By Iliana Magana
DAVIS — On Saturday May 15, Yolo Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Yolo People Power and UAW 2865 hosted a bike caravan followed by a teach-in at Central Park in Davis.
The panel included Tom Hintze (from UAW 2865), Morgan Poindexter (UC Davis Immunology PhD candidate and Davis Police Accountability Commissioner), Nusrat Molla (from UAW 2865), Sule Anibaba (mental health professional) and Kazia Johnston-Hart (Yolo DSA co-chair).
Tom Hintze opened the panel by asking, “What do we mean when we say community safety? There’s two things here, one is the way we understand community safety now and the other is the way we imagine community safety, so what do those things mean to us?”
Kazia Johnston-Hart answered the question saying, “Our current police public safety, quote-unquote, consists of an armed body of people protecting the interest of the wealthy.” She said that the police force is not protecting the people in the city, or the people that need protecting.
She added, “Much more often, the kind of safety that [Davis PD is] dealing with is homelessness, food insecurity, and mental health problems.” She mentioned the way that they want to start imagining public safety is by “addressing those issues that real people are having.” Johnston-Hart concluded with, “public safety right now is a capitalist force.”
Sule Anibaba gave an anecdote from two weeks prior about a call he received during the night. The call was about an individual of color with mental health issues. Anibaba expressed the worry he felt when he was informed a different individual had called the police department. Since the individual in crisis was someone Anibaba knew, he decided to help, but he said he “didn’t know what to do next. Before I knew it five cop cars had shown up.” He said, “It’s so quick for tiny things to escalate.”
After listening to Anibaba’s retelling of what could have been a catastrophic situation, Morgan Poindexter agreed that there needs to be a cultural shift and said that officers should not be the respondents. She said, “they are not approaching the situation using tried and true public health, well researched, documented evidence-based ways to deescalate a situation. And even when they are trained in de-escalation, it is a small, tiny tool that they might use if they feel like it.”
Poindexter expressed that it is a problem on a “systemic level, it’s not an individual officer, it’s an overwhelming systemic problem.” Additionally, she said, “community safety, in the way that we want it, is not from a threat of force.” She mentioned that if we think of public safety from a public health approach to contribute to a safer community, it means access to affordable housing and access to food. She said, “If society and the system makes it so that that’s impossible, then I think it’s part of society’s job to fix that.”
Hintze followed up by saying, “We’ve been talking about how we imagine public safety, but I wonder if people have thoughts about why this department that we’re discussing, the Community Health and Safety Department, has to be separate from the Police Department?”
Poindexter responded by saying, “It comes down to budget and culture.” She explained that “even the most progressive chief of police” could potentially have a hard time balancing a budget when their main focus is to keep their officers safe, and part of that job description entails purchasing new gear, weapons, cars and new technology.”
She said, “And if you’re asking them to also balance a budget which includes homeless outreach, homeless job programs, or any sort of social services…what person whose job description is to keep their officers safe would necessarily choose that budget item, any social service, over buying new shields or new guns.” She emphasized, “They might want to, but it’s just not going to happen.”
Poindexter continued saying, “There is no reason for law enforcement to be involved in these discussions….I think that it’s completely obvious that municipal governments need to fund services completely separately, and put aside a chunk of their budget to help the most vulnerable in our community. Because the second you help people who are most vulnerable, you are helping the whole community. If you are worried about your business being robbed, then the first thing you need to be doing is making sure that every single person in the city has a home, and a job in the city so that they don’t need to rob you.”
Johnston-Hart followed saying, “We have a culture of violence in our police department, and we don’t want these systems that we are trying to create, to be vulnerable to people who don’t believe in those systems, we don’t want them to be damaged by people who think their job is more important than the safety of the public. We want those systems to be accountable to the people that they serve.”
Hintze prompted Anibaba to answer the following question, “Why do we need this specifically in Davis?” Anibaba answered this question by saying that Davis has been his home for many years. He said the only place he feels safe is inside his home, and said, “When I step out, I don’t feel safe, because none of my neighbors look like me. They ask me ‘Why are you here. We pay for this neighborhood for folks like you to not have a house here.’”
He mentions how he lives in constant worry and fear, especially when he goes for a nighttime jog. He says, “I have my headphones on, but I’m still Black. I don’t feel safe. When I go to work, I don’t feel safe.”
Anibaba also recounted an anecdote from several years ago, when he was an undergraduate student-athlete at UC Davis. He mentioned that two police officers stopped him on his way to work, even though he was dressed in his football practice gear because they were looking for a Black male suspect, and he “fit the description.”
He recalled walking away from the cops and said, “I walked away from them, knowing that they might tase me in the back, or even shoot me, but that’s how angry I was.” He also said, “This is still happening today, and this is why we need this program.” To continue to help with the mental health crises in many communities, Anibaba proudly stated that he will soon be receiving his occupational therapist license.
Hintze directed the question, “Why is Davis well situated to be a leader in public safety, community safety, in creating a department like the one that we are pushing for?” to Nusrat Molla. Molla responded, “Davis already has a foundation of community networks of social services, organizations, and nonprofits. We have this wealth of knowledge and a world-class university. So, it really is a question of, why not Davis?”
Additionally, Hintze asked, “What are the services that we think should be taken out of the police department and placed in the Community and Public Safety Department?” He encouraged Molla to talk about the mental health services, in particular. She spoke about having a brother with a developmental disability, and how he was not able to receive the resources he needed, and they could only think of calling the police for help when her brother would accidentally run away from home.
She mentioned having a “constant fear a police officer would lose their temper and kill him” after seeing many cases on the news of officers who did not have the patience to help people in crisis. She said, “there needs to be someone else we can call.”
Hintze asked Kazia Johnston-Hart, “Why does traffic enforcement need to be taken out of the police department and put in a Public Safety Department?” to which she responded, “You don’t need a person with a gun to tell someone their registration has expired, you don’t need someone with a gun to tell them that they’re speeding! It makes people less safe, and it creates moments of tension. We’ve seen so many incidents, for example, Sandra Bland, and other people who had minor traffic violations that were murdered by police officers, and I would not like to see that happen in Davis.” She also stated, “There’s some people who have concerns about the safety of police officers, and a lot of police officers are unsafe because they are creating unsafe situations for people.”
Furthermore, Hintze asked Morgan Poindexter, “What services do you think should be kept in the police department?” She answered, “I would like them to be trained like specialized forces to deal with particular types of violent crime.” She explained she thinks that people who knowingly sign up to do dangerous jobs and rescue people, even if it might cost them their lives, are brave, and it is not something many people would sign up to do.
She also said, “In my mind, for traffic enforcement, it’s very simple- just divorce it entirely. It is not criminal. There is no need for the interaction between the criminal system and traffic enforcement in the way that our society has it set up right now.”
Poindexter proposed that City Council make “an ordinance that we are no longer pulling people over for expired registration. That we are no longer harassing Black and Brown people in our community, which we know that we are, because of the RIPA data. It is true that we are pulling over and detaining a lot of Black people and then letting them go because they did no crime. That is literally the definition of racial profiling.” Poindexter also expressed her surprise when “at the April 6 Council meeting Chief Pytel said, outright, that he stops or pulls over, and runs the plates on cars that look like they don’t belong.”
Tom Hintze added, “I think what Morgan just said is something that we can really dwell on and ask: why are we doing that here in Davis? Why? And what this campaign is saying is the opposite, that if we have the resources, which we do, to fix the problems in our community, then we don’t need the police doing those jobs.”
After the questions from the moderator, the panel opened up for questions and comments from the audience. One of the members from the audience said, “As a woman, a woman of color, a child of immigrants, people I know, people I love, we’ve had issues with harassment, assault, sexual assault, stalking, and the police don’t do shit. Those crimes that we think they [PD] are helping us with, they’re really not.”
Another member of the audience said, “I was raped. And I know exactly who is responsible, but the police department didn’t do anything. Is this program thinking about services for sexual harassment and rape victims?” Poindexter responded by saying that the police department says that the county has resources for that, but that she “would like to see that funded by the city.” Anibaba expressed his interest in advocating for victim and survivor services in the city of Davis.
The panel announced that they will be hosting a march on May 29, 2021, that centers around pushing City Council to cut the police department’s budget, which is currently 30 percent of the city’s general fund.