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Watsonville Committee on Policing and Social Equity Aims for Change

Committee’s community engagement consultant leaves, citing concerns about group’s approach

Watsonville is taking a look at the connection between the community and its police department with its Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Last July, Chief of Police David Honda announced that the Watsonville Police Department (WPD), alongside then-Mayor Rebecca Garcia, would conduct community listening sessions and create a police oversight committee to increase community trust and accountability. Now, nine months later, the Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity has been formed with a total of 12 community members, three City Council members and three Watsonville police officers.

Spearheaded by Garcia, Honda, City Manager Matt Huffaker and councilmember Francisco Estrada, the committee aims to address the calls for equity from last summer’s global outcry after the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It hopes to do that by exploring Watsonville Police Department’s connection with the community it serves, and creating solutions to resolve the shortcomings that might arise. As Estrada relayed, the conversations sparked by last year’s protests provided “a long overdue opportunity to talk about these issues.”

“We were able to discuss systemic racism (and) have those reflections on the institutions in Watsonville affecting everyone in this community,” he says. “That includes law enforcement, our political leaders—it got us thinking about who we are, how we got here and, ultimately, who we want to be and where we want to go.”

While the committee is still in its beginning stages, there have already been some concerns regarding how voices are being heard and shared. Activist Joy Flynn was originally hired as a consultant by the city to assist in community engagement for the committee, bringing forth additional insights and personal perspectives from Watsonville residents. However, Flynn left the role just three weeks ago—and her reasoning is important.

“It became clear that the city [was] going through the process the way they wanted to, and I don’t think that they were ready to receive everything I had to offer,” she says. “The community members are the greatest asset and most underutilized resource the city has—the city needs to utilize these members in a way that builds trust.”

Garcia says she lost track of how many emails she received from Watsonville residents with their criticisms of the police department. Those responses further proved the necessity for a community committee, with locals sharing their own lived experiences with WPD.

Where the committee goes from here and what changes to WPD it might recommend to the City Council is anyone’s guess.

“I have no idea what the Ad-Hoc Committee is going to come up with,” Garcia says. “They may come up with an oversight committee, they may come up with defunding of the police department—there are a lot of things they could do.”

Committee, assemble

Discussions between city officials and the police department led to the creation of the Ad-Hoc Committee. WPD Capt. Jorge Zamora—who first joined the police department as a cadet at age 16 and was sworn onto the force at 21—believes the committee is a vital tool to assist in the wake-up call of last summer’s nationwide push for social justice. Zamora says the committee’s formation had been in talks for the department after Chief Honda joined the team in April 2016, but the plans were fast-forwarded as a necessary next step last summer.

“We have to constantly evaluate our role in the community as an ongoing thing,” Zamora says. “Once you stop doing that, it’s a problem that leads into a whole other set of problems.”

After an open application period last summer and early fall, the committee was formed in December with a dozen community members, councilmember Estrada, councilmember Aurelio Gonzalez, then-mayor Garcia and three Watsonville police officers (including Zamora). Garcia has since stepped down, with current Mayor Jimmy Dutra taking her seat.

“Other department members and directors are also involved in the efforts,” says Assistant City Manager Tamara Vides. “Both as administrative support, and to keep the work going in terms of subject matter experts, like the city budget and community services. There are different topics that the committee identifies that they are interested in learning more about and perhaps exploring things that could be explored in the community.”

For Zamora, the committee has been a heartwarming reflection of the changes to community values, much like he’s seen over his 30-year tenure with the police department.

“Having different people with different points of view and different life experiences is so necessary,” he says. “It’s almost irresponsible to try to solve this situation without people who see things differently or are impacted by it.”

Thus far, the committee has met three times in public community sessions (available virtually for review) and meets every other Monday in “home group” meetings, as Vides called them, where committee members can learn more in closed sessions about the topic areas at hand. Right now, according to Garcia, the committee is trying its best to educate themselves and better assess the forthcoming findings and recommendations.

“They are just barely, barely beginning—it could take between 10 to 12 months to complete this process,” she says.

Leading the way

Watsonville’s goals to inspire and create change to policing have been paralleled in other parts of the state. On Feb. 16, the New York Times reported that Los Angeles Unified School District leaders approved a plan to cut a third of its school police officers and divert $25 million to programs supporting students of color, specifically Black students. These results came after months of community meetings, and will ultimately affect the dynamics of all 650,000 students in the district.

While Watsonville as a city has a mere 8% of the population compared to Los Angeles, the conversation remains ever vital. Watsonville is 81.7% Latinx, and 37.2% of residents were born outside of the United States. Despite those numbers, the topic of defunding the police is still greatly polarizing for many Watsonville residents.

“It’s tough for some community members to have to confront your shared national and local history,” Estrada says.

Ultimately, Estrada says he wants Watsonville residents to understand that supporting the movements that align with reassessing police funding—namely the Black Lives Matter movement—really improves the “quality of life for all residents in the community.” Estrada brought those points to his deciding city partners—Garcia, Honda, Huffaker and Gonzalez—to assess how the Ad-Hoc Committee could best represent the community it served. During the application period, the team received just 26 applicants, and they needed to best determine how to represent the city’s economic, educational and demographic variety through these representatives.

“I was hoping we would have more advocates for youth on the committee, [Gonzalez] wanted to make sure we had elderly members of our community represented here, we wanted to make sure that all the major cultures were represented,” Estrada says. “We were sort of hoping that a lot of the people coming in would be representing multiple groups within our community.”

Ultimately, with the 12 selected committee members, Estrada believes that the city came to “a place where we would hope that everyone is represented or would be the representative for those groups that felt underrepresented.”

“After the first meeting, we were pretty happy with the group we brought together,” he says.

Bumpy start

Flynn says she wanted to bring the community and the city together to drive change with the committee, but she saw a divergence from that goal. She says she is excited to see Watsonville doing this work—being the only city in the county to create such a committee—but feels as though there was a struggle for evaluating change and growth while also balancing the “way things have always been done.”

“Because they’re engaging in work that has never been done in this manner before, I think they’re really trying to figure out how to do something differently, and how to do something within the bureaucracy of how the city operates,” she says.

Ultimately, Flynn decided to leave after a few months as a consultant, noting that the committee and the city need to learn as they go through a very uncomfortable process.

“What I think Watsonville is doing is important work—their goal and the intention is really good and important,” she says. “What I found is that it became, for me, much more city-focused … they saw me as representing the city, whereas I saw myself as representing the community.”

The question remains as to what the coming months could bring. As of now, all of the meetings will be held virtually due to the pandemic; all five public-facing meetings will be available online.

Vides says that the Ad-Hoc Committee is just part of the community outreach effort. She further acknowledged that the committee has conducted additional outreach outside of its bimonthly meetings, with virtual and telephone surveys and “listening sessions” with other groups.

“The work is ahead and inspiring, and there are many members of our community who want to be involved and to voice their opinions about what should happen and what opportunities we have ahead,” she says.

But Flynn’s departure sparked pushback from residents, some of whom are trying to be part of the conversation without seeing a great deal of that interest reciprocated.

One person who asked to be identified as Eli for fear of repercussions has followed the process closely over its first few meetings. She relayed confusion and disappointment in the city’s continued changes to the process, and believes there is a tremendous lack of transparency and free speech. Additionally, it has become much more challenging to engage in the committee’s meetings, she says, since information on how to attend is not being made readily and easily available—there have been no social media announcements regarding the meetings, for example—and meetings have started later than scheduled.

“No real change will come from this—the city is using the committee as a tool to silence community members, while pretending community involvement is top priority,” she says.

Looking forward, she hopes that Flynn’s departure will motivate the city to more vitally address the importance of this committee’s work and the need for change.

“Investment in the community will lead to a more caring society irrespective of the police,” she says. “Unless we’re looking at the tax breakdowns and reallocating funds, what are we doing?”

Going forward

Zamora says that the work is still in the early stages, but for necessary growth and change the committee must shift its frame of thought and use this time as an opportunity for proper engagement in truth.

“The goal here is for collective intelligence—without that, we’re going to have issues,” he says. “We all need to see something that individually none of us see.”

For former mayor Garcia—a lifelong Watsonville resident with more than 35 years of experience in community engagement—the future could look toward “refunding” instead of defunding.

“We have a youth program that’s been very successful and even been a model for others throughout the United States,” she says. “I’ve heard the police chief say that he wishes [Watsonville] could expand the program, and would have to get the money from someplace else. That’s a potential option.”

Garcia is optimistic about what the Ad-Hoc Committee and the continued interest in taking part in city governance could mean for the future of Watsonville. 

“The community now is more engaged than ever before—there is going to be a lot of city engagement and city participation,” she says. “As a community at large, they will be engaged in the Ad-Hoc process.”

Further, as Zamora hopes for the next steps for the department and the community, the findings from the committee will fundamentally change the way the department works.

“We have to be very intentional about what it is we’re looking to shift and why we’re looking to shift it,” he says. “We’re not one-dimensional, we have a history—and it’s not too much different from each other.”

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