If you’re even remotely familiar with politics, you probably know that major changes are rare and difficult to invoke. But the shocking video showing the death of George Floyd made Americans rise up in unprecedented numbers demanding real and immediate changes in the way police forces operate in our country, particularly when it comes to the use of force and systematic oppression of minorities. Impressively, the overwhelming support for this latest wave of Black Lives Matter protests has resulted in a number of changes to the San Diego Police Department and other law enforcement agencies throughout the county. But are these changes enough?
Changes Involving Chokeholds and Excessive Force
The most immediate and widespread change resulting from the movement following George Floyd’s death has been the prohibition of the carotid restraint that resulted in his death. In San Diego County, over 15 law enforcement agencies have already prohibited this chokehold, including the SDPD, San Diego Sheriff’s Department, Escondido Police Department, Carlsbad Police Department and Oceanside Police Department. The state is expected to pass a law banning such restraints soon and it has already been introduced to the senate floor.
It’s worth mentioning that in August of last year, California passed a law prohibiting the use of deadly force unless absolutely necessary with the prior requirement being when it was deemed “reasonable.” But chokeholds, while potentially deadly, are not considered to be deadly force because when done properly, they merely restrain an offender. The same goes for rubber bullets, pepper bullets, beanbag guns and teargas, which are all common “non-lethal” weapons used against protesters that police determine to be too violent.
Changes to Crowd Disbursement
As the Black Lives Matter protests became large and unruly in the last few weeks, police turned to controversial crowd management tactic. These include tear gas and pepper spray, which are both chemical weapons banned for use in war in the Geneva convention, and rubber bullets and bean bag guns, which cause permanent disability or death in 1 in 5 people who are shot with them. Even worse, police often fail to properly use these weapons properly, shooting rubber bullets directly at protesters, despite the fact that they are supposed to be deflected off of the ground first, and aiming bean bag guns at people’s heads although they are only supposed to be aimed at the abdomen.
The San Diego police department has committed to stepping up its de-escalation policy, which is something police departments were already supposed to be doing after a new law that took effect in 2020. While de-escalation techniques could potentially help reduce the likelihood of a protest spiraling into a riot like the situation in La Mesa a few weeks ago, many argue that using these “non-deadly” weapons should be outlawed as well. That’s why Democrats are writing a law to limit the use of these weapons as well so they will no longer be used on protesters.
Defunding the Police
A common talking point right now is the idea of defunding the police. Most proposals are not to abolish the police but to transfer some of their functions to organizations qualified to deal with social welfare issues. Currently the police are called to respond to many events social workers are better trained to handle. This could also help redirect funds to education, homelessness and mental health services that potentially could reduce many problems before they start.
While other cities have listened to these demands and acted by reducing the budget for the police, San Diego actually went the other way and increased the budget for the SDPD by $27 million. The city is, however, listening to the community’s concerns in one way, as it will be removing responsibilities from police such as addressing homelessness and mental health problems. Even so, the increase to their budget at a time when the city budget has dropped significantly due to the coronavirus shutdown is certainly controversial. It’s unlikely that protesters will back down on this demand in the immediate future and possible that the city will eventually reduce funding to the department.
While a small number of activists are even demanding that police forces be fully abolished altogether, it’s worth adding that this is particularly unlikely in a somewhat conservative city like San Diego, especially without any major wrongful actions on the part of the police, like the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Even in areas where the forces are being abolished, they are still being rebuilt from the ground up, leaving the city with a new police department, not a complete lack of policing.
Increased Police Department Transparency
Although the police will receive an increase in their budget, the city council is insisting that it will institute some of the many reforms the public is demanding. This includes increasing power to the commission overseeing misconduct reports and implementing a rule requiring police officers to report and intervene if they see another officer doing something wrong or face discipline themselves (other cities have created rules that call for the dismissal of officers who see a dismissible offense and fail to report and intervene).
Some community activists are calling for a citizen led police oversight commission which is truly independent of the police with the power to implement change. While this change has not yet been made in San Diego, it’s still a possibility and has been successfully implemented in many other major cities.
Less Police Surveillance
One thing few protesters are aware of, but many civil rights organizations have long been fighting for, is the addition of a Community Control Over Police Surveillance (CCOPS) program, which allows for community oversight over surveillance equipment used by police departments. This type of program could be particularly beneficial for San Diego, which is ranked fifth in the most surveilled cities in America. The SDPD does this through programs like the smart streetlight system, which is used to view citizens on the streets in downtown, Hillcrest, North Park and other city center areas, the purchase and use of drones to monitor crowds during the coronavirus pandemic and the use of cell site simulators to track cell phone users (these devices could also monitor communications although the SDPD denies it uses the devices for this purpose). A CCOPS could ensure the departments would have to undergo public debate and approval before purchasing and using such devices, allowing far more privacy for the public.
These are only some of the many reforms being fought for by activists and it seems that many of these are still a long way from becoming a reality. If you have any question about police reforms or abuses and how they may affect the criminal justice system, Peter M. Liss can help. Please call (760) 643-4050 to schedule a free consultation.
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