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La Mesa approves police oversight, new non-police services

By KENDRA SITTON | La Mesa Courier

La Mesa City Council moved forward with police reforms in a special meeting on Sept. 5. In a 3-2 vote, the council approved the plan for hiring an independent police auditor and forming a community police oversight board.

In a unanimous vote, the council also approved the HOME (Homeless Outreach and Mobile Engagement) Program which involves social workers and mental health providers respond to non-emergency calls regarding homeless people instead of police officers.

Oversight reform

A year since a task force was formed to create a board for citizen oversight of the La Mesa Police Department, the City Council approved the policy the task force crafted that would hire an independent police auditor and create the board.

The vote was divided, with Council members Kristine Alessio and Bill Baber voting against the proposal. The two lawyers pushed to move the vote an additional two weeks so there would be time to meet with Police Officer’s Association (POA).

A few hours before the meeting the POA requested a “meet and confer.” Outside council said the POA did not have grounds to request the potentially arduous process because the legislation does not affect POA members’ employment. Instead, the proponents of the board want to discuss the issue and reach a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in “good faith.” If the POA makes a successful case to city staff and counsel that a meet-and-confer conference is needed, then that could be agreed to, they said. Alessio and Baber worried that without the meet and confer, the city will be open to a lawsuit from the POA.

“Being a lawyer, I don’t want to be sued,” Alessio said.

Others worried that the last-minute request from the POA was a way to run down the clock and delay long-promised reforms. Without knowing whether the issue will be resolved through a discussion or the more official meet and confer process, the council voted to move forward with the reform they have promised was in the works for years.

Whether through a discussion, meet and confer or a lawsuit, the city needs to reach an agreement with the department about how the auditor will have access to the department’s records, files and personnel. According to the task force that spent months researching whether subpoena power is important, many cities are able to have police oversight based on an MOU and the additional power is unnecessary.

The auditor will take over the bulk of the investigative work with volunteer board members able to craft recommendations for the police chief based on the auditor’s findings. Some incidents will automatically be referred to the auditor, including officers causing serious injuries and shootings. Since La Mesa has been rocked with controversy over incidents that did not involve serious injury, including the harassment and arrest of Amaurie Johnson earlier this year, the board can also look into other incidents due to their role as an overall policy advisor.

People can also make complaints directly to the board or auditor rather than the department about incidents involving the police.

The committee will also have the ability to look at events from before the committee was formed, which could be helpful in making policy recommendations based on the history of the department as well as seeing if certain complaints are part of an ongoing pattern. Alessio questioned the efficacy of this but the other three council members approved the ordinance as is.

The task force came to the conclusion that in a general law city, the committee would not have more power if it was created via a ballot measure or via the city council, so it was put before the council as an easier method of approval. Although it may not be as permanent as a ballot measure, a new ordinance is in place to bring an independent auditor and citizen oversight to La Mesa after years of calls for change from the community.

HOME Program

The City Council approved a program have social workers respond to non-emergency calls regarding the homeless instead of the police.

“Homelessness is not a crime, it’s a social issue but the police department responds to it,” said Acting Chief Matt Nicholass.

Currently, police respond to all calls regarding the homeless even if the individual is not believed to be a threat to themselves or the public. Police responses have the potential to use force disproportionately and escalate a situation. Police would still respond to calls deemed dangerous but non-violent requests would be handled by a team with better mental health training who could de-escalate the situation and provide counseling.

Many cities have similar programs. Nicholass and other city staff members visited Eugene, Ore., home of one of the longest running crisis response teams in the nation that responds to substance abuse, mental health and homelessness issues.

The county recently approved a similar pilot program that would dispatch mental health professionals to non-violent psychiatric calls. However, it covers the entire public and does not focus on homelessness specifically.

In La Mesa, the new program will focus solely on homelessness with the potential to expand in the future.

There are two phases to the program. The first would be to expand homeless outreach through People Assisting the Homeless (PATH) with one-time funding from the regional Task Force on Homelessness while awaiting funding approval from the state that would give over a million dollars over five years. Pending approval, in the second phase, the program would move in-house which will let the program adapt to meet city needs.

The total one-year cost is expected to be around $218,000. Initial funding would come from a Community Development Block Grant and through the CARES Act. Later funding will come from the Permanent Local Housing Allocation (PLHA) with La Mesa Police Department supplementing $30,000 through AB109 Public Safety Realignment. Costs could go down in future years because the program will have purchased a vehicle and training costs will decrease.

The social workers who will be a part of the HOME team could connect homeless individuals with services and even take them to medical appointments. The team is not limited by jurisdiction so could respond to calls that stem from the CalTrans “no man’s land” and connect homeless people to services and appointments outside of city limits.

Nicholass spoke in favor of the program because it would free up police resources to respond to actual emergencies, improve response times for emergency and non-emergency calls and cut costs for the police department.

The new program was approved unanimously.

— Reach contributing editor Kendra Sitton at kendra@sdnews.com.


Source: La Mesa Currier

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