The city budget presented an important path to recovery from COVID-19 while also setting a defining political question for the years ahead: How will our leaders reimagine public safety?
Without broad, budgetary reforms, San Diego will continue on a path toward asking our police to do too much: non-emergency calls for neighbor disputes, ticketing unhoused people, enforcing traffic violations, toning down loud parties and other issues that take away from solving and preventing real crime. We should instead support police by narrowing their scope of work and making sure they do it well and with maximum training and accountability. That’s why it is critical to build on reforms like a mandatory de-escalation policy, banning the choke-hold and a strong civilian oversight commission. The next Council will vote on right-sizing the scope of policing, banning racially disproportionate practices like pretext stops, ending qualified immunity and rethinking civil forfeiture and consent searches.
To ensure this work is done with transparency and oversight, it is crucial for City Council candidates to maintain their objectivity and avoid political entanglements that would undermine the legitimacy of their decisions. Candidates should pledge to not take political contributions from the San Diego Police Officers Association. At best, campaign contributions create the appearance of bias. At worst, it opens the door to backroom quid pro quo to water down important legislation. Instead of seeking the endorsement of police unions, I encourage every candidate to join me in a pledge to hold those with legal authority to use deadly force accountable without anything clouding their judgement. I repudiate the idea that enforcers of the law should dangle political power, donations and influence over makers of that law.
I see police union political activity as being in direct opposition to the democratic foundations of our city and nation. Civilian oversight of the armed forces is a defining feature of a liberal democracy. This is why candidates for federal office do not seek the endorsement of active U.S. military personnel. The country has even seen fit to enact the Hatch Act, which bars military service members from such political activity while serving. Democracy requires that those elected to make decisions about the application and boundaries of the use of deadly force – from military conflicts around the world to policing the streets of our city – not be influenced in their oversight and decisions. Since our City Council appropriates police budgets, confirms the police chief, appoints the executive director and commissioners of the Commission on Police Practices (which have ultimate say over recommending discipline for officer misbehavior) and stands to enact structural reforms to reimagine how we use police broadly, it is just as inappropriate for police unions to endorse as it would be for generals or admirals in the U.S. military.
This proposal is not radical and should be a nationwide standard, as it is in our sister democracies like Canada, Australia and England. In the absence of such a ban on political activity, I pledge to model the gold standard in my campaign. As a union member myself, I know the importance of collective bargaining, which is why I support the POA’s existence and its power to fight for benefits, better wages and fair contracts. But political support, endorsements and financial contributions cross an important line in our city’s democracy that every lawmaker and candidate should repudiate.
Our next Council will make important decisions about the future of policing in San Diego. That is why now is the time to protect the public, our police and our democracy, by ensuring that the City Council is a safe, and balanced body holding police accountable by the rule of law, not political donations.
Joel Day is a former city director, UCSD public policy professor and candidate for San Diego City Council. He lives in Clairemont.