Letter to the editor

Opinion section
Valley News - Opinion

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco and the Riverside Sheriff’s Association’s reluctance to allow oversight is telling and dissuades a healthy dialogue on police reform.

“The fundamental way residents of this great county determine the direction of their agencies, including the office of the sheriff, is at the ballot box,” Bill Young, president of the Riverside Sheriff’s Association, said. “…That is real oversight and accountability.”

What does voting have to do with creating oversight? As far as I can see, there is no vote up for debate or on the November ballot to add a commission or committee to oversee abuses of the law. The only option voters have is to vote out the sheriff and that does not give them “real oversight.” That choice will only exacerbate the problem into a ready-to-pop balloon. There must be a commission established with individuals from the community to enable a healthy dialogue.

“As an independent and elected official, the sheriff has the duty and responsibility to set and enforce policies in their department, including use of force policies,” Young said. “No other entity, including the board of supervisors, can enact policy for the sheriff’s department,” and that’s the problem.

Across the nation, police’s use of force was in question far before the death of George Floyd. And to keep punting the football on reform will set in motion a tirade of problems for the future. Accountability should not just be held on the shoulders of Bianco; the weight will crush him and future Riverside County sheriffs that come into the position.

There is a fine line between offering government agencies and departments independence. On one side of the spectrum, we must entrust in our institutions that they will do their job and with integrity. But on the other side, things fall through the cracks and that hole only gets larger as time goes on, if left gaping.

Law enforcement has a difficult task of managing the safety of the community, but as we can see, they can only go so far in helping it. Carrying big sticks may smack down someone, but when someone is already down mentally and has been deteriorated by poverty, a big stick is not needed. There needs to be more emphasis on healing the community. That comes with funding provided in other areas outside of the sheriff’s department – or – by implementing social workers and mental health professionals to become a department at the county sheriffs, which would widen their scope of effectiveness and cohesiveness. Such a move, however, can only be achieved if there is a space for open forum.

The problem in American government is that oversight is often fraught with “political appointees who have little prior knowledge of the law enforcement work,” Young said, and to an extent, I agree. However, people who live in their communities know what it means to feel safe. It does not take years on the police force to spot brutality and malfeasance of the law. Government should be about partnerships and cooperation. Working in silos damages that effort and undermines their ability to connect more deeply with the community they are sworn to protect. We must redefine what “protect” means in order to adapt for an ever changing and difficult future ahead of us.

Young also argued that the sheriff’s detectives would be a better fit to oversee and investigate deputies use of force. That may be true, but it only applies to malpractice. It does not apply to the broader scope of problems faced by officers who don’t fully understand the situation of an individual, other than the fact that they see a criminal. The bigger problem is that providing safety to a community cannot be held solely on Bianco, and the days of “The Andy Griffith Show,” who solved problems by talking to residents, never existed – literally. It was a TV show, Kevin Jeffries (county board supervisor).

Police today are not equipped to handle the multifaceted problems of the present. We need to make room for professionals that understand people at an emotional and personal level. Troubled circumstances, family life, drug addictions, mental health problems and abusive households need to be monitored by officials with the capacity to help. I am not saying there doesn’t need to be a heavy stick handy; I am saying that sometimes, it can be left behind.

There are people out there who have gone through the ringer and their actions have begun to fall outside the realm of public safety, but they are not all criminals. The reason why we have a court system that hears testimonies and accounts from both sides is to understand the full story. However, sometimes when people arrive in the courthouse, it is too late for them. What if we could create a system that seeks to heal, instead of simply enforcing the “rule of law.” Mental health and family issues can be solved before a crime is committed, there just needs to be more professionals equipped to do so.

If you had a brother or sister and you grew up with them and saw them for the beautiful human being they were, but suddenly tragedy strikes and changes them forever to a life of crime, depression or addiction – would you want them in a jail cell or on a track to better themselves through well-funded programs that reverses a harmful trend? We have a choice. Let’s make the right one, together.

Troy Chavez

Temecula resident