Community Matters: Building trust is a two-way street
“The ultimate success of the police department rests solely with the people in our organization and how we develop mutual trust and confidence with those we serve.”
— Petaluma Police Department Policy Manual introductory statement
A news story in last week’s Argus-Courier highlighting the public controversy over the Petaluma Police Department’s acquisition and use of surplus military equipment showed that some community members harbor strong feelings of distrust towards their city’s public safety officers.
A similar outcry erupted a few years ago when the department sought to replace its aging stock of 16 patrol rifles with new semi-automatic weapons needed to prepare for worst-case scenarios such as an active shooter incident.
Critics then and now said police use of such equipment is entirely unnecessary, “militarizes” the police department and leads to increased violence by police officers.
One especially harsh local critic, Zahyra Garcia, who chairs the criminal justice committee of the regional NAACP chapter, was quoted last week saying that the surplus military equipment, which includes two armored vehicles, “will be used against the public,” especially people of color.
It’s one thing to oppose police use of military equipment. It’s quite another to publicly opine that local police officers will intentionally use such tools to harm or kill people in our community.
Especially given the department’s outstanding track record and the myriad ways in which the city has sought to further improve police performance over the last few years, one has to wonder what more can be done to build trust among such fierce critics.
Following the 2015 publication of former President Obama’s report on 21st Century Policing, Petaluma Police voluntarily agreed to adhere to the report’s moral principles and “best practices” in providing high quality police services. As a result, and coupled with the department’s strong public service ethos and zero tolerance policy for unwarranted use of force, the Petaluma Police department has suffered very few reports of police misconduct in recent years.
In the aftermath of the 2020 murder of a Black man, George Floyd, by a Minneapolis police officer, demonstrations were held nationally and in Petaluma to protest systemic racism in our society along with widespread police misconduct in agencies across the country.
Despite scant evidence to suggest that local police practices were similarly flawed, the Petaluma City Council solicited community input in public hearings where dozens of residents of color shared their experiences of perceived racial profiling, disrespect and harassment by some members of the Petaluma Police Department. It seemed that many of Petaluma’s Latino and Black residents did not trust police and some even feared them.
This was nothing especially unusual since members of minority groups across America have felt the same way for decades.
The council subsequently concluded there was room for improvement and appointed an advisory committee in 2021 to consider implementing a host of recommendations on how to enhance the city’s racial climate and police interactions with minority residents.
At the time, Petaluma Police Chief Ken Savano openly acknowledged that many people of color did not trust the police, so he and other department leaders set out to change that perception.
Because most emergency calls to police were coming from people suffering mental health crises, drug addiction and homelessness--conditions which tend to affect minority populations more intensely--Savano recommended adoption of a new program which provides a mobile crisis intervention team comprised of a medical technician and social worker in response to such emergency calls.
Since its inception in July of 2021 in coordination with the Petaluma People Services Center, the city’s SAFE program has effectively responded to more than 6,100 calls for service and is now the only such program operating 24-7 in California.
More recently, the City Council approved a contract with IntegrAssure to serve as Petaluma’s first-ever independent police auditor. Rather than object to the company’s oversight of his department’s affairs, Savano said he is thrilled to be able to partner with “a highly skilled team who shares our philosophy of organizational excellence through continuous improvement.”
He sees the new auditor as a “valued added” component to help his department become more effective in “building even greater trust and confidence in the community we serve.”
Enhanced training and wellness support programs are also helping, says Savano, noting that all police officers receive regular training in de-escalation techniques, crisis intervention, implicit (unconscious) bias, racial profiling, immigration policy and hate crimes.
The department also practices “District Policing,” a philosophy encouraging officers to continuously operate in the same neighborhood to create a stronger bond with the citizens living and working there. An interactive map on the city’s website clearly shows the names and contact information for the officers working in each of Petaluma’s 15 police districts.
Such innovative, forward-thinking policing practices are getting noticed within the profession, according to City Manager Peggy Flynn who says that calls come in regularly from other law enforcement agencies interested in learning more about what Petaluma is doing.
“We are becoming a model on how to proactively prevent problems from occurring in police departments,” says Flynn.
As for the police use of the surplus military equipment, Flynn contends that it has and will continue to be used scrupulously and on a very limited basis to protect the public during very specific emergencies.
While acknowledging that some people may continue to be uncomfortable with this practice, Flynn hopes they will eventually understand when considering the cost of replacing the free equipment with a commercial SWAT vehicle would total several hundred thousand dollars.
Beyond that, if you distrust your local police officers driving around in a used armored military vehicle on rare occasions, would you really feel more comfortable if they were steering a brand-new Lenco BearCat down your street?
Trust is a two-way proposition. As local police officers work to build trust with Petaluma citizens, it may require some of us to consider our own biases against people in the law enforcement profession who risk their lives daily to keep us safe.
(John Burns is a former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at email@example.com)