The behavior and accountability of law enforcement has emerged as a huge issue. The murder of George Floyd set off ongoing nationwide protests and demonstrations calling for systemic change. Some voices are calling for law enforcement funding to be reduced; if that means redirecting some money from tactical enforcement to social support and mental health services, we agree.
For far too long, police have been saddled with responsibilities for which they have neither proper training nor experience. Working with the homeless, for example, is a job better-suited to social workers and medical professionals than law enforcement officers.
That all police carry guns is common in America, but not equally true in other countries. Our gun laws are one factor behind aggressive police behavior, and unless our misguided “AR-15s are just fine” gun laws change, all police will remain heavily armed, and the inappropriate use of force will continue to needlessly cost lives.
When it comes to the use of force by police, decades of militarization of local law enforcement have tipped the scales towards a lack of judgment and justice. Militarization is not simply about equipment and uniforms; a military mind-set establishes a predisposition to treat citizens as enemies and to inappropriately use maximum force in non-life-threatening situations. Rather than de-escalating situations, brute force has resulted in escalation and death.
Sonoma County has witnessed too many such deaths.
At the end of 2019, the Community Advisory Council (CAC) of the Independent Office of Law Enforcement Review and Outreach (IOLERO) published a set of Use of Force Recommendations, which are intended to reduce death at the hands of law enforcement. Containing a list of 21 policy recommendations, including banning any type of choke holds and mandatory training in de-escalation, the recommendations would go a long way towards changing the culture of policing in Sonoma and Sonoma Valley.
Yet Sheriff Mark Essick (to whom the Sonoma Chief of Police reports) has rejected the CAC recommendations; we would note that less than six months ago a suspect died in a sheriff deputy’s custody choke hold. (Perhaps reading the room at last, Essick this month banned the use of choke holds.)
There is now a signature drive to have the Board of Supervisors strengthen IOLERO’s mandate, and we support this effort. Changing the nature and style of law enforcement is not easy, nor can it be accomplished overnight. A combination of funding allocation, revised use of force policies, careful hiring, and effective training are imperative. The time has come, let’s not waste it.