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South County Residents’ Mixed Response to Watsonville Police Department

Delving into the Watsonville policing committee’s recent report reveals concerns

Watsonville police officers look into a domestic incident where a motorist crashed into a parked car during a dispute. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

After more than 30 meetings over the past eight months, the Watsonville Ad Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity on Aug. 4 released its report to the public before its final meeting on Aug. 21.

For Watsonville City Councilman Francisco “Paco” Estrada, a very telling excerpt of the 224-page report comes in the advice given to the group by those who participated in the various meetings.

One suggestion says the committee should reallocate funds from Watsonville Police Department’s budget, and consider defunding the police entirely to address the root causes of crime. The very next suggestion on the list says, “Do not ever consider defunding the police.”

But between those two extremes, Estrada says, lie dozens of suggestions from participants of how to address the concerns that sparked the committee’s creation last year.

“I think we had a valuable conversation about where we’re at as a community,” he says. “I think there’s been growth and the nuanced perspectives that we’ve heard are invaluable … maybe [through this process] we see that we have something that we can work with. Maybe that we don’t have to scrap the whole thing, and we can build.”

Created by former Mayor Rebecca Garcia and retired police chief David Honda, the committee sought to address the calls for social justice and police reform that arose from last summer’s global outcry after the killing of George Floyd. The city set out to examine the relationship between its police department and residents, championing the effort as a community-wide meeting of the minds that would give everyone in Santa Cruz County’s southernmost city a chance to share their experiences with WPD—the good, bad and everything in between.

Estrada, Mayor Jimmy Dutra, and fellow City Councilman Aurelio Gonzalez have led the 18-member committee—which also includes 12 Watsonville residents and three WPD officers—through the meetings and community workshops in which they heard from everyday citizens, nonprofit leaders and community activists, among others.

The committee’s final report contains the results of a survey mailed to more than 13,000 Watsonville homes, and summaries of listening sessions conducted by the committee, United Way of Santa Cruz County and Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action (COPA). It also includes an online community survey asking residents about the state of the city and an in-house report from WPD.

What it does not feature is the committee’s list of recommendations. Those will be solidified on Aug. 21, and then relayed to the Watsonville City Council sometime in the next two months.

Watsonville Assistant City Manager Tamara Vides, who has spearheaded the effort, says that the work will begin when those recommendations are sent to the elected leaders.

“I think [the committee’s] work is a really great starting point for us to keep this conversation going,” she says.

Rec Room

Though Estrada, Vides, and committee members interviewed for this story were unwilling to disclose all the recommendations the committee would discuss on Aug. 21, they did highlight some community-led suggestions that arose from the discussions.

These include the return of the Neighborhood Services Division, which was dissolved in 2019. That effort—first a part of the Parks and Community Services Department, and later moved to WPD’s budget—tried to use the core principles of community policing by establishing a neighborhood watch, graffiti and litter abatement programs, and a National Night Out event, which brings residents and officers together in a relaxed setting. It empowered residents through its neighborhood development program. The city would hold workshops on civic engagement and host small community events to strengthen the bond between neighbors, allowing them to handle minor neighborhood issues amongst themselves and not always depend on police intervention.

Some elements of the division, such as the neighborhood watch and National Night Out, still exist, but Estrada said that many people suggested they’d like to see a revival—and expansion—of the neighborhood development program.

“I think we tried to consolidate and centralize our services—bring as many things to the youth center, to one spot—but I think that was a mistake,” he said. “I strongly believe now that we have to have a presence on as many streets as possible.”

That, he says, is an adjustment that can be made quickly, but other recommendations might be multi-year projects that impact several city departments. Some small but important recommendations suggested in the report include things such as improving street lighting. The report also suggested creating a pilot program that would divert non-emergency 911 calls to a division such as the South County Mobile Emergency Response Team for Youth, providing community and field-based crisis intervention services to people 21 years old and younger.

Some might not directly impact WPD, says Vides, as the “social equity” component of the committee’s work is tightly intertwined with the role and view of the city’s police department.

According to the report, a majority of participants said their public safety concerns are a symptom of social issues that have metastasized. Respondents for both the mailed-home survey and the committee meetings said that the area’s high cost of living was the biggest impediment to their “quality of life and well-being.” Those polled at committee meetings also said that the city needs to address the lack of opportunity for young people.

In response, Vides said that the city is working on an employment training program that would equip young residents with the skills needed to find entry-level jobs that could lead to a career. It’s one of a handful of projects the city kickstarted because of the committee’s work, Vides says.

“This process was more than just about policing,” she says. “You might not be able to directly link [the job program to the committee], but those ideas came from those meetings.”

Also included in the report are several pages of notes from meetings conducted by COPA, a faith-based nonprofit that helps organize grassroots movements to address societal issues. In these meetings, small groups— 10 people or less—sat down with WPD officers and shared their experiences with law enforcement.

Various attendees shared stories about positive interactions with officers, but many recalled negative experiences with police. Some said officers held them without explanation for simply fitting a description, and others said officers were either unresponsive, unhelpful or disrespectful.

One woman shared that she was often followed home by an officer who then scolded her outside her residence for unknown reasons. That experience “traumatized” her, according to the notes, but, now a mother, she has since tried to “leave her fear behind” and work with WPD.

According to the notes, many other negative interactions happened several years ago, a trend that committee member Celeste Gutierrez says solidified her belief that there needs to be a “healing component” within the final recommendations. That might include, she said, the continuation of similar community forums where residents can connect with police officers, share their experiences and feelings and get closure.

“There is a lot of healing that needs to occur,” she said, “and that needs to happen now.”

Weighing Responses

Out of the 13,000 surveys mailed to Watsonville homes, only 372 were returned—the city also conducted another 99 surveys at the Watsonville farmers market.

That muted response, says Gutierrez, was disappointing but not surprising, considering the moves made throughout the committee’s work. That included voting to close the committee’s meetings to the public during a closed session in April, and parting ways with their community outreach lead the month prior.

“Voting to close the meetings wasn’t right. It seems so counterintuitive to the direction the community wants to be going in according to the feedback in the report,” said Gutierrez, before citing the “nothing about us, without us” slogan, meaning no policy should be decided without the full participation of the group affected. “I think the community wanted to be a part of the conversation, but they never got a real chance.”

Vides strongly disagrees with that statement, explaining that the survey is just one of several pieces to the much larger puzzle the committee put together. Overall, she said she was satisfied with the response the committee received despite the looming pandemic.

“[The committee] came at a time when the nation was having these conversations, and we didn’t ignore it,” she said. “We had the conversations.”

Fellow committee member Anissa Balderas also had concerns about the demographics of the survey. Respondents were primarily older adults (81% were 45 or older), more than half (65%) were homeowners, and Latinx respondents made up about 44% of those surveyed. Those numbers do not reflect Watsonville’s young, Latinx demographic that largely rents, Balderas said.

“[That] is something to consider when reviewing the results,” she wrote in an email.

More than half (55%) of survey respondents wanted more police presence to make the city safer. In addition, 40% of survey respondents said that the community would benefit from more services for older adults.

But the 86 people polled during the committee meetings conducted between May and June had very different views. That pool of participants said the city would benefit from more programs for young people, and only 23% said there should be more police presence to increase safety—29% said there should be less police presence and 8% said the city should remove all police.

The survey also showed that 55% of white respondents felt local law enforcement is “very trustworthy,” compared to 33% of Latinx respondents. 

“This significant difference tells me that Hispanic/Latinx respondents do not completely trust our local law enforcement,” Balderas wrote. “Knowing this, how are we empowering our community with a process they can trust?”

Overall, Balderas said her thoughts about policing and social equity were affirmed through her time on the committee. 

“This deep dive into policing, community services and local government showed me how intertwined these systems are and how they can reproduce inequity,” she wrote. “This process has challenged me to reimagine what I think of public safety and how my community views it.”

While it might not have been a perfect process, Balderas said that good things did indeed sprout from the last eight months. 

“The Ad Hoc Committee has kept the conversation of policing related to racism, poverty and mental health going. The community came together to engage in dialogue, complete surveys and even critique the processes of the Ad Hoc Committee,” she wrote, also highlighting that other community leaders organized their own workshops about policing and social justice because of the committee. “I hope that the city and county will look at the Ad Hoc Committee and understand what worked and what didn’t. I believe that the momentum of these discussions will carry forward, and I trust that the community will keep our elected officials accountable for equitable change.”

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