Reimagining and Reinventing Public Safety Means Reforming POBOR

John Mirisch
Councilmember and former three term mayor of Beverly Hills

For all the talk of “defunding the police” and whatever that actually means, why is nobody talking about POBOR? 

Never heard of POBOR?  That may be part of the problem.

POBOR is the “Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights.”  POBOR gives police officers rights that ordinary Californians don’t enjoy (there are similar provisions in other states).  Police in California enjoy all sorts of benefits not available to the rest of us, from privacy protections, to illness-related presumptions unavailable in the private sector, to tax benefits, to unconscionable job protections.

If the George Floyd murder had taken place in California, it would have been virtually impossible to summarily fire the officers involved.  It would have been extremely difficult to arrest and charge those responsible.  Most likely, all the officers involved would have been placed on paid “administrative leave.”

For all the talk of various forms of privilege, why is nobody talking about “police privilege”?

Don’t get me wrong: our police deserve respect, reasonable protections and fair and sustainable salaries and benefits.  But anytime a class of people enjoys privileges – in this case legally institutionalized privileges, not just cultural privileges — not available to the rest of us, the distinct danger arises of entrenching an “us vs. them” mentality, which can easily lead to the dehumanizing of the unprivileged.  When the class enjoying privileges is the very group that is meant to serve and protect all of us on an equal and non-discriminatory basis, then the dehumanization has the potential to turn lethal.  And when it does turn lethal, it disproportionately impacts those who cannot defend themselves, the most vulnerable individuals and communities among us.  Particularly the African-American community has learned how racism and dehumanization leads to police brutality and death.

We can never uproot the “us vs. them” mentality that plagues many police departments throughout the state without addressing POBOR and the special privileges of those who are meant to serve and protect the rest of us.  Robust human rights and protections against arbitrary abuses of power must be available to all of us.  Accountability for our actions and transparency must apply equally to all of us if we really are “all in this together.”

Should we really be surprised when privileges like POBOR, created by police unions, are linked to police brutality and civilian deaths?

And so the demand to “defund” the police.

Vagueness is one of the major scourges of policy discussions within our political system, both in legislation and in discussion of public policy.  “Defund the police” has not only become a popular chant and a hashtag, it has also become the subject of discussion both in the media and within various governmental agencies.

It seems that — like freedom, romance and success — it means very different things to different people (and groups).

But in all this discussion about just what is meant by “defund the police,” nobody seems to be talking about how the political power of the police unions could stand in the way of any “defunding,” let alone meaningful fiscal and structural changes.  One of the few was Charles Ramsey, former Police Chief of Philadelphia, who called out the power of police unions on CNN, echoing a statement he had made last year.

We’re being told by some that “defund the police” doesn’t literally mean eliminating police departments by withdrawing funding; it means something else, something along the lines of reimagining public safety.

However, some people seem to mean that police forces should literally be disbanded when they raise a demand to defund the police. For example at the talent agency March last Saturday from the ICM building to Beverly Hills, Dr. Melina Abdullah, one of the founders of the “Black Lives Matter” LA chapter, made it crystal clear that defunding the police meant abolishing and shutting down police departments, not reforming them, as she admonished the crowd not to kneel down next to police to honor George Floyd’s memory.

This selfsame notion of “defund the police” seemed to be shared by Minneapolis City Council president Lisa Bender, when she made her initial grand statements about how Minneapolis was going to disband its PD, and how anyone calling 911 and expecting a response was doing so from a “place of privilege”  (as opposed to maybe considering public safety to be a basic human right, a human right which must be extended to all residents).  After announcing radical change with the argument that incremental reforms had been ineffective, Bender in a later interview with Chris Cuomo, contradicted herself by stating that change in Minneapolis would be “incremental.”

Bender’s initial position may very well have been posturing with the aim of politically “dunking” on other progressive enclaves like San Francisco, but political buzzwords generally don’t make good policy, whether it’s eliminating single-family housing or doing away with the police.

When it comes to the latter, literal reading of “defund the police,” Bender and Abdullah seem blissfully unaware that they bid fair to assume the role as spokespeople for the gun lobby and the NRA (and maybe fans of Charles Bronson films).

Others look to Camden, NJ as a model for “defunding the police.”  Essentially, Camden shut down their force and replaced it with another one – which would be akin to a city’s disbanding its own police force in favor of the county sheriff.  While this might be a way of getting rid of some dead wood, it is also an action which doesn’t necessarily address the issues of the power structures of police unions and the systemic obstacles to accountability.

Some are saying that “defund the police” simply means reducing spending on police and reinvesting those funds in other community services such as mental health care, social workers and wellness programs.  

Re-allocating funds isn’t exactly the same thing as “defunding the police.”  Here we struggle with that damned vagueness again, or even the confusing attempt to re-frame the English language.

Reducing the police’s role to the core of public safety makes a lot of sense in today’s dynamic world.  While our officers should have broad training to deal with a variety of circumstances and situations, they should not be the first responders to any number of situations they are currently called upon to deal with.  Chekhov’s gun is all-too-often a self-fulfilling prophecy and with more funding for mental health care and other community services, the goal should be for active police interventions to be precluded, wherever possible.

In our city, we created an award-winning “Ambassador” program to deal with issues which previously had been routinely dealt with by police.  While our ambassadors need more training, in my opinion, this was a move in the right direction.  On the other hand, our parking enforcement division, which had previously been handled by our Public Works department, was transferred to our PD.  This was a move in the wrong direction, as was taking a civilian commander and converting the position to a sworn officer.  If anything, there should be more civilians working with the Police Department.

There are many aspects of local government we should be looking to reframe and reimagine.  Breaking old habits does not come easy.  Our fire departments are just one more example.  As former Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole noted, if we would design them from scratch, they would look very different from how they look today – and be much more efficient.

Public resources are inevitably limited and ultimately, as much we aim to achieve lofty goals (or at least lofty-sounding goals), often it’s all ‘bout the money.  Police unions haven’t only stood in the way of accountability reforms, they have also blocked meaningful economic reforms which would allow us to maximize value-for-money and provide more funding for reinvestment in our communities.  

The power of the public safety unions which has entrenched POBOR has also perpetuated a pension system for police officers which, simply stated, is unsustainable. Although there have been minor reforms to the system, there are still officers who can retire at the age of 50 with 99% of their single year’s highest salary plus cost of living adjustments for life.  With such high percentages of municipal budgets being consumed by public safety salaries and benefits, the crushing financial burdens on cities (and states) have meant it is virtually impossible to find the resources to reinvest in our communities.

I believe now is the time to reform local government on any number of levels.  It certainly is the time to reinvent policing, to reimagine public safety and to revive our communities.

Meaningful police pension reform would allow funds to be diverted to programs benefiting all residents, not just a politically powerful privileged class. More sustainable budgets would provide the fiscal flexibility for us to reimagine what policing should be and how best to achieve public safety within our communities.

A system which grants a certain class of people more rights than the rest of us makes that impossible. It makes true transparency impossible.  It makes accountability impossible.  We need to work against the “us vs. them” mentality which pervades many police departments throughout the country and which makes communities less safe.  If we’re all in this together, then let’s really all be in this together.  Fixing POBOR would be a good first step.

 

John Mirisch has served on the Beverly Hills City Council since 2009, including three terms as mayor.  He is currently a garden-variety councilmember.

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