After Minneapolis resident George Floyd was killed by police late last month, people across the nation have been speaking out about police brutality and taking a deeper look at the role policing plays in their communities. Now many Bay Area jurisdictions — including San Mateo County — are reassessing their police budgets and policies.
Almost overnight, the concept of “defunding the police” became vernacular among advocates. Soon, calls to “abolish” and “reform” the police flooded social media. While each approach seeks to upend current policing practices, they imply differing degrees of change.
Those who wish to “reform” police departments want policies and training to change to avoid deadly encounters like the one that killed Floyd, with an emphasis on ending racist practices. They also want outside agencies to hold police accountable when they misuse force.
“Defunding” calls seek to divest from police forces and to invest toward social services. This takes the burden of responding to calls like wellness checks and traffic violations off of armed officers.
Finally, calls to “abolish” the police seek to end policing by addressing the root causes of crime from the ground up. Advocates envision a society that invests resources in preventing violent and illegal conduct, removing the need for widespread policing entirely.
Locally, many Bay Area government officials are grappling with how to address systemic racism and violence in policing. In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed unveiled a program that would take nonviolent calls out of the hands of police. South San Francisco city officials are looking at redirecting money from the police department to other community services.
San Mateo County leaders have yet to call for reforming, defunding or abolishing the Sheriff’s Office, which provides policing for unincorporated areas, Half Moon Bay and some other cities in the county.
Sheriff Carlos Bolanos released a series of letters acknowledging concerns from the community and outlining internal policies and some reforms currently in place. On the whole, Bolanos sees reform as the most effective way to reduce fatal encounters with police.
“(Floyd’s death) should have never happened,” Bolanos said in an interview with the Review. “It’s certainly an opportunity for law enforcement to look at themselves and determine where do we need to make reform. That is a never-ending process.”
To Bolanos, defunding the Sheriff’s Office creates more problems than it solves. He said he welcomes a conversation about prioritizing the roles police should fill, but worries that across-the-board cuts to police budgets is bad for communities.
“Defunding police makes all of us less safe,” Bolanos said.
Released last month, San Mateo County’s recommended budget for fiscal year 2020-21 shows nearly 50 percent of expenses — more than $276 million — going to criminal justice, which includes the Sheriff’s Office, the county’s two jails and local courts. The second-largest slice of the pie, taking up almost 45 percent of the budget, goes to social
services. The city of Half Moon Bay contracts with the county Sheriff’s Office. If the county were to defund the Sheriff and shift resources to social services, the city stands to lose access to programs normally funded by the Sheriff’s Office.
Advocates of defunding sometimes focus on spending on salaries and on tactical militarized equipment that can embolden police officers and lead to elevated tensions on the street. Nearly 75 percent of San Mateo County’s proposed budget for criminal justice would go to pay salaries and benefits. Six percent of the $207 million is allocated to overtime pay specifically within the Sheriff’s Office. Local deputies often earn tens of thousands of dollars each year in overtime.
Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Lt. Stephanie Josephson said around $795,000 is allocated for safety equipment, which includes equipment for SWAT and other tactical teams. That money is sometimes leveraged by federal grants.
Bolanos said defunding the police would harm community policing efforts. That concept entails a commitment to providing social services and building trust with residents. He said it’s hard to imagine who would respond to urgent calls around the clock if funding was compromised.
“I would feel poorly to have someone who is unarmed go deal with some of the situations my personnel are thrust into,” Bolanos said.
Overall, Bolanos thinks directing resources away from the Sheriff’s Office and toward social services to fill community roles would be a disservice to the community.
“Taking the police out of the community and responding to just critical incidents goes against what people have asked of law enforcement,” Bolanos said. “Our scope has grown tremendously.”