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October 23, 2021

Watsonville’s policing committee releases report, readies recommendations

WATSONVILLE—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 final 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 said, 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 said. “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 then-Mayor Rebecca Garcia and now 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. To do this, 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—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 for the municipality, says that the work will only have begun 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 said.

Out of the 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 committee member Celeste Gutierrez, was disappointing but not surprising, considering the moves made during the committee’s work. That included voting to close the committee’s meetings to the public in a special closed session meeting 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,” she said. “I think the community wanted to be a part of the conversation but they never got a real chance.”

Vides strongly disagreed 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. We gave people a chance to speak, and I’m proud of that.”

Perhaps the most telling portion of the puzzle is 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 others recalled negative experiences with police. Some said they were held by officers without explanation for simply fitting a description, and others said officers were either unresponsive, unhelpful or disrespectful.

One woman shared that she was multiple times 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.

Many other negative interactions, according to the notes, happened several years ago, a fact that 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 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.”

Fellow committee member Anissa Balderas said she had concerns about the demographics of the survey. Respondents were largely 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 community, 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 in order to make the city safer. In addition, 40% of survey respondents said that the community would benefit the most 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 instead benefit from more programs for young people, and only 23% said that 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 belief that policing and social equity are dependent on one another was affirmed through her time on the committee. While it might not have been a perfect process, Balderas said that good things did indeed sprout from the last eight months.

“I hope that the city and county will look at the Ad Hoc Committee and understand what worked and what didn’t,” she wrote. “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.”

Though Estrada, Vides and committee members interviewed for this story did not disclose all the recommendations the committee would discuss on Aug. 21, they did highlight some community-led suggestions that arose from the discussions.

That includes the return of the Neighborhood Services Division, which was dissolved in 2019. Those efforts sought to empower residents through, among other things, a neighborhood development program in which the city would hold workshops on civic engagement and host small community events to strengthen the bond between neighbors so that they could handle small neighborhood issues amongst themselves and not always depend on police intervention.

That, Estrada says, is an adjustment that can be made quickly, but other recommendations might be multi-year projects. 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.

A majority of participants said their public safety concerns are a symptom of social issues that have metastasized, according to the report. Respondents for both the mailed-home survey and the committee meetings said that the cost of living was the main detractor of their “quality of life and well-being.” Those who were polled at committee meetings also said that the city needed 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 said. “You might not be able to directly link [the job program to the committee] but those ideas came from those meetings.”

Tony Nuñez
Managing Editor Tony Nuñez is a longtime member of the Watsonville community who served as Sports Editor for five years before entering his current role in 2019. A Watsonville High, Cabrillo College and San Jose State University alumnus, he covers the city, business, housing, entertainment and more.

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