In summary

Attorney General Becerra wants police reform, but in spite of #defundthepolice protests, that could mean more money for California police.

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By Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, Special to CalMatters

Tifanei Ressl-Moyer is an attorney and the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area,

It has been five long weeks since the reckless, highly visible killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Although media coverage has dwindled, uprisings continue to sprout in nearly every major metropolitan area in the United States, calling for an end to police brutality against Black Americans, calling for an end to policing as we know it – with global support. The people have declared, unequivocally, that it’s time to defund the police.

The response from California public officials has been prosaic.

It’s budget season. Local governments are currently announcing their plans to increase funding to law enforcement, even as other services face dramatic cuts. It appears officials are taking their lead from Attorney General Xavier Becerra. Becerra recently announced a “broad agenda for police reform aimed at improving use-of-force procedures.” 

Although his office claims this agenda “answer[s] the call” of “communities across the country [who] have courageously spoken up to demand change,” it misses the mark; or ignores it altogether.

According to his office, Becerra’s recommendations are based on the highly criticized #8CantWait campaign, whose own organizers jumped ship after backlash from the public. They also mirror the recommendations Becerra made to the Sacramento Police Department 18 months ago. This is the same department that was recently sued for causing irreparable brain damage, shattering bones and causing permanent blindness to people using “nonlethal” weapons during protests over the killing of George Floyd.

What’s more, the Minneapolis police department had already adopted many of Becerra’s proposals, but none of the training or reforms protected George Floyd from the police.

In the midst of calls to defund police, Becerra’s reform plan all but guarantees further bloating of police department budgets with funding for incredibly expensive training, “safer” weapons, community outreach and oversight systems. In California, law enforcement already takes more than $20 billion in taxpayer money each year – three times more than what’s spent on housing and community development, according to the California Budget Center.

Young Black people are quite literally putting their bodies and minds on the frontlines to amplify their communities’ concerns about policing, and for it, they endure racialized trauma and sustain permanent disabilities. On many occasions, this type of self-sacrifice is the only way the world has been willing to pause and listen to Black voices.

If Becerra and other officials move forward with their reform proposals as-is, they will have exploited the momentum of this moment created by young Black activists and silenced their calls to defund the police in order to bring forth plans that will ultimately increase police budgets and fail to protect Black people.

Black people have been brutalized at the hands of the police since the inception of law enforcement in the United States, with a demonstrable history of violence all throughout California. 

As a Black woman, I have witnessed, horrified, as multiple members of my family have been abused and traumatized by gratuitous police violence. As the current Thurgood Marshall Fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, I have seen the devastating physical and psychological injuries that police institutions, including jails and juvenile halls, have exacted upon entire communities. I, too, believe that there’s no reforming the police.

The Attorney General is often dubbed the state’s “Top Cop.” This reform proposal, despite Becerra’s stated commitment to progressive values, certainly does position Becerra as aligned with law enforcement interests and against the people.

Instead of adding money to police budgets with meek proposals to modify violent police practices, we must reduce police contact with the public altogether. The call to defund the police is a call to invest in communities, re-envision public safety and redistribute resources into housing, education, community-led health care and access to adequate nutrition.

If California’s public officials are serious about creating a legacy of true change in California, they must go back to the drawing board. They must listen to the community demands, and start working from there.

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