The town of Portola Valley will begin engaging the community about police reform and racial inequality following a Town Council discussion June 10 on the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and subsequent protests against police brutality.
The council created a subcommittee, made up of Vice Mayor Maryann Derwin and Councilman John Richards, to start a dialogue with residents and the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office about police reform in Portola Valley and other cities that have contracts with the Sheriff's Office for police services. The council members will also request Sheriff's Office data on interactions between its deputies and people they pull over, including information on race.
"There's no question in my mind there is institutional racism," Mayor Jeff Aalfs said during the meeting. "It is pervasive, it is corrosive, and I think it's a moral imperative that we address it in some way. We're an affluent community, mostly white, but I think that actually puts us in a position where I feel a certain responsibility to take some of this on."
At the outset of the discussion, Derwin acknowledged that the town is "90% white" and talked about previous housing policies that contributed to the lack of diversity.
"When my former husband and I bought our house in 1992 in Westridge, we received the original 1947 CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions)," Derwin said. "I never read them until many years later and I was absolutely horrified to discover this document contained a restrictive covenant preventing non-Caucasians from buying houses in the subdivision.
"This ugly legacy and our zoning ordinance and housing policies, which have resulted in preserving this paradise we live in, have also been successful in keeping working class and now even middle-class families -- and by extension people of color -- out of most of our neighborhoods," she said. "Is it time to connect the dots between this gorgeous place we live -- 1,700 households and 9 square miles of land -- and the lack of economic and racial diversity in our town, and reexamine our zoning ordinances and our housing policies to consider accepting more density so that we can welcome more people of color into our community?"
Councilwoman Ann Wengert said she also encountered a covenant upon moving to Portola Valley in 1999 that had previously prevented African Americans from buying the home. She turned the discussion to policing, proposing that the town of Portola Valley and other cities that contract with the Sheriff's Office form a group with a representative from each area to discuss policing and subject matters they'd like more clarity on.
"I am still very pleased with the work we have gotten and the service we have gotten from our police department, but now is the time to take it to a new level, and to make sure that we ask for some clear prohibitions and new standards," Wengert said. "It starts with things like prohibiting the police from using chokeholds or applying any pressure to the throat, uniform standards for police departments regarding use of force, civilian review, transparency, due process, body cameras and training, eliminate qualified immunity for police officers and a few more, including military equipment and the use of that and whether it's appropriate or not, and clearly an uptick in cultural competence and unconscious bias training for law enforcement."
In a June 2 letter to San Mateo County residents, Sheriff Carlos Bolanos wrote that "our policies and training explicitly prohibit the neck restraint used on Mr. Floyd." In response to the "8 Can't Wait" campaign, which was launched by the police-reform nonprofit Campaign Zero and advocates for cities nationwide to adopt a set of eight policies regarding use of force, the Sheriff's Office released a graphic summarizing how its policies look by comparison. The Sheriff's Office claims it follows six of the eight policies, but does not currently mandate warnings before shooting or ban shooting at moving vehicles.
"The Sheriff's Office trains its employees to, when feasible, provide a verbal warning and opportunity to comply prior to the use of OC Spray, Pepper Projectile Systems, Baton, Tear Gas, Speciality Impact Munitions, Canine, the TASER, and Firearm," according to the Sheriff's Office.
Floyd's death in police custody May 25 has spurred protests worldwide and calls for police reform and decreasing law enforcement funding. Menlo Park Mayor Cecilia Taylor recently said she'd like to see the city's police budget reduced by 20%. The Palo Alto City Council on Tuesday moved toward adopting the "8 Can't Wait" platform and signaled its desire to consider combining its police and fire agencies into a single Department of Public Safety. In San Francisco, police officers will be replaced with trained, unarmed professionals to respond to noncriminal calls for help involving mental health, school discipline and the homeless as part of new reforms announced last week.
"It's recently been pointed out that the scope and the mission of the police has grown dramatically over the years to include more and more things that aren't related to law enforcement," Richards said during last week's council meeting. "Rethinking the actual mission of the police, I would think some of them would be delighted to get some of these things off their plate, like the mental health issues that have fallen apart ever since one of our long-ago governors tore apart the system in California."
Reached Wednesday, San Mateo County Supervisor Don Horsley, who served as county sheriff from 1993 to 2007, said he's discussed with the county manager the idea of "civilianizing" the Sheriff's Office's psychiatric emergency response team.
"Why can't all police departments contribute (funding) to a unit of specially trained psychiatric or social workers that could respond to calls for mentally ill people?" he said. "I think they'd be glad to hand off those kinds of cases. Sometimes you have to take a police officer to the scene, especially if someone is armed ... but it might be a better approach."
He added that he anticipates the Sheriff's Office will see cuts due to a significant budget shortfall the county is facing amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
"The Sheriff's Office, probations, the DA -- all of our departments are going to have to take pretty significant cuts," he said. "If we're going to keep clinics and hospitals open we're going to have to redirect funding from other departments to keep vital services."
During public comment June 10, Annalise Constantz, a biracial woman who grew up in Portola Valley, emphasized the importance of education in addressing systematic racism.
"As someone who grew up in both Ormondale and Corte Madera schools, I can't say that I ever remember talking about race or inclusion, and meanwhile we have students being bused in from East Palo Alto and those students unfortunately were my peers who were racially profiled while walking to Roberts (Market) after school or to the deli ... It's our duty as an extremely privileged white community in the Bay Area with so many resources to really do a lot about this," she said. "I'm not someone that had to research what racism is like in Portola Valley -- it's something that I've truly experienced."
Resident Betsy Morgenthaler said she has been disheartened to see police use rubber bullets and tear gas against protesters nationwide and highlighted the Taser-related deaths of three people in San Mateo County in 2018. She called on the use of "fully independent prosecutors" and critical incident review boards that would include community members as well as law enforcement officials.
"The goal is ostensibly to protect the public, but I feel radically less safe than I would like to, and I'd very much like to see as much local community pressure as we can apply to drive what's also happening at the state, and God knows what we hope will happen at the national level," she said.
In a June 12 email to residents, Aalfs wrote that he and his colleagues "are learning about ('8 Can't Wait') and other measures, and we plan to engage with local agencies to pursue them."
"In the coming days, the town will seek your input, ideas and thoughts through an online portal we hope will engender a community conversation about not only what we should say in response to this great ongoing national discussion, but also what we can do in our own community to be part of the solution," he said.