Communities are safer when meaningful partnerships are established and resources are re-allocated, according to a panel of leaders who gathered April 29 to discuss the future of law enforcement.
The best path forward, they said, includes police partnerships with mental health experts and other community-based organizations – a method pursued by several police chiefs who along with a state senator created the North Orange County Public Safety Task Force four years ago.
Hosted by the OC Forum, the “Future of Law Enforcement” panel was moderated by Will Swaim, president of the California Policy Center and former publisher of the OC Weekly, and included O.C. District Attorney Todd Spitzer, Sheriff-Coroner Don Barnes, State Senate Josh Newman, Soo Kang, Executive Director of the North Orange County Public Safety Task Force and Letty Gali, Executive Director of LOT318, a Placentia-based nonprofit that helps at-risk youth and their families.
Panelists spoke candidly on everything from the outcome of the Derek Chauvin trial, Breonna Taylor and the momentum of the “defund the police” movement and the growing role of police officers as first responders to mental health issues in the community.
Ms. Kang and Senator Newman, spoke about the Task Force, which has spent the last four years creating partnerships between mental health professionals, police and community-based organizations to create a unique suite of services that address youth violence prevention and intervention, reentry services and homeless outreach. The Task Force also invested in developing to create a technology tool through the app Outreach Grid, which allows first responders such as police officers and outreach workers to access resources like shelter bed reservations, community service programs and appropriate linkages to resources with the click of a button on a phone.
“We are a 10-city collaborative to get to the root causes of homelessness, youth gang violence and post incarceration reentry,” said Senator Newman. “I had a meeting with a bunch of police chiefs, and they came to me with a fairly non-profound observation that these problems of homelessness were hard to solve for these small cities.”
Ms. Kang, spoke about the homeless census the Task Force conducted in order to help them answer the question “What is happening on our streets”
They counted 1,874 people; 1,324 of whom were willing to talk to census takers with the aim of getting help. Ms. Kang said of those, they managed to get over 400 off the streets.
“This is not a number,” she added. “These are actual names of people on the by name registry.”
“That’s one of the most promising features,” Newman says. “There’s a ton of expertise and we’ve tapped that in an interesting way. We can serve as a model.”
Mr. Spitzer, a former county supervisor and prosecutor who has headed the D.A.’s office since 2019, called the current hot topics around policing part of a national conversation that can serve as a conduit to making pivotal change happen.
But when asked about the future of law enforcement in Orange County, he felt strongly that most police officers are here to protect and serve.
“The future of law enforcement is phenomenal here in Orange County,” said Mr. Spitzer. “We have completely dedicated chiefs and sheriffs who care deeply about the credibility of law enforcement. Ninety-nine percent of the police officers and sworn personnel are phenomenal people, they care deeply about the profession and all they want to do is keep our community safe.”
Mr. Spitzer called for more funding in youth crime and substance abuse prevention programs. He added that his office will be tough on the most serious offenders but compassionate and empathetic with individuals who find themselves in the legal system.
Sheriff Barnes, who began the job in 2019, countered assertions that Orange County’s law enforcement does not hold itself accountable of wrongdoing.
He pointed to 2019, when he had 127 internal affairs cases, of which 84% were brought in internally.
“We have to be the protector of this profession,” Sheriff Barnes said.
He pointed to deputies receiving significant training in de-escalation techniques as well as how to respond to mental health calls.
But Sheriff Barnes stressed that police officers should not be the “first face of government” that people suffering from substance abuse, a mental health crisis or homelessness see. Rather, those faces should be from other agencies who can take the bulk of those cases. Unfortunately, he said, it is the police who find themselves taking on “the mantle of all these other issues.”
Regarding calls to “defund the police,” Sheriff Barnes said those calls are “loud,” but most agree nationwide that communities need police officers who are tasked with creating safe neighborhoods, crime prevention and investigations.
He called the Orange County Sheriff’s Department a progressive agency whose members people should get to know. They are mothers and fathers like everyone else, Sheriff Barnes stressed.
You can watch the panel discussion, here.