Thursday’s reunion of the Half Moon Bay’s Public Safety Subcommittee held in the Half Moon Bay Library was notable for several reasons. Not only was it the city’s first in-person meeting since March 2020, it was the first official in-person city meeting for councilmember Joaquin Jimenez since he was elected in November 2020.
City Manager Bob Nisbet said the meeting marked a gradual transition for the city’s subcommittees from Zoom calls to live in-person gatherings. The city is working on developing a hybrid model for the City Council meetings, where attendees can gather in-person or tune in through Zoom.
Half Moon Bay is in the midst of examining its own relationship to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office and is weighing options for alternative resources to supplement deputies dealing with such non-traditional policing issues as mental health crises, homelessness and addiction calls.
The overarching topic is the city’s contract with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office and how the city could amend it to change how deputies enforce certain laws. Co-chairs Jimenez and Debbie Ruddock both stated an ongoing contract with the Sheriff’s Office is in the best interest of the city. Sheriff’s Capt. Saul Lopez told the committee his office is willing to listen to city suggestions. However, it’s clear to all parties involved that Sheriff Carlos Bolanos is not going to relinquish operational authority of his deputies to a new police chief of Half Moon Bay. The idea of a civilian police chief is among those floated in a report Jimenez and fellow Councilman Harvey Rarback have floated in recent weeks.
The subcommittee announced it would make 10 recommendations that will be discussed at the next City Council meeting on July 6. They are categorized into analysis, funding, partnership, community policing and mental health. Some are already in the works, such as promoting meet-and-greets with deputies, implementing the “Yanira Serrano Presente!” program, and conducting the public safety survey.
Other ideas require funding and will have to be examined by the City Council. For example, one possibility is that the city could fund a mental health response system from its operating budget. But Ruddock pointed out the city would have to find a new revenue stream to make that work. Alternatively, the city could consider a tax measure that would go toward improving mental health and public safety. Ruddock emphasized that both of those options would need to be studied more closely.
City Manager Bob Nisbet said staff is looking to get two guest speakers to speak to the council about policing reform. One is a representative from CAHOOTS, a hybrid policing model based in Eugene, Ore., that employs trained mental health clinicians to respond to non-emergency calls instead of the city’s police department. The other speaker is an author of an April 2021 report from Stanford University’s Criminal Justice Center titled, “Safety Beyond Policing: Promoting Care Over Criminalization.”
Nisbet said speaking with CAHOOTS is proving more difficult than initially anticipated because the program is in such high demand. At the same time, city staff is analyzing various hybrid policing models in California cities of comparable size and scale. That data will be made public at a City Council meeting.
“I don’t believe we can rush this, as much as some people want to because contract negotiations begin in the fall,” Ruddock said. “I think it’s incumbent on us to take our time to find a solution that actually works for Half Moon Bay and is equitable and feasible.”
The city will be publishing a report based on feedback from 90 residents across 10 focus groups within the next few weeks, said Assistant City Manager Matthew Chidester. Eight of those were focused on people’s experiences with law enforcement and included members from the Latino, homeless and faith communities. All were done online except those with the homeless community. Two of the groups featured experts on mental health and its intersection with law enforcement.
The subcommittee will also oversee a community-wide survey on public safety. The city has allocated $25,000 from next year’s budget for that survey. Staff will hire a specialized firm to collaborate with the committee, and the whole process could take four to five months, Nisbet said.
The subcommittee received an update on the Yanira Serrano Presente! Program. It outlined three criteria: public meetings with Sheriff’s deputies, a resource line and a commitment from the city to mental health services. Chidester said the bilingual call line is still being tested. It’s meant for any kind of feedback on policing and callers can choose to be anonymous. The number goes to the City Manager’s office and three city staff employees will have access and will respond within 72 hours. Once a staff member follows up, the Sheriff’s Office can get a report.
For meetings with deputies, the consensus among the co-chairs and city staff was that the city needed to step up its promotions of the meetings, including improved outreach on the city’s electronic newsletter and website. For all the positive talk about creating more dialogue with deputies, the first meeting that occurred over Zoom on June 9 drew just six participants. The committee expects more engagement at the next meeting when it occurs in person at the library.
Jimenez acknowledged that some might be skeptical about the notion of meeting deputies.
“It’s important for me, and I think for us as a community, to humanize our deputies and find a common ground,” Jimenez said. “It’s about building a relationship between the community and law enforcement that will go a long way to making people feel safe.”
Another issue that drew attention was requesting Sheriff’s Office data in compliance with the Racial Identity and Profiling Act, or AB 953. It is 2015 legislation that requires police to record demographic information on all traffic stops and report it to the California Department of Justice.
At a local level, this could uncover trends in the Sheriff’s Office arrest patterns. Lopez said the Sheriff’s Office is working on getting the software installed by the agency’s January 2022 deadline, but the technology has been slow to roll out and is still being vetted by law enforcement agencies. It will be up to the Sheriff to decide when it’s implemented.
Jimenez said he understands Bolanos’ hesitancy to relinquish authority over his deputies, but reiterated that the deputies will need to work alongside residents and trained professionals if the city pursues alternative law enforcement.
“The fact is that we need to build trust, and to build trust we need transparency,” Jimenez said.