Updated: 11:38am, May 19
The Half Moon Bay City Council appeared unlikely to hear a proposal that would restrict the way San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputies enforce the law, instead pushing it to a subcommittee studying policing in the city in advance of contract negotiations. Meanwhile, the sheriff himself finds the restrictions proposed by a pair of city council members “problematic” and unenforceable.
City Councilmen Harvey Rarback and Joaquin Jimenez prepared a draft ordinance in advance of Tuesday’s meeting that would change the way deputies make arrests, deal with altercations and conduct traffic enforcement. The City Council meeting occurred after the Review’s print deadlines. However, a staff report suggests that the council bump the draft ordinance to a police reform subcommittee and finds significant problems with the ordinance as presented.
The drafted ordinance came to light last week. It seeks to change how the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office makes arrests, deals with altercations and uses traffic stops on the Coastside. It states that a law enforcement officer could not stop a car for failing to signal a turn, having expired license tags, or having a defective tail light. In terms of restraining suspects, the ordinance would ban the use of stun guns and chokeholds and prohibit officers from placing people in a prone position while handcuffed. It would require them to be moved on their side immediately if necessary.
Even if the ordinance were ultimately approved by the council, it likely wouldn’t have any bearing on the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, said Sheriff Carlos Bolanos. Because of the county’s contract with Half Moon Bay, the city can’t legislate changes until the contract is up for renegotiation, Bolanos said. The Sheriff’s Office contract with the city doesn’t expire until July 2022.
“It’s my understanding their ordinance will have no legal basis on our services, nor on the contract,” Bolanos said. “It’s basically unenforceable.”
City staff agrees. In a staff report posted online on Friday, City Attorney Catherine Engberg suggests the proposal would “raise contractual issues that would likely require renegotiation of the Sheriff’s contract” and possibly hamper future negotiations for police services. She also says the draft could conflict with state law that gives discretion to the police chief when it comes to procedures.
Both Bolanos and Rarback noted the city could adopt a negotiating position if it agrees on the ordinance. But the exact policies would still need to be ironed out, and Bolanos pointed to complications that could arise if multiple municipalities around the county required different enforcement policies.
“It would be very problematic for me to have different people assigned to different places operating under different rules,” Bolanos said. “I think it would create some safety and liability issues for my personnel.”
The ordinance would also mandate that when dealing with someone who is a threat to themselves or others, officers must wait for backup from another officer or a mental health professional before initiating contact. In addition, officers would also be required to retreat and take cover before firing at an individual. Jimenez noted that public input on this ordinance should be encouraged and that dialogue with law enforcement would be key to making substantial changes happen.
“It’s in our best interest to listen to our community, to see what is going on and if there has to be any kind of changes to make our community safer,” Jimenez said.
The draft ordinance comes in the wake of discussion between law enforcement and residents. On April 26, a group of La Honda volunteers organized a virtual panel of leaders from the district attorney’s office and Sheriff’s Office to hear how the agencies dealt with racial profiling and mental health, among other issues. On May 4, the City Council passed a resolution meant to boost mental health services in the city and host public meetings between deputies and residents.
Bolanos believes the ordinance wouldn’t improve public safety, noting that the county and state already banned chokeholds last year. He said the proposed policy on pretextual traffic stops “prohibits a great deal of traffic enforcement that we believe saves lives.”
While this ordinance would restrict the actions of law enforcement, Rarback believes it would instead give deputies the time and ability to focus on more pressing areas and pursue other crimes.
“In that sense, it’s not anti-police, it’s pro-police,” Rarback said. “It’s giving them opportunities to spend their time doing serious crime abatement.”
Greg Woods, a criminology and legal studies professor at San Jose State University, believes Half Moon Bay provides an interesting case study on a municipality amending law enforcement policies because of its history with removing its own police department and contracting with the Sheriff’s Office.
Because this ordinance would impact a specific area of the Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction, “That means there would have to be a very special approach to the way policing is conducted within Half Moon Bay,” Woods said. “There are a number of obstacles in the path because Half Moon Bay has eliminated that opportunity to have that policing body be managed exclusively by its legislative body that hopes to impose reforms upon that very agency.”
Or in other words, he asked, “How do you control an agency you have no authority over?”
Woods believes Half Moon Bay has an opportunity to change the culture around policing, both within the law enforcement agency, the city council, and the community as a whole.
“This could be the first step to the future that ultimately makes us a safer community,” he said. “But a lot of discussions have to be made, and bridges have to be built.”