By Gloria Partida
For many, increasing awareness around issues of just policing have resulted in a rise in activism following the Black Lives Matter movement and a recent presidential election laden with hateful rhetoric. Last spring, similar attention was focused with laser like precision into our corner of the world and collided in the veneer shattering “Picnic Day incident”(an altercation between plain clothes police and picnic day attendees that resulted in injuries and arrest). The McGregor Scott report which will analyze the actions of the police in that incident is due any day now. Regardless of the findings of that report, many in the community will be unhappy and therein lies the challenge in making institutional changes in systems that are ingrained with oppression. Change has to come from the whole of a society from the bottom up.
One of the changes to that system currently underway in Davis, and as a direct outcome of the picnic day incident, is the formation of a police oversight commission. When meeting to discuss what such oversight should entail, a recurrent and common thread throughout these meetings has been disappointment over the city not implementing this system earlier. Followed by the concern for having to repeat this process in another 5, 10 or 20 years because nothing has changed.
That the arc of change is long is not in dispute. The problem is the bend. While many will agree that watching whole crowds of minorities bludgeoned on our daily evening news feeds should be a thing of the past, there is no doubt that the dynamics of that policing have not vanished. If we follow the arc of policing from the 1960’s, to the brutal beating of Rodney King in 1991, to the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, can we say we are bending towards justice? If not, what is the roadblock? Jay Stanley, Senior Policy Analyst for the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, wrote a very compelling piece where he talks about the “Just World Hypothesis” (the strong need to believe that the world is a just place and that we are in control of our destiny). Rather than accepting
the stressful reality that police officers, with all the potential power they wield over us, are capable of abuse.
For many in Davis, it is this need that gets in the way of our change. In places like Davis that see themselves as progressive, accepting, and social justice minded it is easy to extend this view to their policing. This problem often extends to many other aspects here. We have a hard time believing that our children, raised in one of the best school systems in the region, out of the homes of some of the most intentional parents, will have a problem with drugs, crime, or violent behavior. No matter how many times we are proven wrong, we come back to the belief that it is not “that bad” here. We are in fact correct and this is the problem.
When I moved to Davis in 1989 from Los Angeles it was with much trepidation. I grew up under the policing of Daryl Gates and experienced what I thought was routine behavior for police officers. My mother dated a narcotics officers for much of my older years and our dinners were often full of fellow officers and stories. I had an up close, behind the scenes view of attitudes, ideology and practices, so in 1991 when the Rodney King beating incident happened I was not surprised. By that time I had been happily living in Davis, lulled into the ease of commuting via bicycle, strolling the farmer’s market and not being pulled over by the police every time I made a particularly wide left hand turn. As idyllic and serene as our existence seemed, I had enough life experiences to know that everything has an undertow. The occasional blip of bigotry, personal or communicated by a friend or family member confirmed that no place is ever insulated from the implicit biases and prejudices that we all carry and are stubbornly embedded within our institutions. I also knew that those blips were the tips of huge racial icebergs that came into full ship-sinking view during the last election.
When the Picnic Day incident happened I had been working with the Davis Police Department for almost four years in my role as co-director of the Davis Phoenix Coalition (DPC). One of the goals of the DPC is to foster strong collaborative partnerships between the police and the community. Having had experience in Los Angeles with both excellent and tragically terrible community policing, I knew that both were possible and that the outcomes for communities and especially youth can hinge on police community relationships. My belief is that this relationship begins with the community. A police department is a reflection of the members of the community with power. If we are to effect real change we must empower those most affected by abuses of power. If we are living in a community that is suspicious of every minority wandering the neighbor, we are a community that is complicit in police profiling. The implementation of a police oversight commission is an opportunity for our community to back up its values. I am hopeful for its outcome but not hopeful that this will be the last iteration of change for our policing. I fully expect to continually work on watchfully monitoring equity and having to rework any oversight model implemented as our community grows and changes. It is the great entropy of social justice for the balance of power to become unbalanced. It is a community’s duty to watch the scale. In working with Police Chief Darren Pytel I am grateful that that balance tips in a positive direction. This is not to say there are not flaws or that the balance cannot swing. It is only to say we have a good start in Pytel and we should take that start with eyes wide open. We should continually ask for accountability as a community. We should insist that the good we experience in Davis is true for all our citizens. We are not Ferguson, but do we really want to use this as our bar? At the same time, let’s recognize who it is we truly are, good and bad, and honestly work in collaboration as the community we wish to be. Let’s take our strengths and use them to better our weaknesses.
Gloria Partida is a Davis resident, she founded the Davis Phoenix Coalition and is a candidate for Davis City Council.