Rethinking policing
The city of Half Moon Bay hosts a discussion of policing on the coast at 6 p.m. tonight. Photo courtesy San Mateo County Sheriff's Office

Protesters from El Granada to Houston to New York City are demanding accountability from law enforcement in the wake of high-profile examples of excessive force. Now, Half Moon Bay City Council members are rethinking the city’s relationship to policing.

Tonight, before the City Council’s regular meeting, it will host a virtual forum to “foster a public dialogue,” according to a letter sent out by Mayor Adam Eisen.

San Mateo County Sheriff Capt. Saul Lopez will be on hand to answer and address questions from the council and the public.

Eisen, who has attended local protests this month, said he wants to start the conversation with the community and the council about policing practices.

“I’ve always been of the mindset that our police department is as scaled back as possible. So, I have not questioned it much,” he said. “All the recent incidents have now made me want to look at it further.”

Eisen said he is hopeful the forum will inform the council and others about the types of de-escalation and mental health training Sheriff’s deputies receive, the use of the body-worn cameras and the polices behind use of force.

“We are talking about looking at funding mechanisms if we could scale back and use it towards other areas. For me personally, I need to talk to the Sheriff about all these different things,” Eisen said.

Eisen acknowledged that the city is relying on the Sheriff’s Office for services beyond what is typically thought of as public safety.

“We are making them do things they should not do, like police the beach,” he said. “So, could we find less expensive, easier options for that segment? That is all stuff I am willing to explore.”

Councilwoman Debbie Ruddock said Half Moon Bay is a small town with a contract and she is not entirely sure how much discretion the city has with Sheriff’s Office policy.

“It’s incumbent on us to pause and hear what is being said and hear the pain, and to revisit it,” she said, “to get a sense of what our authority is and what the policy changes might be.”

Ruddock has requested a copy of the Sheriff’s Office manual and is educating herself about the policies on use of force.

“I am not so sure we are in a position to defund, but maybe the word is ‘re-imagine,’” she said. “Reimagine how we might implement our public safety polices. I will play a role in this locally.”

The city has contracted for police services with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office since 2011 after disbanding its local police department. That was an effort to save money in the midst of a financial crisis brought about by the Beachwood land-use litigation. The contract outlines the services provided to the city, including number of deputies on patrol, expected response times and the use of a Special Weapons and Tactics team when necessary.

According to the city’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020-21, public safety accounts for about 30 percent of its expenditures. Last year, the city spent about $3.5 million. Its contract with the Sheriff’s Office does not expire until June 30, 2022.

Some councilmembers expressed satisfaction with the Sheriff’s Office and would not like to see their services decreased.

“Our officers seem to be well liked in the community. I’ve not heard any complaints,” said Councilwoman Deborah Penrose. “Their response time is excellent. I feel they do a great job of supporting us and communicating with us and being responsive.”

Councilman Harvey Rarback, like Eisen, said he had not thought much about the Sheriff’s Office budget prior to recent national events. He noted he was the only councilmember who was not in favor of the militarized armored vehicles that were on display at last year’s Half Moon Bay Art and Pumpkin Festival. He’s not so sure however, that defunding the Sheriff’s Office is the answer. However, he wants to be fiscally responsible, he said.

“We save money with the county sheriff, that is a good thing,” he said.

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