Recently, in an effort to ally themselves with the movement for criminal justice reform and racial equity, San Jose leaders flew Black Lives Matter banners outside of City Hall.
To their credit, city leaders such as Vice Mayor Chappie Jones told onlookers that he recognized that “symbols are not enough.”
One can only hope that their future actions are better than those in the past.
At the moment, however, this comes off as an act of performative ally-ship, which is laughable in the face of the city’s failure to take concrete steps to combat systemic racism in the criminal justice system.
While they may proudly display Black Lives Matter banners, our leaders have failed to take even the mildest actions to stomp out bias in the San Jose Police Department.
Despite numerous injuries sustained by protestors due to rubber bullets during the George Floyd protests in late May, the City Council almost unanimously rejected a ban on using projectile rounds in crowd-control settings.
Violent and racist police officers—such as Jared Yuen (filmed antagonizing protestors), and the members of an SJPD Facebook group in which explicitly racist posts were made—have faced no significant consequences for their actions. This is partly due to union agreements that make firing cops nearly impossible. And in renewing the police union contract this year, the city made no attempts to fix it.
Further, our leaders have actively rejected calls to reinvest police spending into care-based services proven to reduce crime. Despite the obvious lack of correlation between police spending and crime (in 2019, the SJPD budget reached its highest point in years as violent crime spiked simultaneously), our leaders are quick to deride investments in alternative methods of crime reduction as non-starters.
Council members and even police officers are quick to tell you that cops should not become a catch-all for every social ill that plagues our city. But we still dedicate the lion's share of our budget to an agency that is ineffective at most of the tasks we assign to it.
Do you know what is effective at helping people experiencing mental health or substance abuse crises in our streets?
Around-the-clock crisis response teams that work independently of the criminal justice system and coordinate first and foremost with local hospitals.
A program piloted in parts of Oregon, called CAHOOTS, responded to 24,000 calls successfully and required police assistance for a mere 150 of them.
But what did our leaders give us instead? A pilot program for a mental health crisis response team within the police department.
Yet these programs provide no clear benefit to the safety of officers or the public—especially without robust investments in mental health services, which cities such as San Jose, despite years of discussion, have yet to implement.
For some reason, however, our leaders fail to see the value of redirecting the money we spend on criminalizing mental illness toward actual mental health treatment.
Do you know what helps our unhoused neighbors find housing and stay in it? The answer is fairly obvious: permanent, supportive housing.
Providing stable housing and services to the unhoused has been repeatedly proved to be the most effective way to end homelessness.
To its credit, the City Council has taken significant steps to expand supportive housing through the "tiny homes" and Project Homekey. But there is another, darker side to our city’s efforts to address homelessness: criminalization.
While no data is readily available for SJPD specifically, 40 percent of 9-1-1 calls in Berkeley involved homeless or mentally ill individuals. Using law enforcement to criminalize these individuals is incredibly wasteful, and often exacerbates the problem.
Sweeping encampments and incarcerating individuals makes it nearly impossible for them to receive the help they need, while criminal records make it difficult for them to climb out of homelessness. But do our elected leaders recognize the need to divert money from criminalizing the homeless to housing them? No.
Instead, our city continues its policy of sweeping tents—even in the midst of a pandemic.
Lastly, do you know the most effective way to curb gang violence? Hint: it's not your traditional police-led gang suppression. In fact, such tactics make the problem worse.
What does solve the problem is investments in job training, affordable housing and other services for youth considered at risk of gang involvement.
An analysis by the U.S. Department of Justice found that neighborhoods in San Jose which received the most investment from the city's youth services saw the steepest declines in gang crime. However, nearly half of the recipients of the city’s youth resources and grants are not from groups with the highest risk of gang violence—a figure largely attributable to a fear of criminalization.
We know what works and what doesn't work when it comes to gang violence.
So why, despite a decline in juvenile arrests in Santa Clara County, has the city’s spending on gang suppression ballooned from $12.7 million in the 2017-18 fiscal year to $18.9 million in this one, while spending on youth services has only grown from $9 million to $10.3 million in the same timeframe?
It’s clear where our leaders' priorities lie.
When it comes to racial equity, Mayor Sam Liccardo is right when he says we must “acknowledge the importance of our work ahead and to manifest our collective commitment to embrace that work.”
But San Jose’s efforts to embrace “that work” have been lackluster at best.
Black and Latino San Joseans are over-represented in criminal prosecutions. But our city has no plans to address this nor dismantle our systems of mass incarceration.
If our city does not acknowledge and address these realities, it would be a farce for us to claim that we truly believe that Black Lives Matter.
The banners waving at City Hall have the potential to reaffirm our collective commitment to compassion and equity. But right now, the promises they hold are as empty as the wind that blows them.