and Ken Rensink discuss citizen concerns about transparency, use of force, implicit bias and other police-related issues at a forum Monday (Sept. 25).

Chico City Council candidates Alex Brown, Scott Huber, Rich Ober and Ken Rensink discuss citizen concerns about transparency, use of force, implicit bias and other police-related issues at a forum Monday (Sept. 25).

Photo by Ken Smith

Considering the current temperament of community discourse over policing issues, the conversation at a City Council candidates’ forum on law enforcement issues held Monday night (Sept. 25) was downright congenial.

Candidates Alex Brown, Scott Huber, Richard Ober and Ken Rensink attended the forum hosted by local activist group Concerned Citizens for Justice (CCJ) at the Chico branch of the Butte County Library, and they were mostly in agreement on issues posed by organizers and audience members. Each candidate explained his or her beliefs that the Chico Police Department needs better crisis-intervention and de-escalation training, and more transparency. They also agreed that homelessness is better addressed through partnerships with service organizations than through criminalization to substantively address mental health, addiction and poverty issues.

The lack of drastically differing viewpoints at the forum was likely because conservative candidates Andrew Coolidge (the only incumbent), Matt Gallaway and Kasey Reynolds—all of whom have made stronger policing and enforcement of vagrancy laws primary planks in their respective platforms—did not attend.

The three cited scheduling conflicts as their reasons for not showing, according to Emily Alma of CCJ, though Reynolds later publicly said that she chose not to attend because of philosophical differences with the host group. CCJ formed last year, partly in response to concerns about use-of-force protocols and lack of training raised by the 2017 Chico police killing of Desmond Phillips. The group’s founders include Margaret Swick, a longtime member and former president of the League of Women Voters of Butte County; and Vince Haynie, a local pastor who co-founded the Love Chapmantown Community Coalition.

Alma said CCJ volunteers couldn’t find valid contact information for or reach candidate Jon Scott, though Scott told the CN&R his contact information is readily accessible and said, “I absolutely would have been there had I been invited.” Ninth candidate James Aguirre has not shown up to any forums thus far.

Candidates were given one minute to make opening and closing statements, and one minute to respond to each of the 10 questions formulated by the host group, as well as questions from the audience. CCJ member Marty Dunlap acted as moderator, with assistance from Diane Suzuki.

The members of the sitting, conservative- majority council have not shared CCJ’s concerns about the CPD’s policies, tactics or training. The hopefuls who appeared at the forum, however, didn’t shy on the subject. This became clear from the get-go, as Huber made his opening statement.

“Police are only human, just like us, and they have the same strengths, same weaknesses and the same embedded biases,” he said, noting that police officers must sometimes face the difficult decision of using deadly force. “For that reason, we need to involve ourselves in being certain that our police department is as well-trained as they possibly can be, and we need to scrutinize their actions to assure that they’re never pulling the trigger when they don’t have to.”

Use of force and preventative measures such as de-escalation training figured prominently during the two-hour forum. All advocated that every Chico police officer should attend a full 40 hours of crisis intervention training (CIT), as opposed to day-long trainings the majority of CPD officers attend. That training meets state requirements, but many critics feel it falls short of the week-long course offered at Butte College.

“As a special-education teacher, I go through three or four trainings a year on either crisis intervention, de-escalation or conflict resolution,” Rensink said. “These are good skills to have in any walk of life, but they’re critical for police officers.”

Each of the candidates also called for alternatives to creating and enforcing criminal ordinances when it comes to the homeless population.

Ober said Chico police are “basically wasting their time on sit/lie,” the law many criticize as criminalizing homelessness, and cited a study done last year by a group of Chico State professors on the impacts of anti-homeless ordinances. That study, a copy of which the CN&R obtained, showed that enforcement of sit/lie effectively decentralized the homeless population from downtown to Chico neighborhoods. Additionally, between January 2010 and June 2016, enforcement of it and other similar local laws cost $882,065, according to the research.

Ober is a member of the Torres Community Shelter’s board of directors, and noted that facility’s annual operating budget is roughly equal to that figure.

“So, the Torres Shelter houses 150 to 160 people every night, 365 days a year, providing two meals a day, providing wrap-around services and moving people out of homelessness and into homes for about $800,000 a year,” he said. “I ask why we’re paying $800,000 to move people from one part of the community to another instead of supporting people who are doing the real work of placing those people into actual housing and give them services. That’s the main problem the department is facing, and I think if we correct that we can free up resources and time and [the police] can do the work that we actually want them to do.”

Brown, a social worker, said she’s seen the benefits of police and service partnerships firsthand in working alongside CPD investigators as an advocate for sexual assault and domestic violence victims. “It’s important to enhance partnerships and collaborations to be more integrative and more responsive, on a holistic level, to issues facing our community,” she said.

Other issues the candidates agreed on included the need for a citizens’ oversight committee that should be formed to help direct law enforcement; that police could better serve the community with boots on the ground, such as beat and bike cops; and that overmilitarization only deepens the divide between police departments and the communities they serve.

On Tuesday (Sept. 26), Alma said by phone that the CCJ was pleased with the large turnout—the room was packed, with about 80 people in attendance—and quality of discussion at the forum, despite the fact that not all of the candidates attended. That same day, Reynolds doubled down on her decision not to attend the forum for political reasons.

“I stand by my decision not to participate in this forum,” Reynolds posted to Facebook. “As I said before, I disagree with this group’s assertions that the Chico Police Department lacks accountability and transparency. … To me, this election is about crime and the criminal vagrancy issues plaguing our city. This forum is a distraction from the issues Chico voters care most about.”

Alma said CCJ would have welcomed and respected Reynolds’ and other candidates’ input, as well as that of their supporters, had they chosen to attend and engage in the forum.