City Council establishes pathway towards significant police budget reallocation, public safety reforms

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After a meeting that had to be extended a second day due to time constraints, the city council of Culver City has set a pathway for significant change in the police department as data from a public safety review continues to be gathered. 

This pathway will force the council past the Nov. 3 election to continue considerations of reforms to public safety approaches, police department structure, and budget allocations.

There were several other matters to be attended to earlier in the Monday meeting, so discussions regarding the agenda item pertaining to the topic — designated as a “public safety review” — did not start until several hours after the meeting’s starting time of 7 p.m. which extended the presentations into the early hours of Tuesday morning. 

It was almost 2 a.m. before the presentations had been finished, so Mayor Göran Eriksson called to adjourn the meeting to the next day to allow people to speak. 

The first report was from the Center for Public Safety Management LLC (CPSM), presented by Jackie Gomez-Whitely — retired Cypress Police Chief who also served as a Lieutenant in Orange County. The report mainly focused on data from the department, including response times, analysis of staffing demographics, and an overview of department operations.

The CPSM report held the Culver City Police Department (CCPD) in high regard, praising its attention to demographics, communication and transparency within the chain of command, and an overall high morale among officers in the department with a willingness to embrace change.

However, councilmember Daniel Lee passionately criticized the report, arguing that a data analysis of the current department was not what the council agreed upon, and that focusing on what the police did well at this point was “a gigantic waste of time.” 

“We are very well educated on that topic,” Lee stated.

Gomez-Whitely countered by saying the presentation made to the council was simply a general overview, and that the report itself was not yet complete or submitted. A report of this magnitude generally takes a year of work to compile, and several councilmembers admitted the three-month timeline was incredibly demanding. 

Councilman Alex Fisch asked about calls for service categories, and looked for initial impressions on the data from Gomez-Whitely. He also inquired about data on the percentage of traffic stops that resulted in a citation, but Gomez-Whitely directed Fisch to the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA), which specifically requests the presentation of such data to the California Department of Justice. 

The Culver City Police Department is also providing this data in its monthly reports.

Councilman Small brought the conversation back to comments that were started by City Manager John Nachbar in response to one of councilmember Lee’s questions directed toward Gomez-Whitely about the specifics of what the firm was officially contracted to do.

Nachbar says he paid the firm because he feels strongly about having a “baseline of information and data” about the CCPD, in particular about the workload of the officers.

Lee responded by saying it seemed to be too much of the “status quo,” to which Nachbar responded that it was an analysis of the status quo. The conversation then ended as the two avoided “getting into a back and forth.”

Consultant Saul Sarabia then gave his presentation, which mainly concentrated on the racial equity and social justice aspect of public safety, and compiled a variety of different options for the city to possibly entertain. 

One of the most popular of these was the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) program, which was established in 1989 in Eugene, Ore. as an alternative approach to mental health calls normally handled by the police, including homelessness, intoxication, disorientation, substance abuse and mental illness problems, and dispute resolution.

Several other models for adjusting response to non-violent situations included a co-response model — where armed officers are accompanied by specialized professionals to handle situations — was presented to the council with pros and cons.

Despite the depth of the information from Sarabia’s presentation, the first issue addressed was the instruction given to staff for these reports, which was still a topic of discussion. Assistant city manager Serena Wright-Black explained that following review of VODs of previous council meetings on the topic, the direction given to staff was to make sure a public safety review was “grounded in data,” with no specific guidelines given.

Lee believed that this reference was incorrect, saying that a staff was given a direction to present several options for police reform — including a potential 50% reduction -— during the approval for the final budget.

Wright-Black said that was not reviewed as it did not directly pertain to the public safety review. Lee rebutted by continuing to highlight specific discussions about a public safety report in that earlier budget meeting, but Wright-Black replied that wasn’t “[her] understanding”, but she “heard him.” Lee returned to this on the second day of the meeting after reviewing the video, and said there was a misunderstanding on the date of the meeting — being June 22 — but his position on the content was correct.

Eriksson asked Lee to refrain from back and forth discussions, but Lee didn’t back down, saying that he would refute any incorrect information given, and that he “won’t apologize for it.”

Councilwoman Meghan Sahli-Wells acknowledged the concerns Lee had regarding the initial report, saying she believed that there was not much concern towards racial justice in the CPSM report. She expressed hope that putting it together with Sarabia’s more socially focused report, a clear picture will be painted for the council to act upon.

She also commented on the balance between correcting “the harms we know are being done to people” and running a city in an organized manner, and asked for a “realistic timeline for potential change.”

Sarabia again turned to community input, saying that the “perception as much as the substance” of accomplishing things at that level driven more by constituents taking initiative than through city influence.

Sahli-Wells said she was hoping for a “roadmap” for creating systemic change, and Sarabia said that something of that nature could be put together with the information from the CPSM report by the end of the year.

The idea of a culture shift, which wasn’t mentioned up until this point, was brought up by Sahli-Wells, saying “there are a lot of traumatic things happening in Culver City today because of a police culture that treats black boys and young black men differently.”

Sarabia responded by saying it started at the top of the department, explaining that outside forces alone would not be able to create that cultural change.

Small followed up on Sahli-Wells comments by praising Sarabia’s report and its importance, while also addressing the fears on both sides: the fears that reform will get bogged down in bureaucracy until the public interest dies down, and the fears that the “crazy council is going to do something crazy” and make a drastic cut to the police department that would result in a jump in crime. 

Small turned to Sarabia for suggestions on advancing the process while juggling those fears, who did not want to make particular suggestions because he had not yet been able to fully examine the CPSM data, which he acknowledged earlier he saw for the first time during Gomez-Whitely’s presentation.

Lee asked a question to Sarabia about liability, which was seen as a potentially significant problem by city staff, but was not as emphasized by Sarabia. Sarabia referenced other cities and states where similar ideas are actively being implemented without any liability issues. He acknowledged the potential of liability issues, but notes that nothing currently points towards that being an issue. He also outlines that there were standards that were very difficult to meet to show that there was a “duty to be done.”

Eriksson then called on the insurance representative present at the meeting, commenting on Sarabia’s take on liability. He said that there is concern with lawsuits involved with decreased response times or a lack of response entirely, and says insurance companies are “unsure” of a lot of factors involved with significant cuts to the police.

He also noted that in plaintiff vs. municipality cases, the courts in California have been “damaging” to municipalities. He believed there needed to be a very detailed analysis that outlined that these things would not be the case, and how things would even be better. 

The provider feared that no one would insure the city without such a report. However, if the city can provide proof that police services would not suffer due to these changes, the consultant believed that the city could find insurance.

Nachbar also highlighted insurance concerns with sending unsworn personnel on nonthreatening 911 calls that escalate into  dangerous situations.

Lee asked about the major ways cities lose money, and the consultant highlighted traffic accidents, law enforcement involved accidents, employee misconduct, and sexual abuse cases, as well as the general criteria that insurance providers look at when considering insuring municipalities.

By the time discussions on Sarabia’s presentation finished, the pool of 45 registered speakers dwindled to 26, which concerned Eriksson. He implored councilmembers to consider adjourning following the presentations until the public could effectively express their voice. However, concern was raised by Sahli-Wells that people still on the meeting at the time should be allowed to speak, as they may not be available for the following night’s meeting

A third presentation was made by the city staff on the options and recommendations for reallocated police funds, which would bring total department funding cuts up to 7.5% from the 2019/2020 fiscal year after considering previous cuts. While this number is significant, it is far below the aspirational goal of 50% that many have pushed for in recent months. More information on the details of this recommended reallocation can be found in the meeting details of the Oct. 12 meeting.

Chief Manuel Cid also made a brief presentation to update on the changes that the CCPD has made since the death of George Floyd, including a “Park, Bike, Walk, and Talk” program that gets officers out of their cars and more connected with the community. Cid said the program is “humanizing our police officers to our community, and quite frankly, humanizing our community to our police officers.”

While a great deal of information was presented, the incomplete nature of the CPSM report and its “parallel track” to Sarabia’s report made the council as a whole uncomfortable with making any concrete recommendations moving forward, as each councilmember explained.

To ensure the bureaucratic process progresses beyond the current council, a plan was set to revisit the issue with a series of options following the completion of the CPSM report and the inclusion of that information in the Sarabia report.