Amid Reform Talks, Activists Debate a Role for Police in Communities
Many in southeastern San Diego believe that the police need to be reformed – that the disproportionate stops of Black and Brown people need to stop, and officers who use excessive force or kill unarmed people must be held accountable. But some advocacy groups are debating the role police play in their communities.
Advocates with Pillars of the Community dressed in fluorescent safety vests with the word “COPWATCH” printed on the back, got in a car on a recent afternoon and began driving around southeastern San Diego. They did not have a destination planned, but they did have a mission: to police the police.
Members of the organization’s team that monitors police in the community, or the Accountability Unit, included Laila Aziz, Michael Whyte, Malcome Muttaqee and Muslah Abdul Hafeez. They carried flyers with information on how residents could reach them in the future.
Aziz expected the police to be active that afternoon since there had been a funeral in one of the neighborhoods, she said, and they’re always stopping people after funerals.
For the next couple of hours, they cruised through the streets listening to a police scanner for clues of police activity. In the middle of their search, they received a call from a resident concerned about being harassed by police officers. The advocates showed up offering advice and support.
“Police harassment in our community is so normalized that if you haven’t been shot or beaten, it’s considered a good interaction,” said Khalid Alexander, president and founder of Pillars of the Community.
That’s why they created the Police Accountability Unit.
“We wanted to tell people they are important,” Alexander said. “They have certain Constitutional rights, and they have the right to be treated with respect and dignity in their neighborhood.”
Many people in southeastern San Diego believe that the police need to be reformed – that the disproportionate stops of Black and Brown people need to stop, and officers who use excessive force or kill unarmed people must be held accountable.
But community members don’t always agree on the role police should play in their lives. They disagree on what role the police should have in their neighborhoods and how local community groups should work with them. Should community organizations take money or work with law enforcement? Can law enforcement help curb violence in their community?
“I don’t think there is anybody in southeast San Diego who thinks policing is fine,” said Jason Stanton-Milsap, a community advocate who works with the organization Homework SD, which connects formerly incarcerated community members with jobs in the building trades industry.
Stanton-Milsap said everyone he knows agrees that policing needs to change, but some people think the whole entity needs to be abolished and others think reforms to the current system are enough.
Stanton-Milsap said he doesn’t think police can help with crime reduction in communities like southeastern San Diego either.
“When we look at fixing crime, we have to look at what causes crime,” he said, arguing that police don’t look at things like poverty, education and childhood trauma.
“They’re just punishing crime,” he said. “There’s no way to reduce crime if you’re seeing crime in that light.”
The San Diego Police Department allocated $250,000 in this year’s budget to No Shots Fired, a pilot program that aims to reduce gun violence – particularly among gang members.
The program, which began in March, involves SDPD collaborating with the San Diego Gang Commission and community nonprofits, like South Bay Community Services and the Community Assistance Support Team.
Bishop Cornelius Bowser, a founder of the Community Assistance Support Team and the pastor/CEO of Shaphat Outreach, said the program is an example of how police can collaborate with community organizations in southeastern San Diego to build trust and reduce violence.
“When you talk about community-oriented policing and police connecting with the community, it can work,” Bowser said. “You do have your bad police officers, though. So community-oriented policing needs to go hand-in-hand with reform.”
Bowser isn’t alone in this belief. There are other organizations in southeastern San Diego that accept funds from law enforcement, whether police or the District Attorney’s office. Law enforcement officials attend their meetings with the community.
Other community organizations in southeastern San Diego – one of the city’s most overpoliced areas – say taking money from law enforcement or trying to collaborate with them in any way would do more harm than good.
Alexander said he’s not broadly opposed to any organization taking money from or working with law enforcement. But he’s skeptical that most organizations can do that and still have the integrity to criticize law enforcement when they’re in the wrong.
Pillars of the Community does not meet with law enforcement or take money from law enforcement, Alexander said.
“That is because we are very weary of being used in the [public relations] theater that we’ve witnessed since doing this work,” he said. “We don’t want to be used as props as the police attempt to show they care about the community while they continue to do things to harm the community.”
Stanton-Milsap said his organization also won’t take money from police or the District Attorney. They also don’t let police come to their meetings, he said.
Tau Baraka, a community activist and owner of the Imperial Barbershop, said he’s not against organizations getting money from law enforcement, but he’d like to see organizations in his community come together to figure out what to do with the money. That way it’s use is determined and overseen by the community and no single organization’s initiatives can be swayed by law enforcement.
“I see some people working with the police department,” Baraka said. “But we’ve been doing that since the 80s and nothing has changed.”
Money can get some important initiatives started, he said, but only the community is heard.
Can Police Reduce Crime in Southeastern San Diego?
With the city’s increase in violent crime in 2020 (which still left San Diego’s crime rate very low), southeastern San Diego had more murders than other parts of the city.
People like Bowser think that the police still play a vital role in helping to curb violence in their neighborhood.
“I think there is a difference between what the average community members wants and what activists want,” Bowser said. “When we talk to the average community member, they say they don’t want to take away the police, but they do want reform in policing.”
Bowser said his organization’s work on gun violence has been working. Through the No Shots Fired program, some people who are arrested with guns have the option to complete a Community Assistance Support Team program instead of spending time in jail.
“To be honest with you, the police have helped us with violence prevention and violence intervention,” he said. “This is what I tell activists in the community. A lot of them want nothing to do with the police. They want them out of the community and think they can police themselves. If you want to defund the police and take money from them, then you have to show how you’ll keep the community safe.”
Bowser believes that police should be in the community, building trust.
“They shouldn’t be seen in a light just where they’re stopping someone who may have committed a crime, but where they’re helping the community,” he said.
Many in law enforcement also believe this can help improve their relations – and thus people’s experiences with them – in communities like southeastern San Diego.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the San Diego Police Department encouraged officers to partner with community members to identify neighborhood problems that might cause crime later. The city was recognized nationally and internationally for its approach, the Union-Tribune reported in 2015. But financial constraints in the early 2000s resulted in a cutback of community policing.
As pressure mounted for police reform and cuts to the department budget in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota, elected officials and others began calling for a return to community-oriented policing.
The No Shots Fired program is funded by a federal Community Oriented Policing Services grant to SDPD.
SDPD did not respond to questions or interview requests for this story.
Bowser thinks that law enforcement in San Diego often mistakenly looks back to community-oriented policing as the solution for its issues with communities like southeastern San Diego. He’s willing to collaborate with police to help his community, but repairing its relationship with police requires reform.
“We overuse the term community-oriented policing like that is a magic term that is going to fix everything and it’s not,” he said.
Alexander thinks the idea of community-oriented policing – in the way that law enforcement and people who support law enforcement discuss it – is problematic.
“It’s rooted in this idea that this is all one big miscommunication – that the reason why people in southeastern San Diego, young Black and Brown men and women, don’t like police is that we don’t understand what policing is,” Alexander said. “The idea that police occupying communities more will solve any issues, bring crime rates down and bridge what they see as a gap between the community-police relationship is ignorant at its best.”
He said it’s impossible for police – in anything resembling their current structure – to help address issues of violence in the community, because they are part of the reason the violence exists.
“We have to be honest, when it comes to community violence and gang violence,” Alexander said. “We’re not dealing with a failure of the community, we’re dealing with a failure of policing.”
Alexander believes that violence often stems from people who have themselves been harmed. It shouldn’t be surprising that communities where people have grown up being molested while searched by police, thrown against walls by police or had guns held to their heads are also communities where there is more violence.
He said he doesn’t fault people in his community for calling the police to respond to emergencies. There are no alternatives. But he doesn’t think they can help his community solve any of their issues.
“Police, as they are, are more harmful in the community than they are positive,” Alexander said.
He said if officials really wanted to reduce crime, they would reallocate money from the police department to other areas – or give it to nonprofits directly without strings attached to law enforcement – to better address its underlying causes.
Adriana Heldiz contributed reporting to this piece.