Two and a half years ago, when the Davis Police brought in an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle), unbeknownst to the city council, there was great community outcry. At both city council hearings and a public meeting, then-Assistant Police Chief Darren Pytel explained to the community the reason why the police department felt they needed an MRAP.
He explained that, while he didn’t think the community in Davis would accept an MRAP, after talking with his team he became convinced it was necessary.
Assistant Chief Pytel said that the MRAP “really is a defensive type of vehicle. It has armor protection so you can move officers into an environment where firearms are present, and you don’t have to worry about getting hit. The MRAP will actually take care of all the rifles we encounter.”
He explained that the range of rifles are long and you cannot get in close for negotiation. “It actually does give us the ability to get in close.”
I came out of the discussion appreciating the position, but still believing that an MRAP was not an appropriate civilian police vehicle – but I was willing to allow the city to try to purchase a more appropriate vehicle for civilian use.
I bring this up to contrast the approach of Darren Pytel with that of Ed Prieto. Sheriff Ed Prieto came to the board of supervisors meeting with a chip on his shoulder. He told the board that he believed he should be able to do whatever he believed was the right move and that he shouldn’t have to have board approval for it.
He pushed back against the community present at the meeting, that had concerns about having a third MRAP in the county. He said, “I think my reputation speaks loudly in support of civil rights.”
He said he would absolutely not use the vehicle to oppose protests. “Nowhere on the list is anything indicating that we’re going to use it for crowd control or opposition to any marches,” he said.
Then he went into this monologue to the effect that he knows better. He said, “Our officers are put at harm’s way on a daily basis.” He pointed to his 48 years in law enforcement, including during riots in LA, and he said, “I can honestly say there’s probably very few people in this crowd, very few people that are opposing this that have been in harm’s way to the level that many of us have been.”
Later he said, “I always find it sort of interesting that there’s so many people that dictate to law enforcement how we should conduct law enforcement. I do not go to a farmer and tell him how to farm. I do not go to a contractor and tell him how to build a house.”
These are troubling comments. They go to the heart of the issue of police and civilian oversight. But they are more fundamental. And miss a fundamental point.
We don’t go to a farmer and tell him how to farm, but there are regulations and there is oversight. If the farmer misuses pesticides, sprays too wide an area, or uses it during high winds or during the wrong time, you bet there is a county regulator who will come in to fine that farmer.
We don’t tell a contractor how to build a house – except that we do. We have licensing for contractors and there are building codes and health codes. So, you bet – we tell the contractor, in effect, how to build a house.
We have oversight and regulations for a whole host of industries. And for a long time, the police and law enforcement had much more lax regulations, even as they had the authority to deprive people of their freedom, their property and potentially their lives.
The irony, of course, is that Sheriff Prieto does have a pretty good record when it comes to civil rights. He has been admirable in his views on not cooperating with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) holds in the past.
In response to a question from Don Saylor, who pointed out that Homeland Security was on the list, Sheriff Prieto said that he was not going to get involved in any Homeland Security issue that involves deportation of undocumented immigrants.
However, during public comment, several commenters noted that Ed Prieto, who is approaching 74 years of age, will not be sheriff forever and, while he may have no intention to use the MRAP in protests or to assist Homeland Security or ICE, that doesn’t mean that the next sheriff won’t have different views on the appropriate use of the vehicle.
That is a big problem that we have here, aside from the sheriff acting as a bull in a china store. The problem is that Ed Prieto is likely being completely honest when he told the board of supervisors his intended use for the MRAP.
But, as we saw in Ferguson and Standing Rock, the use of military equipment is actually something that can inflame a volatile situation rather than calming it down.
In the fight against the militarization of police, the problem isn’t just the use of military equipment, designed for combat, in a civilian setting, but the mentality of the police that goes along with that.
For many, last Tuesday was the first time they saw Sheriff Prieto in action. Since then, many in the public have mobilized to work against the MRAP. This is likely going to be a far bigger and more contentious fight in April than it would have been in February.
There is a letter that will appear in Wednesday’s Enterprise, noting the comment from Sheriff Prieto and responding, “I find this comment to be of much greater concern than whether the Sheriff’s Department has an armored vehicle, and a good example of why oversight and public commentary are so valuable.”
They concluded, “In an era where the nation is being pressured as if we are in a constant and growing state of non-specified emergency for which unchecked authoritarianism is the solution, I hope we can keep a more balanced perspective locally. I am reassured that Yolo County makes these decisions thoughtfully.”
The performance also triggered a number of comments at the Davis City Council meeting last week.
For instance, Alan Hirsch told the council that it was the first time he had been to a board of supervisors meeting and he said, “I was struck as to how minimized the public involvement was in the process,” and “the Sheriff said in so many words that he didn’t think the public had the right to input into the process.” “It was a very divisive comment,” he said, “minimizing the right to public involvement.”
This was the first exposure most of the people in the audience on Tuesday had to the sheriff and they came away feeling that their views were discounted.
If the sheriff wishes to reassure the community of the intended benign use of the MRAP, perhaps he should tone down his own rhetoric and stop yelling that people don’t understand what it’s like to be a law enforcement officer – that is no doubt true, but it is not going to win the day against a group of people who are growing more suspicious with government power by the day.
It was a tone deaf performance during a time that called for finesse.
—David M. Greenwald reporting