With Liberty and Justice for All

Police and protesters kneel facing one another in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Protests in San Jose did not have the same feeling of common ground last week. Credit: Raleigh News & Observer

(I was recently elected to represent San Jose District 10 and will take office in January 2021. In the meantime, I started this blog to share what I’m learning about a variety of issues relevant to San Jose and my take on those issues. I deeply appreciate your feedback and questions as I prepare to represent our community. Sign up to have these posts automatically sent to your inbox: https://forms.gle/N9af77JuK2nJFDMo6.)

Dear Neighbor,

Many of you have shared your reflections and asked for my thoughts on George Floyd’s murder, the ensuing protests and demands to defund the police. There’s more to say than I can possibly address in a short post, but I’d like to share a few reflections on racial inequity in America and the role of policing in San Jose.

George Floyd’s murder (and the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and far too many Black Americans) has brought hundreds of thousands of protesters into the streets because it represents the ongoing legacy of our nation’s long and ugly history of racism, which remains embedded in many of our institutions and the disparate outcomes — economic, educational, health, safety, and otherwise — experienced by Black Americans in particular.

To me, it is important to not become too distracted by a debate about the messaging and tactics of those who are protesting, a small minority of whom have committed property damage. Focusing on that debate distracts from the larger and more enduring truth: being Black in America means having the deck stacked against oneself, often with dire consequences.

Our focus ought to remain on the various ways in which America falls short of our ideals and the responsibility we have to work toward a more just society. In a just society, Black lives are valued as much as White lives, civil rights are enjoyed equally, political power is exercised on the principle of one person, one vote, and one’s ability to pursue happiness is not influenced by one’s race. Despite progress, we are far from realizing these ideals.

In our country:

  • On average, Black men receive sentences that are 19.1% longer than those of White men convicted for the same crimes, even after accounting for prior convictions.
  • Black women are nearly 4 times more likely to die in childbirth than White women.
  • Despite self-reporting similar rates of drug use, Black Americans are 6 times more likely than White Americans to be imprisoned on drug charges.
  • Black Americans are 2 times more likely to be pulled over than a White driver and 4 times more likely to be searched than White drivers.
  • The percentage of Black men with a felony conviction increased from 13% in 1980 to 33% in 2010 (compared to 5% and 13% for all adult men during these periods, respectively). Having a record reduces the likelihood of a job callback or offer by as much as 50 percent.
  • Black students are nearly 4 times more likely to be suspended than White students.
  • There is a 30% gap between Black and White homeownership. This is 3 percentage points greater than it was in 1900.

This list could go on for pages. The facts — not to mention the personal stories of Black people in America today — demonstrate that Black Americans consistently experience greater barriers and fewer opportunities than White counterparts.

I’ll briefly digress to share my personal story as a point of contrast. I grew up in a working class neighborhood in a rural area outside of the Bay Area. We lived paycheck to paycheck, which was a frequent source of stress in our home. Education gave me a pathway to a very different life. I’ve always been proud that I overcame certain barriers to achieve a degree of educational and professional success.

Yet over the years I’ve also come to realize that my story is incomplete without some important footnotes. First, having no assets and low incomes, my parents nonetheless qualified for a bank loan in 1983 that allowed them to buy a home, which became a primary source of stability for our family (my parents borrowed against the equity in our home more than once when we were children).

Throughout my childhood, teachers and other adults expected me to make something of myself and encouraged me to apply myself even when I was frustrated or I acted out. Speaking of acting out, when I was caught making mistakes as a young person, such as trespassing on private property and stealing berries from the farmer down the road, I never encountered law enforcement or the criminal justice system.

When it came time for high school, I had an uncle who had attended Bellarmine here in San Jose in the 1960s. His example and his introductions at the school inspired and enabled me to attend on a work-study scholarship, which changed the trajectory of my life. And, in high school, the two times I was pulled over by a police officer — once for a broken tail light and once for speeding — my encounters were quick, pleasant and safe.

I share this to highlight just a few ways in which my life could have gone in a very different direction, and very well may have, were I not White.

Did I work hard? Yes. Have the institutions I’ve encountered throughout life supported me and given me the benefit of the doubt at every turn when the same is often not true for Black Americans? Absolutely. Both are true. It is undeniable that I’ve had the privilege — often subtle and easily taken for granted — of not having to overcome many of the additional barriers disproportionately faced by Black Americans, in particular, and people of color more generally.

The real question is, what can we do to promote racial equity so that every American enjoys the same opportunities to flourish that were afforded me? How can we achieve equity in the institutions — law enforcement, criminal justice, finance, education, healthcare, and so forth — that so deeply influence our personal opportunities and outcomes? What is a politically feasible way to achieve equity? I believe we can do these things and I believe we have a responsibility to try much harder than we have.

Before diving into policy questions, I also should explain why I’m using the word equity instead of equality. Given the long history of racism and racist policies in America — from slavery and Jim Crow laws to redlining and mass incarceration — and the disastrous consequences for Black people, it is not enough to merely treat everyone the same (i.e. equally) at this point and hope for the best. An absence of overt oppression is not enough. Justice demands that we intervene in cycles of poverty and suffering to lift up people whose life chances are unfairly limited due to the legacy of overt oppression. In short, we should all want a fairer or more just society, not merely an equal one on paper:

Now I’d like to consider a few local institutions and systems that have a big and often disparate impact on people’s lives, starting with policing. My next post will look at housing costs and ownership, one of the largest drivers of wealth inequality nationally and economic insecurity locally. I’ll focus on why we aren’t building enough housing to meet growing demand (and stem growing costs) and what we might do about it. Finally, I plan to look at public education, which we like to think of as the great “equalizer” in our society, when in fact our educational system tends to exacerbate inequality.

These are big and complex topics that I will continue thinking about and working on in the months and years ahead. Moreover, I’m always learning and updating my understanding of the world based on new information and perspectives that I come across. Please consider this an initial attempt to summarize my perspective and please feel free to send me yours.

Policing and criminal justice are rightly at the center of our national dialogue over racial justice. Black and Brown Americans are much more likely to be negatively impacted by these systems, even when controlling for crime rates, income levels and other variables. All too often, policing and criminal justice practices not only reflect, but amplify underlying racial disparities in our society.

Locally, the San Jose Police Department (SJPD) has invested in data tracking and analysis to understand various types of disparities in policing practices. The department maintains a public dashboard detailing use of force incidents and has commissioned outside analyses of policing outcomes. On a positive note, in recent years SJPD has used this data visibility plus enhanced training to eliminate racial disparities in its use of force for arrested individuals.

We should celebrate this progress and build on it. One way to do so would be to expand SJPD’s existing “early warning system,” as recommended by our Independent Police Auditor (IPA). Early warning systems identify officers who have generated high levels of citizen complaints and use of force incidents, which can be predictive of future civil rights litigation. Focusing on this group (roughly 1–5% of officers) can help SJPD target interventions early and where they will do the most good.

Data transparency and analysis should continue to be core to improving policing in San Jose. By quantifying disparities and making them explicit, SJPD can better focus on problem areas and create a culture of accountability even in the face of bureaucratic inertia and resistant subcultures.

Empowering the IPA to exercise greater oversight powers is another way to increase the culture of accountability. In November, San Jose voters will be asked to ratify a new agreement between the City and the Police Officer’s Association (POA) that would expand the powers of the IPA to review department-initiated investigations and have greater access to records in certain cases. These changes are a step in the right direction and I expect that they will be overwhelmingly supported by voters.

Other accountability reforms could involve the labor contracts negotiated between cities and police unions. While this topic deserves more research and its own post, I’ll say that Police Chiefs need the ability to fire officers who are demonstrably unfit for the role without fear that their decision will be overturned. The number of relevant situations may be small, but the potential impact on department culture, public safety and public trust are immeasurable.

Nationally, police reform advocates are pursuing a wider range of reforms that are relevant to San Jose. Campaign Zero’s “8 Can’t Wait” list of reforms has been among the most prominent. On Thursday, SJPD announced that it has embraced the three reforms on the list that it had not previously adopted:

Source: https://twitter.com/SanJosePD/status/1271200064631791616

This is a good step, but it’s also important to recognize that department culture, training and officers’ willingness to embrace these practices are more important than updating written policy. For example, this past week, tensions between police and protesters quickly escalated and led to police arresting reporters and firing 600 rubber bullets into groups of people, some of which seriously injured peaceful demonstrators. This is not acceptable, and points to a gap between our stated commitment to de-escalation and our ability to execute on that commitment.

Finally, calls to “Defund the Police” have driven the headlines recently. This rallying cry means different things to different people. One version, abolishing police, is impractical in San Jose. We already have some of the lowest staffing levels per capita — for police and other services — nationally, due to our historical status as a bedroom community. San Francisco, for example, employs 3 times more police officers per capita than San Jose. Moreover, crime reduction and faster 911 response times are consistently top priorities for San Jose voters and numerous studies have shown that police staffing and crime reduction are closely correlated. In practice, most people in San Jose and around the country don’t want fewer police, they want better policing.

And, as Mayor Liccardo has pointed out, better policing practices — especially recruitment of a more diverse officer corps, additional training, data tracking and analysis — all require more, not fewer resources. Community policing methods, which focus on building closer relationships between police and the community, are promising but labor- and therefore cost-intensive.

Another, more measured version of the “defund” argument, however, makes an important point about police departments’ scope of work. Over time, we’ve come to rely on police to manage many situations — mental health crises, substance abuse, homelessness, school discipline — that are likely better addressed by first-responders with different skills and programs that address root causes. SJPD has precedent for thinking this way. In 2018, it pulled back from responding to high school campuses for matters that ought to be disciplinary rather than criminal, and our Community Service Officer program provides a range of public safety services to the community without use of force as an option.

We can go farther in differentiating and de-escalating certain public safety services, but the City can’t do it alone. Statutorily and financially, County governments in California are primarily responsible for providing health and human services to vulnerable populations, including homeless individuals and those suffering from addiction and mental health crises. Moreover, Santa Clara County’s budget for its work in these areas is an order of magnitude larger than the City’s spending on policing.

Therefore, the City and County ought to establish a task force to evaluate a more integrated approach to emergency response and prevention. For example, investing in long-term mental health facilities in our County might dramatically reduce emergency response calls and enable SJPD to focus on doing fewer things, and doing them better. Narrowing the scope of police responsibilities could do a great deal to improve service quality and outcomes.

In closing, I want to express my gratitude to both the protesters who force us to confront unacceptable inequities in our society and the police officers who responsibly carry out a dangerous job in service to our community. These are challenging issues, especially for Black people across America who rightly wonder if their lives, and their children’s and grandchildren’s lives, will ever be equally valued by our institutions and people in positions of power. We must not turn away. We have a responsibility to make our institutions reflect America’s eternal ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Sincerely,

Matt

Councilmember-elect, San Jose District 10; matt@mahanforsanjose.com, 408–891–9708

Matt is Councilmember-elect for San Jose District 10, which includes Almaden Valley and Blossom Valley. Matt takes office in January 2021 and uses this blog to share what he’s learning about a variety of local issues and his take on those issues. Matt and his wife, Silvia, are proud to be raising their two young children, Nina and Luke, in District 10. You can subscribe to Matt’s updates here: https://forms.gle/ycvcf3fbKSFU2JfA6

Councilmember, San Jose District 10. Formerly Brigade CEO & Co-founder Brigade, SVLG and Joint Venture Silicon Valley Boards, and SJ Clean Energy Commission

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