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Policing the Police

Ukiah isn’t Detroit. Or Chicago, where two years ago the city spent more than $113 million on lawsuits involving police misconduct. But neither is Mendo an island, as shown by residents who, in spite of the fact that blacks make up a scant .07 percent of the county’s population, recently turned out to peacefully protest the most recent killings of unarmed black men by white police officers. 

The issue is sadly nothing new; I remember running down Market Street ahead of a looting mob after the 1992 acquittal of four white police officers charged with killing Rodney King in South Central Los Angeles. But few would argue that social media and a Smartphone in every pocket have together turned up the volume on these killings, which in turn are morphing into a flurry of newly proposed use-of-force regulations for police across the country. 

One of the most visible efforts is the national 8CantWait (#8cantwait) campaign, the brain child of Campaign Zero, an organization founded by activists five years ago dedicated to, according to its website, “providing an agenda to end police violence.” The eight stated limits to the use of police force basically cover warnings to suspects, bans on chokeholds and carotid restraints, shooting at moving vehicles, and adoption of de-escalation tactics meant to turn down the emotional temperature of police/suspect encounters that could, unchecked, turn violent. 

Many states are in a big hurry to adopt some or all of the eight, including California, though Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall told me recently that, practically speaking, most do not apply to Mendo. “These are pretty much all of the things we’re doing already,” he said, adding that chokehold restraints were outlawed in the county years ago. Kendall said that he does take issue with two of the proposed actions: shooting at moving vehicles and informing a suspect, even if armed, before using deadly force. “If I’m in an alley and a car starts coming toward me, what are my choices?” he asked, rhetorically. Ditto for the forewarning in other circumstances, using as an example a suspect who pulls a gun on a deputy as he steps out of his patrol car. These split-second decisions are the two points with which Kendall takes issue for practical application in the day-to-day policing world. 

Kendall said that the Mendocino County Sheriff’s department started looking at both officer and inmate injuries because of the jail. “Almost every fight, every tussle, goes to the ground,” he said, adding that hitting the jail’s concrete floor with your elbows and knees might not hurt right away but will the next day. He said that deputies also have to intervene in fights inmates have with each other, a situation he says has been aggravated by the state’s prison realignment, which due to prison overcrowding transferred many state prison inmates considered to be nonviolent back to county jails. 

Kendall scoffed at the distinction. “You could have a guy with a rap sheet as long as your arm but if his last crime is classified as nonviolent – say, as a commercial instead of a residential burglary – he qualifies for county jail.” 

The drug issue further muddies the waters. “If somebody dies of a meth overdose on a park bench that would be a tragedy,” he said. “But if that person is taken into custody we are responsible for the meth, too.” 

As far as mentally unfit deputies go, Kendall said that everyone who gets hired is a peace officer and undergoes psychological testing. “If two things pop up – if someone is prone to violence or can’t handle violence – we don’t want those people. No deputy wants to work with someone who is prone to violence.   

Kendall walked over to his speaker phone several times during our interview to answer budget questions from an ongoing supervisors’ budget meeting. 

It happened that the day we spoke was the day that his budget had to be finalized. Law enforcement has historically been cushioned from budget cuts relative to many other departments, though currently about a third of the department’s positions are unfilled. Economic fallout from the coronavirus was blamed for an especially grim budget shortfall, though Kendall said he will be able to fill four positions, and will also be able to fill vacancies as they come up during the coming budget year. “We don’t have a lot of money right now due to Covid-19,” he said. “It’s the kind of thing where everybody is looking for somebody to blame – it’s human nature. I guess you can go out and shake your fist at God or you can accept what’s going on.”  

As for deputy diversity, Kendall told me that the department’s make-up mirrors the county itself. “We’ve got the sons and daughters of loggers, cowboys, field workers, and others,” he said. He added that the deputy age distribution isn’t a problem. “We have a split now, younger and older deputies,” with little in between. “It depends on who comes out of the police academy,” he explained. “It’s like going to the grocery store. They have peppers or they don’t have peppers.” He joked that when his wife asked him what he wanted for his birthday he said that he wanted to be 37 again.  

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