Politics Report: Police Reforms Suddenly Advance - Voice of San Diego

Politics

Politics Report: Police Reforms Suddenly Advance

Long deliberated and rejected police accountability reforms made rapid progress toward adoption the last few days amid large protests nationwide and in San Diego. Plus: What will schools do? And a property tax is still chugging.

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery speaks at a press conference announcing San Diego Police Department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery saw two major victories this week, as police brutality protests across the country and region created a sudden political shift in support for her policy priorities.

Now she’s making a renewed push for another one, just in time for the city’s final steps to adopt next year’s budget.

Montgomery is asking the City Council to adopt her proposal to create an Office of Equity and Inclusion in the city, a three-person team that would be able to work across departments, whether on policing, land use planning or economic development, to address systemic racism in the city.

Montgomery proposed the office in her budget priorities earlier this year, but assumed it wasn’t possible when the coronavirus blew a hole in city revenues. In a special Voice of San Diego podcast episode Friday, she said it’s time to revisit the idea.

“There is a larger conversation about structural racism, racism in our institutions and in our systems,” she said. “This is the time to have the conversation, but not only that, to put resources toward how we can be better as a city, how we can integrate the community into our solutions and how we can ensure that we are not perpetuating racist, discriminatory practices within our city. We have a pay equity study. We have a disparity study that’s coming. You know, we have all of these things, but we’ve never had the opportunity, or the wherewithal, to look at those and create policy solutions and then implement those.”

It’s not clear if Montgomery will be able to marshal the votes during next week’s budget adoption hearing to get funding for the office.

She said the office would work with individual departments to “create policies with a racial justice lens.” And she’d like to create a special fund, overseen by the office, that would “assist community members in the work they are doing in this space, uplifting communities of color.”

“These requests have been coming from the community for years – this is a way to centralize that to say it is a priority, and a way to monitor it so that we can continue to get better,” she said.

The request comes after Montgomery saw a big shift in support for two of her top policy priorities. When she took over the Council’s committee on police and public safety in 2019, banning the carotid restraint became one of its top goals. Monday, Mayor Kevin Faulconer and Police Chief David Nisleit announced they’d do that. By Wednesday, every law enforcement agency in the county joined them.

She thinks the office of racial equity could have a similar effect.

“We have to be the example,” she said. “We are the city of San Diego. You saw what happened this week when Chief Nisleit announced that ban, it reverberated throughout the county.c… We need to say that racial equity is a priority in our city, and now is the time to do that.”

Criminal Justice Advocates Wary of Newfound Support

Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, speaks at press conference calling into question Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s support of a police oversight ballot measure. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

The other big policy shift Montgomery saw also came Monday, when Faulconer said he looked forward to giving his full support to a proposed ballot measure to reform police oversight in the city.

The measure, proposed by San Diegans for Justice – a group including both Women Occupy San Diego and the Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association – and championed in City Hall by Montgomery (after she campaigned on a promise to do just that), would create an independent commission to investigate alleged police misconduct.

The Commission on Police Practices would have independent investigators, whereas the existing police oversight body relies on SDPD internal affairs reports on any allegation. The investigators could subpoena witnesses and records in their investigation. And it would have independent legal counsel.

The measure has not yet been placed on the ballot by the full Council. It has been stuck in labor negotiations for months because it would have effects on working conditions the union bargains over.

Faulconer’s support was quickly followed by support from District Attorney Summer Stephan, and the Police Officers Association signed off. The union opposed the measure when it was proposed two years ago, and again last year when the present version was first announced.

But the history of attempts to pass these reforms has made advocates wary of the sudden change of heart.

“Contrary to the impression that officials are trying to portray, this is not over,” said Andrea St. Julian, co-chair of San Diegans for Justice, on the podcast this week. “We’re not even close. There hasn’t been a vote to get it on the ballot, let alone a decision on what the charter amendment is.”

The short history: “The history of this charter amendment is a long one, and unfortunately that history is filled with instances of betrayal and sabotage,” St. Julian said at press conference Thursday.

In 2016, Women Occupy San Diego brought a proposed charter amendment to the Council to go on the November ballot. St. Julian said it was received warmly at first “then what they did with the charter amendment was completely and totally gut it.”

That became Measure G, which changed the name of the existing review board and cleaned up some language in the city charter, but didn’t give the board any new oversight responsibilities.

“That was our first instance of betrayal,” St. Julian said.

In 2018 the group wrote a more robust policy, and submitted it earlier in the year, when she said it was “again met with professed support – particularly by then-Council President Myrtle Cole.”

St. Julian said the group was told multiple times it was going to be scheduled for a Council hearing, before Cole repeatedly postponed it.

A month before the ballot deadline, the city attorney’s office opined that the measure needed to go through the meet-and-confer process, because it affected the city’s labor unions. The Council then couldn’t find five votes to initiate meet-and-confer, though at that point it was too late to reach the ballot anyway. St. Julian puts the blame at the feet of Cole, who was defeated later that year by Montgomery.

“That was the next instance of sabotage,” she said.

San Diegans for Justice brought the charter amendment back in 2019, in preparation for the 2020 election. In November, the Council set the measure to meet-and-confer, where it still is today.

St. Julian said she learned of Faulconer’s support – and that the measure was destined for the ballot – along with everyone else. And that’s making her skeptical.

“I have to say, this situation is feeling very familiar to me. This was where we were at in 2016, right before we were betrayed. This feels like the moment right before in 2018 when we were sabotaged. When Mayor Faulconer and others say they support it, what ‘it’ are they talking about?” she told VOSD’s Sara Libby on the podcast.

What to watch for: The meet-and-confer process is confidential. Only the city’s and the police union’s negotiating teams know how the proposal might have changed during those negotiations.

It’s possible the measure the mayor and POA publicly endorsed this week is not at all the same measure as the one Montgomery, St. Julian and others have been pushing for years.

“Have they gutted our charter amendment again?” St. Julian asked. “Are these elected officials agreeing to something that is completely different than the proposed charter amendment? Does it contain the provisions the community is looking for?”

She said Faulconer, and any other official supporting the measure, should be explicit.

“Tell us, what is the ‘it’ that you’re supporting,” she said.

What Happens to Schools Will Be a Big Political Issue

San Diego Unified School District Trustee John Lee Evans speaks at the press conference announcing that schools would close March 16. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

From Scott Lewis: We have been tracking, with great interest, the dizzying discussion about what schools are going to do in the fall. I did a piece about the enrollment crisis and upheaval in the longstanding geographic philosophy of American education that would occur if distance learning continues. And Will Huntsberry reported that San Diego Unified now feels more confident about planning for some kind of functioning physical campuses.

This week, we ran a commentary from June Cutter, the Republican who is challenging Assemblyman Brian Maienschein in the northern part of the city of San Diego in Assembly District 77.

Cutter says schools need to open in the fall. Period.

“We must weigh the ever-changing risks of the COVID-19 virus against the permanent educational, emotional and social damage we are inflicting on the next generation,” she wrote.

She’s on the same page as John Lee Evans, a board member for the San Diego Unified School District.

“Distance learning doesn’t do it. It’s time to talk about physically reopening our schools. With adequate testing/tracing and affordable safety measures we need to find a way to physically reopen #sdschools in the fall. Partially reopening doesn’t work for students or parents,” Evans tweeted.

Several teachers unions, meanwhile, are trying to mobilize to push against state budget cuts and “fight for a federal bailout.” They’re asking allies to sign a petition.

“Months of education deprivation must lead to more resources to education, public health and social infrastructure, not less. Distance learning, expanded privatization, and increased reliance on virtual education will never replace the essential role our public schools and educators play,” reads the petition.

Distance learning to stay? For some: San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten hinted that the district was preparing to bring kids back to physical campuses. Distance learning, she said in her weekly Facebook chat, would remain, though, for students with health concerns.

“We know we have some students who are medically fragile; that it would be very dangerous for them to go back to an environment where they could be exposed and students like that may need to stay in distance learning longer and we want to make sure they have some support for that distance learning to be as successful as possible,” she said.

The state issued guidance on schools reopening Friday. The state never actually closed schools. But the San Diego County public health order did. It was updated this week, and the prohibition on schools opening is still in it.

The state’s guidelines: They are not strict rules. It seems like the state is telling counties to figure out the specifics. Most of the points in the guidance use verbs like “consider ways to” and “minimize” though there was one “should” that stuck out for educators: “All staff should use cloth face coverings unless Cal/OSHA standards require respiratory protection. Teachers can use face shields, if available, which enable younger students to see their teachers’ faces and to avoid potential barriers to phonological instruction.”

And no sharing! (Hat tip for this catch to Mackenzie Mays of Politico, who pointed out sharing used to be kind of a big deal in elementary school.)

This one is pretty good: “Actively encourage staff and students who are sick or who have recently had close contact with a person with COVID-19 to stay home.”

Sources in the public health department tell me there’s a proposed an amendment to that wording in the works. It would be changed to: “Actively encourage sStaff and students who are sick or who have recently had close contact with a person with COVID-19 to should stay the fuck home.”

Property Tax for Housing Proposal Not Dead

Dispatch from Lisa Halverstadt: Backers of a proposed $900 million affordable housing bond, to be paid for with a property tax increase, say the pandemic has not torpedoed hopes the measure will appear on the November ballot.

While the coronavirus put the kibosh on the Metropolitan Transit System’s November sales tax hike, the leader of the affordable housing lobbying group that has for three years rallied behind the bond measure says the crisis has only underscored the need for the bond.

Stephen Russell of the San Diego Housing Federation believes polling early last month shows public support for the measure that would require a challenging two-thirds vote remains solid.

The Housing Federation reports that an EMC Research poll conducted May 6-11 showed 69 percent of likely voters would back the measure, which would fund an estimate 7,500 units for homeless and low-income San Diegans. The bond would add 19 cents for every $1,000 of assessed value in property taxes, about $95 a year for a $500,000 home.

Two previous polls have also shown more than two-thirds support for the measure.

But to make it on the ballot, the bond measure will need support from six of the nine City Council members during an expected vote next month and support from four City Council members – including Councilwoman Barbara Bry – has been uncertain.

Russell and City Councilman Chris Ward, who has championed the measure through the city process, argue the need for housing solutions is more urgent during the pandemic and following the March failure of Measure C, which would have supplied more homelessness funding. They hope those factors will persuade a City Council supermajority.

“These (poll) results clearly show San Diegans deserve a chance to vote for a solution in November, and without the passage of Measure C on last March’s ballot, this remains the only solution on the table,” Ward wrote in a statement.

Russell agreed.

“The pandemic did not reduce the need for people to be housed whatsoever,” Russell said. “Not allowing the voters to have their say on this, I think, is irresponsible.”

Send your feedback and ideas for the Politics Report to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org or andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org.

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