by Will Arnold
My friends, today I am calling for the reimagining, redesign and repurposing of our public safety system in Davis, including a fundamental transformation of our current structure as we know it, and the beginning of a new, sustainable approach to community safety.
I propose we begin this effort by changing the name of our Police Department to the Department of Community Safety, and committing to a mission of justice, equity, dignity, guardianship, community partnership and reduction of violence.
This difficult but necessary transition will take some time, but it needs to start now and begins by understanding that our current system is not well designed for its mission and is overdue for change. In recent years, we have taken some important steps in this direction, but it’s time we move our efforts to the next level.
Community safety is a cornerstone human responsibility and the most important service a government can provide. This essential public service is provided in every part of the world and in many forms.
The City of Davis, like most American cities, employs a system of community safety that relies heavily on armed officers to respond to calls for service.
On some of these calls, it is necessary and appropriate to send individuals trained and equipped to encounter violence. I commend our officers for their bravery and dedication to duty in facing these perilous situations on our behalf.
On other occasions, responding with traditional armed officers is unnecessary, inappropriate and potentially dangerous. An armed police presence can reduce violence in many situations, but it can raise the specter of violence in others.
This is particularly the case for our brothers and sisters in the Black community, and other people of color, whose lives have for centuries been devalued, dehumanized or simply ended by the very institutions charged with their safety.
Systemic racism is embedded in every part of our society, in every institution, including healthcare, education, business, housing and yes, political leadership. But it is our system of policing and criminal justice where the consequences of systemic racism are the most troubling and severe, including people of color avoiding police interaction, living in fear, losing their freedoms, or being killed.
As a society, and as a city, we need fewer interactions between armed public employees and the people they serve. The tragedy that can ensue runs counter to any conceivable mission of community safety.
I come to this central premise, that our police officers are tasked with too many varying responsibilities, several of which they are undertrained or ill equipped to address, through many conversations with the officers themselves. They tell me that they find themselves as our frontline workers in addressing homelessness, mental health, drug addiction, and domestic violence, to name just a few examples. I appreciate their dedication to serving us in these roles, but this is not what any of them signed up for, nor have they been properly equipped to handle them.
These are responsibilities that could instead be performed by trained professionals without the need for an armed officer of the law. I believe a reimagined and renamed Department of Community Safety will lead to such a transition, away from the traditional law enforcement approach, and toward a system that more appropriately deploys personnel for the task at hand.
Should the call come in about an individual experiencing a mental health episode, for example, a set of licensed professionals trained in mental health will respond. Should the call be about a homeless encampment, a different set of professionals, with different training will respond. And should the call come in about a crime in progress, particularly when violence or the threat of violence is involved, rest assured that an armed, licensed peace officer will respond. These professionals working together in the same department, rather than within their individual silos, will improve the effectiveness of all of them.
This is the essence of the changes I propose, that for the safety of all involved we must do better at staffing and assigning duties to appropriate personnel. While I do not propose immediate changes in personnel, as we repurpose our department and look to fill vacant positions, we must ensure that any additions to the department reflect the new mission and are targeted to serve our community’s diverse safety needs.
I call on our community to aid in developing new strategies for violence reduction and community safety. To complete this mission may require more funds, not less, which is why our partnerships are critical to its success. Our partnership with Yolo County is particularly important as we look to staff and fund positions within the new Department.
We must also work with our state leaders to assist us with any changes in state law that will allow us to carry out this vision. For some of this to be fully realized, it will require support and action from our state partners, but that should not stop us from moving forward in any way we can toward this new approach.
We know we can’t wait for the federal government to take action, and that meaningful change will need to be locally driven. It will take time, commitment and collaboration to do it right, but it will be worth it when our diverse community can feel that their safety is being adequately protected. I am confident these changes I propose will result in a safer and more equitable community, including for the professionals tasked with protecting that safety.
The fundamental reforms I propose begin with renaming and reimagining our community safety system here in Davis. It is a start, but it cannot end there. We need to take this on together in every other part of our society and culture as well.
But as an elected city leader, my duty is to help guide our community to a better place. It is critical that we set a vision of how to redefine and recommit to our safety mission and ensure our efforts are worthy of the moment.
Davis has always prided itself on being a leader in many movements, including the environment, world peace and social justice. This should be no exception. We need to be a leader and not a follower. Our community deserves no less.