It’s been a year since the death of George Floyd sent shockwaves around the world, and the impact of the murder is still being felt in Santa Barbara County as local law enforcement agencies aim to enact sweeping change and reform.
The world watched as videos of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Mr. Floyd’s neck during an arrest went viral last May, triggering protests in major cities worldwide. Just last month, Mr. Chauvin was found guilty of second degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in the death of Mr. Floyd, and he now faces up to 40 years in prison.
In the 12 months since, activists have called for a review of law enforcement systems nationwide, spurring a movement that urged local governments to reconsider how police departments are funded and how they should function.
That movement to reform policing even made waves in Santa Barbara County, where local law enforcement officials are implementing policy changes that aim to reform policing and find alternatives to incarceration.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown, reflected on the past year, saying local law enforcement officers were “shocked, saddened and angered by what happened to George Floyd.”
“It was unjust, inexcusable and tragic, but it was not and is not reflective of how we in the Sheriff’s Office nor how the vast majority of American law enforcement officers treat others,” Sheriff Brown told the News-Press in an email. “Nevertheless, we recognize that what happened in Minneapolis a year ago was a seminal event that mobilized huge numbers of people to demand social justice-related changes to the American systems of policing and criminal justice.”
Sheriff Brown said the Sheriff’s Office refined and improved training on how suspects are restrained on the ground and expanded training in explicit bias, equity, race and inclusion. Changes on the state level outlawed the use of the carotid artery restraint shortly after the incident, though Sheriff Brown said the department had never authorized the use of chokeholds.
While calls for police reform span nationwide, Sheriff Brown said even before these changes were implemented, the Sheriff’s Office was “way ahead of the reforms that have been demanded,” and did not need to make many “wholesale changes.”
“We have for many years adopted and promulgated model law enforcement policies that provide sound guidance and direction to our sheriff’s deputies, custody deputies and our civilian staff,” Sheriff Brown said. “These policies are updated, at a minimum, annually, not just based on what the law allows, but also on what’s right.”
He continued, “As examples, for many years we have recognized and stressed the sanctity of human life, prohibited the unnecessary or excessive use of force, made clear that our employees have a duty to intervene, stop and report any improper use of force, and that they consider the use of de-escalation techniques prior to engaging in use of force if possible. Our staff are also thoughtfully selected and comprehensively trained. We have a long-standing culture of treating everyone we come into contact with — whether they be members of the public we serve and protect, colleagues or criminal offenders — with fairness, courtesy and professionalism.”
In addition to reforms on the state level and within the Sheriff’s Office, other local law enforcement bodies have pushed for other widespread policy changes, including the increased use of body cameras on police officers in the field.
Joyce Dudley, the county’s district attorney, said that for a long time, law enforcement officials were caught in a dilemma with the use of cameras, particularly because the cameras only offer one angle to view circumstances and could encroach on victim and bystanders privacy rights if they are caught in the video frame. However, after Mr. Chauvin’s trial, Ms. Dudley said local law enforcement has pushed to install more cameras as it can provide substantial evidence and accountability.
“I think we’ve been caught in that dilemma for a while now, but I think the police department and Sheriff’s Office is now planning on putting in more cameras,” Ms. Dudley told the News-Press. “The Floyd incident really brought that home in a more dramatic way because people have said, and I have said, that if (the incident) had not been on video, I don’t know if that case could have been proven.”
Over the past year, local law enforcement has also increased the number of mental health workers who respond to mental health calls. When called to respond to a mental health crisis, some law enforcement officers are joined by a mental health worker, who can assess the situation and potentially help de-escalate the scenario before an arrest is made.
“Mental health calls can easily escalate to violent crimes if not handled properly,” Ms. Dudley said. “We want the law enforcement officer there to protect the mental health worker and to protect the suspect, so we need that strength from the law enforcement officer, and we need the compassion and understanding of a mental health worker.”
Since implementing the use of mental health workers, Ms. Dudley said she’s seen a reduction in the number of people suffering from mental illness placed in police custody. She added that she hopes to increase the number of mental health workers in the future, as there are only a few being utilized right now.
“We want to make sure that people with mental health issues are in the proper placement, and I think there has been a reduction of putting them in jail (since implementing this program),” Ms. Dudley said.
Last year’s incident even brought change in the county’s Public Defender’s office, where a Racial Justice Committee was formed last year to address racial inequity in the region and establish long-term change. Since the committee was formed, the Public Defender’s has met regularly with community-based organizations, presented workshops on bail reform and community relief and organized new office training on “Litigating Race and Police Trauma.”
“Mr. Floyd’s death awakened the social consciousness of Santa Barbara County and triggered a long overdue dialogue about the intersection of race and justice,” Lea Villegas, a chief trial deputy for Public Defender, said in an email to the News-Press. “Before his murder, police violence and racism in the criminal justice system were atrocities that received little attention in our community outside of the advocacy of our Office. A year later, the community continues to demand transparency from law enforcement and solutions to the racial disparities that persist in our local legal system.”
While sweeping changes are underway in various law enforcement departments across the county, officials agree that more can and should be done.
Ms. Dudley said one major change she hopes to see implemented at the state level is the decertification of police who are dismissed or investigated for bad conduct. Currently, state policy does not decertify police who are fired from a police department, meaning that the officer can apply to other jobs and still have certification after being terminated.
A number of other states already have a decertification process in place, and Ms. Dudley said hopes California will act to implement their own policy.
“If you believe in the good apple, bad apple theory, this decertification gets rid of the bad apples,” Ms. Dudley said.
In addition to policy changes, the Public Defender’s is hoping for a continued mindset shift across all law enforcement bodies, particularly when it comes to policing and incarceration.
“True systemic change requires that all criminal justice stakeholders — particularly the District Attorney’s Office — take a critical look at how they contribute to the community trauma and inequity caused by continued adherence to outdated over-policing practices and imposing criminal punishment to solve social problems,” Ms. Villegas said.
As concerns over policing practices remain a present issue in the minds of activists, Sheriff Brown said the Sheriff’s Office remains “committed to the pursuit of excellence” as their profession continues to evolve and change.
“Although what happened to George Floyd was contrary to our core values of fairness, service, integrity, caring and courage — and was not at all reflective of the way we police our community — we must be cognizant that to be effective and successful we must have the trust of all groups of people in our community, including people of color,” Sheriff Brown said. “We need to constantly look for ways to denounce, combat and prevent hatred, bigotry and other injustices, foster equality and form partnerships with those we serve that address the difficult problems of crime, fear of crime, neighborhood decay and quality of life issues. That is the essence of true community policing.”