It’s a Wonderful Day in the Neighborhood: Police Chief Paul Keith Responds to Questions at the Virtual Policing Town Hall

With a week’s notice, the city’s police chief, Paul Keith, introduced himself and staff members  Captain Robert de la Campa and Sergeant Ian Wong at the Virtual Policing Town Hall.  The question and answer session allowed members of the public to submit questions in advance or share questions verbally or via chat in the online platform. The intent of this post isn’t to document all the questions, but to highlight points of interest to the community regarding civilian oversight of the police department, the “Defund Police Movement” and police violence.  

De-Escalation Training

Some members of the audience asked how much de-escalation training officers receive. Chief Keith didn’t offer a clear or specific response to the question. In the State of California the requirements for de-escalation are 2 hours for every 2 years. Other types of training require 24 hours every 2 years.  In reviewing the ECPD 2019 Training Plan (the 2020 has yet to be posted) https://el-cerrito.org/DocumentCenter/View/13299/Training-Plan-Final-January-2019  there is no clearly stated de-escalation training. There is a non-mandatory but essential crisis intervention training of 8-40 hours but it would be a guess on my part to assume that this is the training he was referencing. Perhaps this is why Chief Keith stated that de-escalation tactics were woven into the overall training. 

What he could not tell us was the following: What percentage of hours does de-escalation represent in the overall training of officers? Is there interest in pursuing further de-escalation training to reinforce the methods used by the department?

Several callers reported witnessing police conduct that they observed to be aggressive and intimidating, and using tactics that would more likely escalate rather than de-escalate a police interaction. The Chief responded in all instances that he didn’t hear about it and would have to look into it. Without a Civilian Review Board we do not know how many complaints are issued by residents or non-residents nor do we know the nature of those complaints. This is one of the demands on the petition https://campaigns.organizefor.org/petitions/el-cerrito-police-reforms.  

Use of Force

On the use of force, Keith was asked if his department would consider participating in Campaign Zero’s California Police Scorecard. This campaign collects data from police departments across the state, analyzes incidents of force and lethal force, outcomes and more, and scores departments based on the analysis. For example, the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department scored an F with a high percentage of arrests ending with the lethal use of force.  Chief Keith remained non-committal and stated that if they asked his agency he would consider registering –  but they haven’t yet asked. 

Addressing Police Alternatives to Homelessness and Mental Illness in El Cerrito

Several callers commented on the fact that the police budget represents 30% of our city expenditures and suggested that we need services for both homeless people and those with mental illness. The Chief commented several times that the county handles those calls.  He pointed to the county 211 service, GRIP in Richmond and other resources, indicating that they have it in hand.  What he failed to mention is that Contra Costa County is under-resourced, 211 often is helpless to assist with homelessness, and navigating the County bureaucracy is virtually impossible for many. Perhaps the Chief can ask the City Manager and the City Council to cut the Sheriff’s Department budget so we in El Cerrito can have a greater share of County resources? Or can we simply cut some positions from our own police department? What would it cost to help the homeless?  One veteran police officer with benefits and pension obligation costs the city $240,000 annually.  If the city entered into a contract with two mental health professionals, it would most likely be half of that cost.  

(Update: At the time of this writing Chief Keith announced at a community meeting that the cities and County are in discussion about how the County might take a greater regional role in replacing some of the non-policing functions currently performed by police.)

The Chief doubled down on the idea of replacing police with social workers and suggested that any call requires a police officer with a gun to keep our community safe.  Apparently he has not read about some model programs, including one in Eugene, Oregon that has been around for 30 years.  

https://whitebirdclinic.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/CAHOOTS-Media-Guide-20200626.pdf  According to the Cahoots program, the crisis intervention approach saves the city millions of dollars every year, reducing the need for the police to respond to non-emergency or non-life-threatening calls.  

Statistics on Racial Disparities

When asked to respond to a recent article about the high rate of racial disparities among police arresting black people in El Cerrito (13 times more likely to be arrested than whites), the Chief dismissed the statistical finding. He said  “So when we look at demographics we try to use other benchmarks, like demographics of our high school. It better reflects who comes in and out of town.” He used the intersection of Ashbury and Central as the example. He suggested that our black population during the day is significantly higher and that rather than the figure used of 5.4% black residents, he suggested that the high school demographics (19% Black) were more appropriate. When asked about the rate based on his demographic profile he said, “ Are there still disparities, yes absolutely.”  In a follow-up inquiry, Chief Keith said he hadn’t calculated what the new rate would be, but it would be lower. 

Chief Keith did tell the audience that the actual number of arrests of people were overall on a downward trend due to a change in the types of calls the ECPD is answering and the new priorities set for patrol officers  The police are now focused on traffic crime tied to safety issues such as speeding, as opposed to tickets for late registration fees. What he didn’t tell us is whether the rate between blacks and whites was also reduced.  

Identifying Crime Spots in the City

On the issue of where crime occurs in the city, it was surprising to find out that the ECPD has been without any data mapping software for almost  5 years. Keith said the contract ended sometime ago and they hadn’t yet renewed it. They are working on it.  He mentioned that the Nixel system provided information on location, however, he also said that not all calls are entered into the Nixel system. With a $12.745 million budget, how is the Chief allocating resources without a clear picture of where calls are coming from in this city?

All in all, those asking questions were definitely concerned about how policing is conducted in El Cerrito, interested in alternatives to address mental health and homeless issues, and not persuaded that it is sufficient to punt to the county and relinquish city responsibility for social services. Sometimes it’s not what is said, but what is not said that is so revealing. The virtual town hall on policing left so many specifics unanswered.  Please listen to the complete recording and assess Chief Keith’s for yourself.  Virtual Policing Town Hall  

The Next Steps: We the community ask the City Council to adopt the 8 points from our petition in addition to defunding the police and save our services.

What can you do?

  1. Read our petition and sign: Petition for police oversight and change
  2. Attend the important caravan on July 21st to remember the names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Trevon Martin, Eric Garner and work toward the changes we need for public safety in our community and all communities.  
  3. Be part of the Drive-in City Council Meeting on July 21st at 7:00 p.m.  We will listen on our phones or radio and offer public comment via call-in.  Our presence will be felt and be heard.  
  4. Attend the virtual meeting of the Human Resource Commission on July 22nd at 7:00pm and support the action on the agenda to convene a listening session/Truth and Reconciliation session on racism in our community- to include our city officials and department heads. You can speak at public comment period.

Additional Links

Directions for viewing and calling into City Council and Agenda for the Meeting of July 21, 2020 https://elcerritoca.civicclerk.com/web/Player.aspx?id=317&key=-1&mod=-1&mk=-1&nov=0

Link to the joint Human Relations Commission and Environment Quality Commission Resolution on racial equality. https://elcerritoca.civicclerk.com/Web/GenFile.aspx?ad=452

Additional Resources

Black Lives Matter Co-founder explains “defunding the police”https://www.axios.com/defund-police-black-lives-matter-7007efac-0b24-44e2-a45c-c7f180c17b2e.html

Since 2014, The Marshall Project has been curating some of the best criminal justice reporting from around the web. In these records you will find the most recent and the most authoritative articles on the topics, people and events that are shaping the criminal justice conversation.https://www.themarshallproject.org/records/3382-police-abolition

The Breathe Act https://grist.org/justice/the-breathe-act-would-defund-police-and-fund-environmental-justice/

Reform on the State level https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/07/01/new-california-law-would-strip-convicted-officers-of-their-badges/#:~:text=As%20protesters%20nationwide%20demand%20police,State%20Sen.&text=Police%20Decertification%20Act%20of%202020.

A look at what is happening next door in Berkeley https://www.berkeleyside.com/2020/07/15/berkeley-council-approves-omnibus-motion-to-reform-policing

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