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WATCH VIDEO | Monterey County Police and Community Budgets Forum: July 27, 2021
By Joe Livernois
With local cities spending up to 45 percent of their budgets on police and public safety, Monterey County activists say that at least some of those funds should be reallocated to community programs they say would reduce crime and keep residents safer.
But how those funds can practically and politically be moved to other programs can often be problematic. Without organized grassroots support for specific solutions — and with so many unmet needs in cities — reallocation can be an uphill battle, especially at a time when the “defund the police” rhetoric creates public confusion and provides police organizations with an easy excuse to dismiss the entire issue.
This past Tuesday, July 27, Voices of Monterey Bay teamed with ACLU Monterey County and NAACP’s Monterey County branch for an online discussion about how citizens can best tackle the reallocation of municipal budgets. The event was called “Police and Community Budgets: Where Do We Go From Here?”
Among the participants were Soledad Mayor Anna Velazquez; Cesar Lara, program and policy director for MILPA, a community-based empowerment organization in Salinas; and Christine Davi, city attorney in Monterey. Mel Mason, a former NAACP chapter president and founder of The Village Project in Seaside, was given an excused absence from the event due to illness.
Velazquez told about 50 viewers attending the event that city officials in cities like Soledad and Salinas have worked to engage its citizens in community efforts, but it’s always a challenge.
“We have individuals that come to the City Council meeting and I know there’s voices represented there, but they’re not always the entire voice of our communities,” she said. Residents in Soledad recently voted for a half-cent sales tax measure that will fund recreation and child care programs, but keeping residents engaged in the process is an ongoing challenge.
“As a mayor, it’s important to look at a better outreach method of how we really engage our community, making sure that our city council goals are really in line with what the needs of our residents are,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez was among several dozen signers of a call to action last year that delineated nine possible reforms to policing in communities. That document, called “Re-Imaging Policing: A Call to Action,” was drafted by Democractic Women of Monterey County.
The Salinas City Council earlier this year reallocated some of its police funding proposal to sidewalk repairs and recreation programs, said Lara. Often, he added, community programs are the first to get cut from municipal budgets when times are tough, while police budgets remain whole. And when tax revenues rebound, those other programs rarely catch up.
In the end, community residents and its leaders need to talk about priorities that are most important to their neighborhoods. For instance, residents might support more afterschool programs and social service programs that more effectively respond to people with mental health issues.
”We really can’t police our way out of some of the social problems that we have,” Lara said.
Lara and others say they believe that mobile crisis units are better equipped to deal with many of the issues on the streets that currently occupy much of police officers’ time — and which sometimes end in tragedy.
It was police response to a mental health crisis in Seaside more than 20 years ago that resulted in widespread community response led by Mason. In that case, Mason’s best friend, Charles Vaughn Sr., was shot and killed by police while standing on an apartment roof with a corkscrew. Mason eventually channeled his rage and grief into a campaign that eventually resulted in the creation of crisis intervention training, a 40-hour program that teaches law enforcement officers in Monterey County how to de-escalate and to react to people who are having mental health crises and who need help.
“You don’t want to fix a problem needing a screwdriver with a hammer,” said Lara. “And so often, police are that hammer.”
Voices of Monterey Bay has proposed one option for the reallocation of budgets that it believes would benefit people in crisis while allowing police officers to concentrate on fighting crime.
The proposal is called the Response & Emergency Assistance Crisis Team — or REACT — and it’s based on successful programs developed in other regions of the country.
REACT would establish mobile crisis teams throughout Monterey County 24 hours a day, seven days a week. REACT would respond to the thousands of individual mental health crises in the county. Currently, police agencies are responding to those calls because there is no one else to do it, but Voices of Monterey Bay believes that people in crises are better served when trained psychological social workers respond to their needs.
To learn more about REACT and to find out how to get involved, see our proposal and stories about similar programs now being used in other communities here.
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