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Local Activists Issue Call for Stricter Use-of-Force Policies for Santa Barbara Police

Coalition wants rules requiring officers to only use minimal amount of force and implementation of a formal de-escalation policy

La Casa de la Raza hosted a forum to discuss changes local activists want to see for Santa Barbara Police Department policies on when and how to use force. Click to view larger
La Casa de la Raza hosted a forum to discuss changes local activists want to see for Santa Barbara Police Department policies on when and how to use force. (Sam Goldman / Noozhawk photo)

As issues related to police use of force continue to be flashpoints around the country, a group of Santa Barbara activists is seeking more specific rules and commitments in Santa Barbara Police Department policies.

On Thursday, Equity for Santa Barbara, a collaboration between Families ACT!, Black Lives Matter of Santa Barbara, Showing Up for Racial Justice and others, held a community forum at La Casa de la Raza to outline changes they’d like to see in SBPD policies, and to receive input from several dozen attendees.

According to Simone Ruskamp, an Equity for Santa Barbara organizer, a Washington Post compilation of fatal police shootings in 2015 “made it clear that this was a systematic problem that needed a systematic response.”

“That’s why we’re very sure that the community needs to be involved in reforming our police use-of-force policies,” she said.

Ruskamp said SBPD’s last use-of-force policy update came in 2014, but considerable debate has occurred in the country since then.

Organizers surveyed use-of-force policies across the United States to determine the changes they will seek from SBPD.

Although the department is hosting its own series of public policy meetings, law enforcement personnel were asked not to attend Thursday’s forum. Equity for Santa Barbara organizers contended that those attending the SBPD-held meetings would be people already comfortable speaking with police.

“We thought, ‘We need to be intentional in holding a space where even those of us who are most vulnerable can feel comfortable and able to talk,’” Ruskamp said.

Topping Equity for Santa Barbara’s list of changes is incorporating a policy explicitly affirming “the sanctity of life” that the group says should be the lens through which all police action would be taken.

Organizers say most of the nation’s largest police departments employ a force matrix or force continuum that lays out what level of force is appropriate in what kinds of situations, and is asking that SBPD establish the same standards.

SBPD policy states that, “The department recognizes and respects the value of all human life and dignity without prejudice to anyone. It is also understood that vesting officers with the authority to use reasonable force and protect the public welfare requires a careful balancing of all human interests.”

Speakers said “reasonable force” is a vague term, and insisted that there should instead be a policy requiring only the minimum amount of force necessary to handle a situation.

Equity for Santa Barbara is also seeking a formal de-escalation policy that officers would have to follow when diffusing tense situations, as well as policies that would not instill an instinctive hostility toward acts of “freedom of expression” like filming or photographing police acting in their official capacity — a legal action when done in a publicly accessible place.

Organizers noted that the SBPD is already in the process of drafting a policy regarding officers intervening when another officer uses force, and then filing a report.

Equity organizer Scott Ruskamp said greater transparency and better data tracking are also needed so that the community better understands local policing actions and tactics.

Speakers said many of the proposed policies have the backing of organizations like the Task Force on 21st Century Policing created by then-President Barack Obama, Campaign Zero and the Police Executive Research Forum.

Several attendees said changes to how officers use force should be implemented at the training level as well as in the policy manual, and alleged that Santa Barbara’s homeless are especially susceptible to being unfairly roughed up.

Law enforcement say they’ve been increasingly employing restorative policing practices when addressing homeless issues.

Sgt. Joshua Morton, a department spokesman, told Noozhawk that SBPD is currently in the process of updating its entire policy.

“Because we value the relationship with the community, we have been working with and seeking input from the community as a whole to assist us in crafting a policy that not only meets the department’s needs, state and national standards/requirements, but also reflects our unique community and its members,” he said in an email.

“We are more than willing to and have been meeting with community groups to collaborate and work together for a safe community for all.”

Morton said questions and suggestions regarding the SBPD’s use-of-force policy can be emailed to [email protected].

Noozhawk staff writer Sam Goldman can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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