Guest Commentary: Thinking Outside the Box on Public Safety

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by Matt Williams

On Tuesday the Davis City Council will receive the “Reimagining Public Safety” public health and safety report prepared by the joint subcommittee of the Human Relations (HRC), Police Accountability (PAC), and Social Services (SSC) commissions. The report can be accessed HERE, and the link to the ZOOM meeting is https://zoom.us/j/92267919619  This is a topic that I and many, many Davis residents are very interested in.

Back on August 31st six thoughtful members of the Davis community submitted the following article to the Vanguard containing their thoughts regarding ways to reimagine Public Safety in Davis.  The whole article can be read at this LINK, and I am republishing the beginning of that article here today.

Toward a New Model of Policing for Davis: A Letter to the Public Safety Joint Subcommittee
by Morgan Poindexter, Julea Shaw, Aarthi Sekar, Rowan Boswell, Caitlin French & Jordan Varney

When formulating the specifics of policy changes, it is easy to lose sight of why that policy change is necessary in the first place. It is important to take a step back and remember the broader picture. The process of re-envisioning public safety was spurred by an outpouring of grief and hurt in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd and countless other Black people across our nation in recent months and for decades before that. These murders do not stop, or slow even while the nation is in the midst of a pandemic.

The recent shooting of Jacob Blake has highlighted the urgency of the situation and the danger of maintaining the status quo. Our region of Northern California has been the site of many high-profile police shootings such as Stephon Clark (Mar 2018), Willie McCoy (Feb 2019), and Sean Monterrosa (Jun 2020) Our state, region or city cannot expect to exempt itself from this long overdue conversation.

We want to take a moment to recenter the conversation not on the minutiae of the data or local politics or ego, but instead on the people in our community for whom the current system is failing. In public forums, commission members and city leadership have heard from the Black and Brown people in our nation and in our Davis community who say that they do not feel safe in the presence of law enforcement.

The article did exactly what it was intended to do … it got the community and specifically the Vanguard readership thinking about and talking about the issue.  The first comment here in the Vanguard prompted by the article was by former Mayor Robb Davis who took the “Co-responder model” a  step further than what was proposed in the article … suggesting that the Davis community would be well served if the dialogue about restructuring public health and safety services also included consideration of how fire department resources are deployed.  The following is Robb’s comment in its entirety.

Robb Davis

I am very thankful to this group of volunteers for doing so much background research and data analysis of policing in Davis and options for restructuring our public health and safety services.  I hope they continue to provide these summaries to help us analyze options. Given the importance of these structural changes, moving forward to analyze evidence in a systematic way is critical.

When we examined police oversight options we used a very similar approach and did significant community outreach to hear from affected populations.  That work brought us the system of oversight we have today.

I would encourage everyone thinking through these issues to add an analysis of how our fire department is deployed and whether those standards are the most effective use of resources. To adopt a public health approach to public safety will take careful analysis and this group is providing significant leadership to this effort.  I hope our Commissions will carefully examine their evidence base and recommendations.

Let me know if/how I can help.

Robb’s suggestion really resonated with me. The last time our Fire Department’s statistics were presented to the Finance and Budget Commission (FBC), only 15% of the calls the department responded to were for actual fires, and almost all of the remaining 85% of the calls were medical in nature. It made a lot of sense to me then, and it still makes a lot of sense to me now, that there are considerable public health synergies between the mental health and substance abuse services currently provided by the Davis Police Department, and the emergency medical services currently provided by the Davis Fire Department.  Further, I believe there are not only public health synergies, but also significant fiscal and operational efficiencies that can be realized by organizing and delivering public safety services from a single unified department that manages and delivers the full array of public safety services, including both police and fire.

This past weekend a group of Davis community members who gather each Saturday with appropriate social distancing each Saturday in the open space just to the north of the Library, spent a significant portion of this week’s discussion talking about Public Safety.  In the course of that discussion one of the group told the rest of us about how public safety is delivered in the City of Sunnyvale.  Sunnyvale is one of a handful of communities that hasn’t just considered the idea of combining Police and Fire services, they have actually accomplished the merger of those two services and several other public safety services into a single department.  The following is a message from Chief Phan Ngo, who is responsible for Public Safety in Sunnyvale, which will give you a sense of how Sunnyvale has reimagined public safety.  Chief Nog’s message and other information about public safety can be accessed HERE

Message from Chief Ngo

I am honored to serve the City of Sunnyvale and lead the dedicated men and women of the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety. The department’s fully integrated service delivery model of police, fire, and emergency medical services provide safety and services to our community all within one department. The Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety is the largest fully integrated department in the country. Our Officers are highly trained in all three disciplines and can be called upon to provide these services at any given time. Community engagement is a cornerstone of our values and we fully embrace our diverse community through collaborative partnerships with all our stakeholders to provide a safe environment and enhance the quality of life in our city.

Your support and engagement is vital in continuing Sunnyvale’s status as one of the safest cities in America. I encourage you to get involved with us. There are many ways to be engaged. You can join our team as a Public Safety Officer, be a volunteer with our Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), start a Neighborhood Watch program, learn about crime prevention tips from our Crime Prevention Unit, or volunteer in our Junior Giants program. We also welcome your input and feedback on how we can enhance our community engagement efforts.

We truly appreciate your support and strive to exceed expectations from the community by providing effective, innovative, and valuable services. Together, we can make our city a safe and vibrant place to live and work in. Thank you for your support and I look forward to our partnership.

Warm Regards,
Chief Phan S. Ngo

With 289 FTEs the City of Sunnyvale is home to one of the largest, fully-integrated — combined — public safety departments in the country. 201 of the 289 personnel (70%) are sworn officers and 88 are non-sworn personnel (30%).

“Our police officers are actual firefighters and our firefighters are actual police officers,” said Captain Jim Choi. “When you think of public safety in a community you’re thinking about fire, you’re thinking about EMS services, you’re thinking about police services. We are the Department of Public Safety, so we provide all three with just one department.”

All the sworn officers in the Sunnyvale’s public safety’s department are required to go through comprehensive, intense training that includes 26 weeks of police academy, 18 weeks of fire academy and 8 weeks of EMT academy. Once they are fully trained, sworn officers are then assigned to a concentration area of service.  The system delivers considerable efficiency and effectiveness because in an urgent or emergency situation all of the officers can serve dual purposes.

“[On a fire response call] they’ll change out from their police uniform to their fire turnouts and they’ll go and assist fire operations,” said Choi. “They might be on a hose line or on interior attack or basically bringing a hose into the fire.”

Captain Choi says police officers will also get dispatched to medical emergency calls and, because patrol cars can usually get there faster than a fire engine, response times can be faster.

All of the City’s officers joined for different reasons but they all seem to enjoy the ability to do both professions.

“My background is in police,” said Scott Mueting of Fire Station 1 on Mathilda Avenue. “My father was a fire captain and he tried to persuade me to go to the fire side. When I heard about Sunnyvale, I thought it’d be fun to do both.”

As we look at “reimagining public safety” here in Davis, it is worth seriously considering that Sunnyvale may become a new paradigm for more cities looking to integrate their public safety services. COVID has brought with it substantial fiscal pressure on municipal budgets, and Sunnyvale’s model of cross-training all sworn personnel in police, fire and emergency medical services, should be one of the options” being seriously considered.

One reason the traditional model for a separate fire department is so expensive is the need to have a full force on-call 24-hours a day, even when there are no fires and on some days few medical calls. If those “on call” hours can be productively transformed into hours spent patrolling neighborhoods, the community will benefit from the increased coverage. “I am a strong advocate of this model because there’s cost saving benefits to it and there’s more efficiencies to be found,” said Sunnyvale’s Chief Ngo. As noted above, on a fire response call the patrol officers change out from their police uniform into their fire gear and go out to fulfill their role in fire operations.

So, I sincerely hope that the discussion at Tuesday night’s Council meeting, and at future meetings of the joint subcommittee of the Human Relations (HRC), Police Accountability (PAC), and Social Services (SSC) commissions will make a consolidated Public Safety Department one of the alternatives being seriously considered.

For a video by the Chair of the Police Accountability Commission, explaining the importance of Tuesday’s City Council discussion of “Reimagining Public Safety” go to this LINK

More on the topic of fully integrated service delivery model of police, fire, and emergency medical services can be read at Police Chief Magazine
as well as in an article in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

For a sense of what the Sunnyvale Public Safety officers think about their combined department, go to https://www.facebook.com/SunnyvaleDPS/


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About The Author

Matt Williams has been a resident of Davis/El Macero since 1998. Matt is a member of the City's Utilities Commission, as well as a former Chair of the Finance and Budget Commission (FBC), former member of the Downtown Plan Advisory Committee (DPAC), former member of the Broadband Advisory Task Force (BATF), as well as Treasurer of Davis Community Network (DCN). He is a past Treasurer of the Senior Citizens of Davis, and past member of the Finance Committee of the Davis Art Center, the Editorial Board of the Davis Vanguard, Yolo County's South Davis General Plan Citizens Advisory Committee, the Davis School District's 7-11 Committee for Nugget Fields, the Yolo County Health Council and the City of Davis Water Advisory Committee and Natural Resources Commission. His undergraduate degree is from Cornell University and his MBA is from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He spent over 30 years planning, developing, delivering and leading bottom-line focused strategies in the management of healthcare practice, healthcare finance, and healthcare technology, as well municipal finance.

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