The Half Moon Bay City Council last week heard presentations on alternative models of policing from practitioners and criminal law experts. It’s another step before implementing a set of recommendations on bolstering public safety that it plans to pursue for this fiscal year and potentially beyond.
The council amended eight recommendations from Public Safety Subcommittee based on clarifying points from the nonprofit Coastside Families Taking Action. Formally entitled the Public Safety Work Plan, the city will pursue these steps in the current fiscal year. It dropped two recommendations that were previously listed: One of them was the presentation from a hybrid policing model, which had already occurred. After some deliberation, the council dropped a second item, the consideration of a tax measure that could be designated to enhance public safety and mental health services.
“When we talk about taxing our community to implement a program that will benefit them, it’s going to keep a lot of people from supporting programs like this,” Councilmember Joaquin Jimenez said. “We need to look to other sources of funding.”
The other recommendations include continuing the Yanira Serrano Presente! Program, which promotes meet-and-greets with San Mateo County Sheriff’s deputies, runs a phone line to the city and a commitment to mental health services. The city is currently developing a community-wide survey on public safety that will use polling methodology to randomize its outreach to get more culturally competent results. The council also requested quarterly reports on a mental health program being piloted in Daly City, Redwood City, San Mateo, and South San Francisco. Based on those reports, the city will decide whether to plan its own pilot and require more public engagement with stakeholders.
Councilmembers also wanted to see change across the coast, not just in the city.
“Mental health services have to be available not just to the city of Half Moon Bay, but to the entire Coastside,” Councilmember Deborah Penrose said. “This is a Coastside issue. If we’re going to do mental health, we’re going to do it regionally, not with the city.”
The city plans to approach other cities in San Mateo County that contract with the Sheriff’s Office to create a regular working group. City leaders say they will negotiate with the Sheriff’s Office to identify how it could include more community policing, training and mental health services into the city’s contract when it’s extended in June 2022.
The council believes the steps it’s taking to examine public safety are not intended to defund the police or break from its contract with the Sheriff’s Office.
The nearly two dozen public comments expressed a broad range of opinions, from full support for the Sheriff’s Office to a vote of no confidence. Others wanted more details about outreach programs, more investment in nonprofits and hoped to hear more input from Sheriff’s Capt. Saul Lopez.
The July 14 meeting included presentations from two Stanford University law students who co-wrote an April report titled “Safety Beyond Policing: Promoting Care over Criminalization.” The report found that relaxed laws regarding pretextual traffic stops, defined as using a violation of any traffic code section to pull over a vehicle for a different law enforcement purpose, led to increased racial profiling.
“Focusing on pretextual traffic stops as a policing tactic also diverts officers away from the kinds of tasks in which their particular skill set is more necessary and appropriate,” said Jake Seidman, a third-year law student.
The report also stated that law enforcement called through a 911 dispatch routinely encounter individuals with a mental or behavioral health crisis who require social services or clinical help instead of the police. Because of the gap in services and resources for police officers, such interactions can quickly escalate.
“About one-quarter of fatal police shootings in the last six years involved a person in a mental health crisis,” said KC Shah, another third-year law student. “And people with untreated mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed during a police encounter than other civilians.”
Shah concluded that a first responder team for mental health services often proves more effective for results and costs compared to crisis intervention training often used by law enforcement. After the Stanford report, the council spoke with Ebony Morgan, the program director for CAHOOTS, a mobile crisis response team staffed by White Bird Clinic in Eugene, Ore. The program is dispatched by the Eugene Police Department to provide support for an assortment of nonemergency calls like mental health, homeless and substance abuse.
That police department dispatches two CAHOOTS staffs members, usually an EMT or nurse and a mental health associate or social worker, to non-emergency calls that prioritize unarmed verbal de-escalation. Morgan repeatedly stated that the program’s success lies in maintaining the trust of law enforcement and the communities it serves by using people and services residents know.
“It can take a long time to build that trust up, and that’s one of the key components to having the most bang for your buck,” she said. “Really getting the best results that you can is rooted in getting people to be willing and able to utilize your services.”
According to Morgan, CAHOOTS, which stands for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, diverts around 8 percent of calls from city police and responded to 15,879 calls in 2019. Its staff requested police assistance 311 times or just 2 percent of those calls. In doing so, it’s estimated that the program’s diversion from police and firefighters saves the city $8.5 million per year.
The Coastside is not Eugene, Ore. Eugene’s population in 2019 was 168,302 and CAHOOTS’ annual program budget was about $2.1 million. It has 40 staff members working 12-hour shifts three days per week and usually handles around 50 to 60 calls a day. Most of its ongoing costs are funded by contracts with the city and county.
While the CAHOOTS presentation was received with enthusiasm, Half Moon Bay officials understand local constraints. With no tax measure, it’s unclear how the city could fund such a program.
“The CAHOOTS is not an appropriate scale for Half Moon Bay,” Councilmember Deborah Penrose said. “County efforts are the right scale for policing policy changes and social services funding. Half Moon Bay just doesn’t have that kind of money.”