Gonzales police seek changes after George Floyd incident

Photo | GonzalesCA.gov

| YOUTH BEAT

By Angela Rodriguez

The death of George Floyd has drawn a sharp reaction across the United States, igniting the Black Lives Matter movement to lead protests worldwide against police brutality. In the wake of such antagonism, policing is under review all over the country. And in the small town of Gonzales, the police department is changing the way it works.

Nestled in the Salinas Valley, Gonzales is the recipient of the 2019 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Prize. With a population of less than 9,000, Gonzales’ crime rate is 10.86 per 1,000 citizens, about average for the United States, according to the Neighborhood Scout Crime Index. The city is recognized for its “Gonzales Way,” an ongoing effort among residents and leaders to provide love, care, and connection through community engagement, and particularly through support of youth programs.

Several Gonzales Police Department initiatives are focused on youth. In addition to school resource officers in local schools, the department has collaborated with the Gonzales School District to improve interaction with young people and is hosting school field trip tours of the police department. The police budget also allocates $40,000 to the Road to Success Youth Diversion Program, a program that also operates in nearby Greenfield, King City, and Soledad, in partnership with the nonprofit Sun Street Centers. Road to Success offers young people who get into trouble but haven’t been violent a chance to avoid being sent through the criminal justice system.

The police have also begun conversations with youth leaders in the community about current events. Alumni and current members of the Gonzales Youth Council are invited to these meetings with Chief of Police Keith Wise and City Manager Rene Mendez.

“I think it is very important to have open dialogue and listen to everyone in the community,” Wise said.

Wise, a 28-year veteran of the police department, values community engagement. “After having community meetings and discussions with people, I often share the information and any concerns with officers and supervisors and the conversation continues so that we can work together to address concerns and any quality of life issues so officers can better serve the community they are here for,” he wrote in an email.

The hiring process is also important for the Gonzales Police Department.

“We strive to recruit police officers who are diverse, representative of our community, and have the mindset to uphold the laws with fairness and impartiality,” Wise wrote.

In this instance, what does “representative of our community” mean? Is it just hiring police officers who look like the community?

“We can’t just stop there,” Mendez told Young Voices in a Zoom interview. “Even though we look the same and we have the same ethnicity and race, it doesn’t mean we have the same experiences.”

Mendez, who has served as city manager for 15 years, explained the importance of hiring people who not only represent the community but can connect with citizens as well. To this end, Gonzales police officers are trained in conversational Spanish and cultural diversity.

“I think we need to go beyond just telling people we’re doing something, we need to demonstrate that we are doing something,” he said.

Gonzales has been working with the Monterey County Civil Rights Office to provide racial equity training for police officers, according to Carmen Gil, director of community engagement and strategic partnerships for the city. She said the city had been planning these trainings before the insurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Gil also spoke of plans to involve all residents in conversations about improvement.

“The city is committed to working alongside the community,” she said.

How do members of the community feel about their city and police department?

“I think the Gonzales police are good compared to other cities, because we live in a rural community and the majority of citizens are field workers,” Alejandro Piñon, 45, told Young Voices in Spanish. He is a supervisor at RC Packing in Gonzales and he has lived in the city for 15 years.

Piñon said he believes the police are always on the watch for the citizens and thinks of the police as fair.

Others in the community have similar sentiments. “I haven’t had any problems,” Antonia Ruiz, 43, said in Spanish. “On one occasion, I was very thankful to the police for the help they lent my family.”

Ruiz said she thinks the community’s relationship with police in Gonzales is better than in other places “because it’s such a small city.” She has heard rumors about police misconduct but never personally saw or heard a problem. Ruiz said she feels comfortable with the police, but that communication could be improved.

“I think they should have more communication with the community. With events, or give us information the community might need, on topics such as any arising gangs, drugs, things like that.”

Aidan Cervantes, a youth commissioner on the Gonzales Youth Council, told Young Voices that he is grateful for the police department’s efforts, but leaves it at that. “I think the changes and efforts they’re trying to put in, that’s just part of their job,” he said. “They shouldn’t be praised.”

“I think they’re great, but there’s much more to be done,” he said. “The problem does run deeper.”

Jon Wizard, a Seaside city councilman and Black Lives Matter activist, agrees.

In a Zoom meeting with Young Voices Media Project participants, Wizard stressed the importance of understanding that most laws that are enforced today were written centuries ago. Some, like the law which allows an officer to use force in order to apprehend a civilian, were written before the end of the Civil War in 1865.

“These systems were designed by people who did not live in our society, but lived in a society where racism was totally acceptable,” Wizard said. “All of this stuff was baked in before we were considered people,” he added, motioning to himself, a Black man, and the group of predominantly Latinx students.

Mendez said local reform needs to occur systematically. “I think it’s important to build systems where we’re questioning what our role is as public servants and how we’re being perceived,” he said.

Cervantes added that many youth may perceive police officers as “a joke,” or may feel that “the cops are just here to harass us.”

He urged community members to express their concerns to the police and the city in order to resolve miscommunication.

“They’re on the road [to progress], but also as a community, we need to speak up and voice our opinions and give feedback.”

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About Young Voices

Young Voices Media Project teaches Monterey Bay area teens multimedia skills to report the news from their communities. This project was generously supported in 2019 by the Clare Giannini Fund.