County DA speaks at community meeting
Tony Serrano, left, brother of shooting victim Yanira Serrano, greets San Mateo County District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe before a community meeting at the Ted Adcock Community Center on Thursday. ( Dean Coppola / Review )

A group of roughly 60 people Monday tuned into a virtual meeting with law enforcement officials taking questions about policies and police reform in San Mateo County.

The roundtable of panelists included San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley, District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe, Half Moon Bay City Councilman Joaquin Jimenez, Sheriff Carlos Bolanos and Capt. Saul Lopez of San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office, and representatives from the offices of state Sen. Josh Becker and Assemblymember Marc Berman.

The 90-minute forum was hosted by La Honda Indivisible, a local chapter of the national political and advocacy group. Co-host Lynnette Vega said the group formed the event’s questions based on a questionnaire and a template from U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo, who sought to gauge the response to reforms of law enforcement procedures.

“As a group, we’ve had weekly demonstrations to keep a spotlight on the documented disparate treatment of people of color by law enforcement,” Vega said. “But we wanted to take that a step further and (consult) with our local representatives in order to find solutions.”

The first hour involved pre-prepared questions to the panel and the next half-hour was for select audience questions. Topics ranged from the Sheriff’s Office’s cooperation with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, racial profiling, mental health crises and body camera footage to building community relations.

“We have to have that connection of law enforcement and the community,” said Jimenez.

“I think we’re missing that. It’s been missing for a long time.”

Though it was not addressed specifically by the panel, the death of Sandra Harmon, who was shot and killed by Sheriff’s deputies in Half Moon Bay last year, was brought up multiple times by audience members in the online chat. Harmon’s family has sued the Sheriff’s and district attorney offices, noting that one of the deputies who shot Harmon turned off his body camera beforehand and alleging that the district attorney did not properly investigate the incident.

Bolanos restated the Sheriff’s Office’s policy about bodycams, saying they are supposed to be on “whenever possible” when interacting with a resident or incarcerated person. He noted that in the event an officer fails to turn their bodycam on, “corrective action” can be taken, but he did not give specific examples.

Wagstaffe said that in the past his office made efforts to be “color-blind” when it came to cases of police use of force. Now, however, he noted there is more effort to keep track of data. This includes training his 60 prosecutors to be aware of racial profiling and implicit bias and creating a racial equity committee in his office. Lopez said that most traffic stops and contacts are phoned in, so officers “have no optics” before arriving on the scene, and that deputies are required to have implicit bias and racial profiling training.

The panel also addressed police response to mental health emergencies and the feasibility of implementing a program to provide 24-hour clinicians for mental health-related calls. The Sheriff’s Office’s stance was that while it would work with a specialized program, it had concerns over safety and staffing.

“It’s very difficult to get people to do that kind of work 24/7,” Horsley said. “I can tell you that from looking at some of the other police agencies in the county. And they’ve had a tough time finding people to do that kind of work.”

Lopez acknowledged the Sheriff’s Office could do better with community engagement beyond its Sheriff’s Activities League and particularly in the Latino community. This could evolve into more community outreach meetings so residents can meet with deputies in the field. With eight deputies responding to 12,000 calls a year in Half Moon Bay, the department faces time constraints on a day-to-day basis but wants to improve going forward.

“Having two deputies in a linear city of six to seven miles, it is a challenge,” Lopez said. “But we’re going to make our best effort to build those relationships with a lot of the community that has those concerns.”

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