IMPERIAL COUNTY — Lisa Valenzuela of El Centro held a sign above her head calling for the “defunding of police” during a recent protest and candlelight vigil in her hometown park.
“It seems law enforcement have money for riot police, drones, helicopters and snipers but (states) don’t have enough money for (personal protective equipment) for healthcare (workers) or pencils for teachers,” said Valenzuela, who feels she is living in a police state that is keeping the community’s resources for itself.
As the nation deals with ongoing protests over the death of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement in the wake of the George Floyd killing and other incidents, a rallying cry from the Black Lives Matter movement has been to defund police departments.
Since Floyd died May 25, Twitter has seen calls to defund police increase to around 740,000 references as of June 8, according to social analytics data in a recent CNBC article on the defunding movement.
In that same article, some 64 percent of Americans oppose defunding police departments, according to an ABC News/Ipsos poll released June 12.
Calls to defund police were heard loud and clear during a June 13 memorial for Floyd at Bucklin Park in El Centro put on by Imperial Valley Black Lives Matter and the Imperial Valley Social Justice Committee, a follow-up event to the police brutality awareness event on the steps of the Imperial County Courthouse held two week earlier.
Local Black Lives Matter leaders and other social activists were interviewed on their views on the issue, as was a police sergeant and police union official. The sides were clearly divided in their opinions, but they came together on certain things, like the idea of seeing mental-health professionals or people trained in mental health-related response paired with police.
“I am all for reallocating funds from the police department. The money that the police department receives should not be used for any … military equipment. That money should be reallocated for the community, particularly for mental health services. We have a lot of people out there who need mental health services,” said Hilton Smith, a coordinator for Imperial Valley Black Lives Matter and a retired 30-year veteran of the Imperial County Sheriff’s Department.
When an officer goes to a call and deals with a person who is mentally distressed, the officer is not medically trained to deal with that person, Smith said.
“So many deaths that occur happen when an officer is not trained for the circumstance, they end up using deadly force. If all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” Smith said.
He feels the best-case scenario would have mental-health professionals and police officers responding to these types of calls together.
“Police should be guardians of the community. They should not be warriors, and we don’t want to continue funding the militarization of our police force. We want to reallocate those funds into different community alternatives in creating a whole new system that is about protecting and serving,” said Aeiramique Glass Blake, executive director of Generation Justice.
Her organization is a San Diego-based youth-led activism and advocacy organization. Blake said she feels police should only be out in the community when there is a problem community members cannot solve themselves.
“Reallocating funding from police to mental-health services would create a de-escalation in police brutality,” Blake said.
Calexico police Sgt. Sean Acuña agrees with the idea of pairing cops and mental health professionals; he’s seen it work in other communities. As president of the Calexico Police Officers’ Association, he is an advocate for anything that would better train police officers, but defunding departments is not the answer.
“I totally disagree with defunding the police. It makes no sense and is something that is extreme. I don’t think protestors mean that. Look at Seattle. They have a six-block section taken over by a radical group. Defunding is not the answer,” Acuña said, referencing an ongoing incident that began June 8 in Washington state where protestors expelled police from a section of Seattle and dubbed the area, “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.”
“If anything, there needs to be more police and more training. When you have a well-trained department, you have a well-disciplined one. They go hand in hand. Training is important because laws are constantly in change. A major erosion of public trust and whatever we have gained has … to be rebuilt again,” Acuña said.
“I think what they (demonstrators and defunding advocates) mean is reallocating, and when you do that, you short-hand the police. Thank God in the Imperial Valley we have not had the same type of situations that bigger cities have had like San Diego and Los Angeles. When there is a protest, it should be peaceful,” the sergeant said.
Through Police Officer Standards and Training (the state’s peace officer training program), officers are required to do an annual “perishable” skills course that requires driving tactics, baton, defensive tactics, and more, for a full 40-hour week, Acuña said.
“All the police reforms are great for the compliant person, but nobody has talked about the non-compliant person. There has to be police reforms, but we’ve come a long way from before. Anytime there is use of force, it has to be reported by the officer. The body cameras are the biggest things that show what occurred,” said Acuña.
He said he thinks that some type of training or education for youths in the community is needed that shows them how to conduct themselves when they encounter police. He believes such training would prevent most police encounters that require use of force.
“All these situations could have been avoided if the person complied. It’s a lack of respect for the law. Ninety-nine percent of the time police officers do the right thing. You’ll never rid all police brutality or instances of misconduct because they (officers) are human,” Acuña said.
When asked about local police departments’ ability to help people who are suffering from mental illness, Acuña agreed with Smith.
“San Diego County has got a great Psychiatric Evaluation Response Team. Civilians ride along with police officers responding to mental health calls and (a) PERT officer evaluates the person in question. (The) officer is there as a security. Police officers in the PERT team go through 40 extra hours of training,” Acuña said.
Acuna feels the PERT program works well in San Diego County, and he said he would be happy to see the program enacted at law enforcement agencies in the Imperial Valley.
This story is featured in the Jun 18, 2020 e-Edition.