Public safety has been one of the most notable hallmarks of our city, evidenced by Simi Valley's long-standing ranking among the "safest cities" in the United States. Our community's public safety record is one of its most distinguishing characteristics, and remains an integral and desirable part of our community's character. Public safety is also the most important responsibility of our local leadership.
With the recent tragedies in Minneapolis and other cities however, the topic of policing has rocketed to the top of our national dialogue, from which a new slogan has emerged: "Defund the Police".
The dilemma of this soundbite is that it's connotations are completely blurred behind the slogan itself. Ask ten people what "defund the police" means, and you'll likely get ten different answers. This is not an admonishment as much as it is an observation.
Throughout history, protests occur because people feel that they are not being heard. All people deserve not only to be heard, but to be acknowledged. When that fails to occur, and tragedy of the scale recently witnessed in our nation results, emotions escalate. This makes the challenge of our civil discourse more difficult. People who are emotionally charged and feeling unheard are now communicating in soundbites that are difficult to interpret in context. This triggers opposition, and suddenly no one is hearing anyone anymore. This dynamic itself becomes a threat to our public safety, as emotions, tensions and frustrations escalate.
In order to pursue meaningful and productive dialogue about difficult issues like this, the most important distinction we need to make for this particular topic is between "policing" and "public safety".
The tragedy in Minneapolis over George Floyd's death is an example of this distinction. Improper "policing" is in question in that instance. However when taken as a whole, "public safety" is a much broader topic than merely law enforcement. And if we're going to start moving towards a solution, and engage in productive civil dialogue about these issues, this is an important distinction to make.
Here in Simi Valley last years data shows that our police department received over 16,000 calls for service. Of those, just over 900 were criminal in nature. The data also shows that we have had an increase in calls and a decrease in crime year-on-year in our community. This leaves roughly 15,000 calls for service which were not Class I criminal in nature. Yet our officers are trained to catch and detain bad guys, sometimes in very dangerous circumstances, as well as to investigate crime. This begs the question, what makes up the balance of those remaining 15,000 calls then? Are those situations that are ideally being directed to Law Enforcement professionals in the first place? The sheer volume of calls to our local police illustrates that we ask our police officers to do an awful lot, the majority of which does not involve the enforcement of criminal law. Should we then be evaluating ways to supplement our field officers, by providing additional tools and resources to improve our community's overall public safety and support them in situations which are not part of their core mission? I believe if you ask any officer, it would be hard to say "no".
I have had the privilege to attend SVPD presentations from years ago which had already identified this unmet need for human services among the vast majority of incoming calls to the department. One proposal at the time was to integrate this as an entire function internal to the department, much in the way that there is a separate "investigation" division from a "field division" for example. So the need for this type of public safety category has long been recognized inside our department. This demonstrates that there already is common ground in this issue.
My views on implementation may differ as to whether this becomes an internal department function, which is a huge change in mission, or whether these supplemental services are provided in collaboration with the department (much like the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, OR, which has proven not only to save money, but is saving lives.) But those are the types of constructive conversations we should be having now, as a community, not ratcheting up partisan animosity because the "name" of a slogan has polarized peoples openness to an issue which our police department has already identified a need for, long ago.
We already have common ground on this issue in our community. But because of poorly articulated slogans, and political hijacking of these issues into polarized partisan tactics, all we are doing is instigating our citizens, and increasing our public safety concerns from so much emotional/political volatility over an issue such as this.