By Alan Hirsch
I was at the Yolo County Board of Supervisors meeting two weeks ago when 24 people testified against having the county sheriff‘s office get a military surplus armored car, an MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected), the second one to be housed in Woodland. No one spoke in favor. This was an amazing turn out of the public on a workday morning for normally sleepy supervisor meetings. The public all heard Sheriff Prieto justify the request and then respond to the members of the public.
Hearing the controversy, and the sheriff’s adamant call that it was needed, the supervisors put back the decision until an April 24 meeting.
I have great fear that this controversy will escalate into a deep split between his officers and a large segment of the population—a split that does not now exist.
And this will happen regardless of the final decision by the supervisors on the armored car.
My concern is that, at the supervisors meeting, the sheriff seemed unable to hear the public statements as policy arguments—but instead he seemed to react to them as a personal critique of his management. Maybe it was because his back was hurting him so he was not his best self (he apologized for having to step out of the meeting because of it). And while there were unfair attacks on his department and the raising of irrelevant issues like “black lives matter,” this was a small minority: all but three of the 24 public comments were respectful and policy-based.
On the sheriff office’s website, Prieto lists “trust” as one of his department’s top values. He said before supervisors, “I won’t say ‘trust me’…. but do have faith in me that I will only use it (MRAP) appropriately.” But faith is about religion and God: trust is between humans, and is earned by listening and working with others, particularly those who have different backgrounds and experience, even if you do know more than they do.
I want to give the sheriff the benefit of the doubt on MRAP. I acknowledge I don’t understand his job and the stresses he and his deputies work under. I’m willing to listen to his arguments on MRAP. But I must note he did not do anything in advance of this meeting to explain, much less reach out. In his request submitted to supervisors in advance of the meeting—the only document the public had—he provided only information on the cost of obtaining it, not how it would be used and why it was needed. He did submit an amendment to this at the last minute: a 1-1/2 page list of short bullet points with a list of possible uses, but even this was not made available to the public until just 10 minutes before the final vote of the supervisors, after most of public input was already taken.
Clearly we needed a “do over,” as the supervisors wisely decided.
I believe we can survive a second MRAP in Woodland. But we cannot survive a lack of trust between a large swaths of people in Yolo County and their sheriff, particularly at a time of ICE and deportations.
But the reality is MRAP opponents, including some members of the clergy, are organizing to raise even louder voices of concern to elected board of supervisors, as is their right.
But even as I agree with the no-MRAP sentiment, I must acknowledge this tactic by public advocates hardly furthers nuanced public policy discussions of policing needs in the county. There will be no give-and-take, discussion or questions if the next step is just another confrontation before the Board of Supervisors.
But what other options do members of the public have to be heard?
I suggest that Sheriff Prieto has many alternative ways to respond to this growing controversy. He could hold community workshops, listening sessions, open houses, ridealongs, etc. Provide more information on SWAT team uses and frequency…and then welcome critical review of the need for an MRAP in an open Q & A session. These are tools the Davis Police Department used in a similar situation. This is called participatory democracy.
I believe the Davis Police Department was stronger after it worked through just such a process as part of its own MRAP controversy. In the progressive activist circles I travel in, criticism of Davis police is rarely heard, and when I have seen it voiced I have seen other progressives, often people of color, push back, having built up trust of the Davis Police. People can watch the council meeting video of when Davis Police Chief Landy Black retired last year: he was feted by everyone in the community.
Sheriff Prieto is 74: I hope he has the wisdom to make use of this teachable moment to reach out to the law-enforcement-cynical in the community. He has our attention—and the trust he leaves will be his legacy.
And for the supervisors, I think the public policy question is not whether Sheriff Prieto is doing a good job, or if the armored car might make SWAT teams safer when it is used a few times a year. Rather, they need to balance the trade-off: what will make the community and the officers safer? An armored car for deputies to ride in, or widespread respect and trust of the sheriff by everyone in the community?
Or maybe Sheriff Prieto can figure out a process to have both.