SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — With police departments across the country coming under scrutiny by the Black Lives Matter movement, the city of South Lake Tahoe allowed residents to share their thoughts and concerns about their local department during a virtual town hall this week.
Over 130 people attended the first virtual town hall about policing on Monday evening.
Many of the people who spoke focused on police department reform, such as banning chokeholds and adding body cameras.
Interim Police Chief David Stevenson said they’ve suspended carotid chokeholds, which cuts off blood flow to the brain, and he said its department policy not to use chokeholds in general.
City Manager Joe Irvin and Lt. Shannon Laney said the city is shopping for body cameras and is planning to bring the purchase to city council in August.
Another topic brought up several times was the idea of establishing a crisis assistance helping out on the streets (CAHOOTS) program.
This program, which has been active in Eugene, Ore. dispatches a medic (either a nurse or an EMT) and a crisis worker (who has at least several years experience in the mental health field) to calls such as crisis counseling, suicide prevention and intervention, first aid and non-emergency medical care and other situations.
According to the CAHOOTS website, the program in Eugene responds to about 20% of the calls dispatched by 911, is about 3% of the police department’s budget and has saved the city about $22 million annually.
According to a conversation Laney had with the Tribune after the meeting, the five types of calls SLTPD responds to the most are homeless related, domestic altercations, neighborhood conflicts, property crimes and drug related.
Laney said he’s looked into CAHOOTS a little and is working on finding a possible version of the program that could work in South Lake Tahoe.
A program similar to one in the West Slope called Psychiatric Emergency Response Team might work in South Lake. PERT teams up a mental health crisis worker with a sheriff’s deputy who has specialized training in crisis intervention and de-escalation to do follow-up contracts with people who had a crisis to offer them assistance and get them services.
“If there was a way to have another team that could respond that’d be great but it comes down to funding,” Laney said, adding that SLTPD is already operating a bare bones staff.
During the city council meeting the following morning, Councilmember Devin Middlebrook asked staff to look into CAHOOTS to see if it would work for South Lake and bring the report back to council.
Access to mental health, or rather the lack of access, plays a role in what kind of calls the officers are responding to. Mental health resources come from El Dorado County and Laney said there hasn’t been as much help from the county as there was in the past.
They do not offer mental health worker response services between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., which is when most mental health crises happen, leaving SLTPD to fill the void. They will not respond to the scene of a mental health crisis and will only contact the individual after being brought by police to the Barton emergency room and have been cleared by the emergency room staff.
Middlebrook and Mayor Pro Tem Tamara Wallace said it’s clear they need to work with the county to figure out how to get better mental health services to the city.
One issue that was discussed was the school resource officer. Many people thought it was a poor use of resources and it was unhealthy to have an armed officer at the school.
Most of the conversation focused on school shootings. Stevenson said he hopes the SRO never has to respond to a school shooting but it’s good to have him there just in case.
Opponents of the SRO cited studies showing that having an armed officer doesn’t not prevent school shootings while proponents said they felt safer with the officer being there.
Laney told the Tribune that SRO does more than just wait for a possible school shooting.
“The SRO builds relationships with the community at a young age,” Laney said.
The officer focuses on early invention, welfare checks on students not attending school, and forming positive relationships between the students and SLTPD. He has also been able to intervene in several situations where students have access to firearms or who have made threats of acting out a school shooting or other violence.
Laney also points out that getting rid of the SRO would not open up a lot of finances for the SLTPD because the school district pays for the officer nine months out of the year while the department only pays for the three summer months.
Another point of contention was the hiring of a cannabis officer. Several people said with cannabis being legal in California, they could see no reason for an officer, especially if a lot of the work was administrative.
Laney said the point of the officer was not to police people using cannabis but rather to track permitting and inspections of dispensaries and to prevent illegal operations. With the loss of the South Lake El Dorado Narcotics Task Force (SLEDNET), the task of conducting investigations into illegal marijuana grows or dangerous extraction processes will be tasked to this officer. While some of the work is administrative, an administrator cannot conduct criminal investigations which will be part of the officer’s duty.
Not all of the people who spoke were in favor of defunding the police. Several people spoke about what a great job the SLTPD does and the positive experiences they’ve had with officers.
Those people felt the department needed more funding, not less.
“It’s not mutually exclusive to support the police department and still want to reform it,” said Colleen Bye after several of the people speaking in support of the police expressed anger and frustration at the people wanting reform.
One woman who said she was white said this forum was not about white people talking about their good experiences with the police but a way for black people and people of color to talk about what they need to feel safe.
Many people expressed gratitude at the city for hosting this forum and asked for it to happen monthly. Irvin said while he’s not sure there will be monthly forums, but said he will make sure the lines of communication remain open on this issue.
Laney told the Tribune his frustration with the forum was that it was mostly a one-way conversation and that he’d like to talk with anyone who has ideas or concerns. He encourages people to reach out to him for a chat on the phone or for coffee.