Over and over again, community members called in, and wrote letters, to tell the Board of Supervisors that systemic racism is not an issue confined to other parts of the country; it is the everyday reality for Santa Barbara County residents.
The Board of Supervisors held a hearing Thursday on racial equity and the criminal-justice system, which was meant to be a listening session before considering policy changes.
People from all over the county described racist incidents in their own lives and urged leaders to make changes.
“Many people believe that racism doesn’t exist in Santa Barbara, that SB is a safe space for everyone. I’m here to tell you it’s not,” Mariah Jones said.
“From the numerous times I’ve been called the n-word, to white women clenching their purses at the mere sight of me, to being followed around a store while trying to shop, to the time a white man called my wife a dirty Mexican because she was simply walking by.
“Every time I leave my home, I always wonder if this time will be the time that something horrible happens to me or my family simply because of the color of our skin. I have a 3-year-old son, and shouldn’t have to live in fear of leaving his mother a single parent for a simple traffic stop.”
Wendy Sims-Moten, director of First 5 and a Santa Barbara school board trustee, and Aaron Jones, director of UCSB’s Educational Opportunity Program, made opening and closing statements to the board, conveying the urgency and opportunity to create lasting change.
“Often times, people of color, we have dual citizenship in the place that we’re born, because we have to figure out how to work in a world that has different rules,” Sims-Moten said.
She talked about fearing for the safety of her 25-year-old son, who should just be able to enjoy being 25, like everyone else.
“I sleep in a twilight zone, since he started to drive,” she said.
Dozens of speakers supported the list of demands from Healing Justice: Black Lives Matter Santa Barbara, which includes institutional and financial support for an annual Juneteenth celebration; updating the Sheriff’s Department use-of-force policy to focus on de-escalation; implementing diversion programs to reduce incarceration; and ending isolation/quarantine for jail inmates attending court or contacting their lawyers.
“The safest communities don’t have the most cops, the safest communities have the most resources,” said Krystle Farmer Sieghart, who was one of the organizers of the Black Lives Matter Santa Barbara protests.
“I don’t know how many marches, how many shootings, or how many black lives lost you need to make change, but one is too many, and the changes need to be made now,” Arianna Spiller said.
People asked for a citizen-review board of the Sheriff’s Department and local police departments, and to separate the Coroner’s Bureau from the Sheriff’s Department.
They also asked the county not to open the Northern Branch Jail, since it will increase in-custody bed capacity.
“If you build it, if you open it, they will fill it,” defense attorney Jeff Chambliss said. The county needs to end mass incarceration, and stop putting people in custody for “innocuous crimes,” he said.
As speakers noted, the budget that the supervisors approved on Tuesday includes more custody deputies to staff the new jail, and the District Attorney’s Office has twice as many staff members, and double the budget, as the Public Defender’s Office.
“You literally just voted on a budget, but made no move to mandate all deputies wear body cameras they can’t shut off, or a data manager to make use-of-force statistics available, or a civilian review board. Those are all required to start to eliminate systemic racism,” Gabrielle Abraham said.
Spencer Brandt, director of the Isla Vista Community Services District, said the Sheriff’s Department needs to shift to community-oriented policing.
Most people did not join the department to be social workers, or settle disputes between neighbors, he said. Crisis intervention and co-response teams “need to become the norm, not only the exception,” he said.
The county needs a multi-agency response to institutional racism, as it would respond to any other emergency, Sims-Moten said.
“Understand that if someone took the time to tell you what you did wrong, instead of just suffering through it silently, it means they have hope that you have the capacity for change. And they care enough to show you a start on that path. It can be a calling in rather than calling out, there is a big difference,” Sims-Moten said.
“We have had 400 years of data, and we still are not prepared to deal with this issue. We are not prepared to deal it because we are socialized to be quiet on the topic so we don’t make people uncomfortable. With this cycle in place, we never learn the skills so we can talk about it in useful and needed ways.”
Jones urged the supervisors to consider requests that are “very attainable,” and continue the conversation far beyond Thursday’s hearing.
“The point is, structurally, institutionally, historically, foundationally, something is wrong,” Jones said.
“We all know it. Well, let me say that differently. Many if not most know it. Maybe some refuse to see it, maybe it’s too hard to see, but that doesn’t change the fact that it exists, nor does it change the fact it has been a painful reality for decades if not centuries for countless millions upon millions of people who are Americans and who are human beings.
“We are here, we’re not going anywhere, we’re taking notes, we’re taking names.”
The supervisors asked for a report from their “justice partners” on reducing incarceration rates, which will likely include input from Sheriff Bill Brown, District Attorney Joyce Dudley, Public Defender Tracy Macuga and Chief Probation Officer Tanja Heitman.
The Main Jail, near Santa Barbara, has been historically overcrowded, and the majority of people held in custody are not serving sentences, but are waiting for trial.
In 2018, 42 percent of people in custody there were being held on bail of $10,000 or less, which is for low-level offenses.
Since the Sheriff’s Department started its COVID-19-related policies to reduce the number of people in the Main Jail, the population has dropped to about 545, from its typical 900 – a 39-percent decline in a matter of weeks.
There are fewer bookings, more early releases, and a zero bail schedule, which the Judicial Council of California voted to end on Wednesday, but will continue locally, at least for now.
All of this is meant to reduce the number of non-violent, misdemeanor and lower-level felony defendants in custody.
“We can’t go back to incarcerating 900 to 1,000 people once we’ve learned that society has not deteriorated into anarchy when that many weren’t incarcerated,” First District Supervisor Das Williams said.
“Historically before the COVID-19 crisis, we were hovering at 70 percent or more of our people in the jail were not yet convicted of anything,” he said, calling it an intolerable situation.
“They lost a job, they may have lost their family, you have real problems – and that’s if you’re innocent.”
Local law enforcement agencies may be more progressive than others, with a focus on diversion programs, Williams said, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t have embedded biases in the institution, and that those embedded biases don’t endanger people of color.”
These COVID-related reductions “highlighted the fact that many people were incarcerated that did not need to be,” said Heitman, the head of the Probation Department.
At 7 p.m., Jones and Sims-Moten had the floor to close the meeting.
“Black lives matter,” Jones said.
“Twenty-four/seven, 365, black lives matter,” Sims-Moten said.
The next Board of Supervisors meeting is at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Hearings are still closed to members of the public due to COVID-19, but comments can be made ahead of time, via email, or by phone, through the Clerk of the Board.