Merced County Times Newspaper
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City Council, Staff Should Actively Work To Improve Police-Community Relations

Feature Op/Ed

Michael Belluomini
By Michael Belluomini

The public demonstrations in Merced over the police alleged murder of George Floyd highlights a local issue.

There is a problem with police officers relationship to the community in Merced. This is demonstrated over the last five years by incidents of alleged use of excessive force to control UC students with guests at the Hookah Lounge police raid, and the treatment of William Colbert during his arrest for a misdemeanor, plus several other complaints stated by citizens at council meetings while I was on the City Council.

These claims of police misconduct are often by people of color or the homeless raising the suspicion of racial or socio-economic prejudice. These allegations cause the mistrust of the police, and an adversarial relationship with citizens. Lack of trust and cooperation between police and citizens benefits criminal activity thereby reducing the safety of everyone in Merced.

At City Council town hall meetings community members suggested a violence prevention program and showed their desire to have a larger role in direct communication and input to the police chief. The public wants to contribute to its own safety.

The City Council considered this matter on Nov. 5, 2018 when I asked council to direct staff to prepare a report regarding improving the citizen complaint process for police misconduct; regarding how added training for police officers can improve community relations; and how an advisory board to the police chief might help police-community relationships.

The council instead directed the police chief to report on his ongoing community relationship improvement activities during February. He gave a 90-minute presentation ending at midnight at a council meeting in which no change to the complaint procedures or his personally meeting with a citizens advisory committee was proposed. He did explain existing programs such as Neighborhood Watch, and the Police Citizens Academy which communicate to some citizens.

On April 1, 2019, Council member Martinez proposed to the council that the city should begin a community outreach initiative to better communicate with residents, increase public safety, and promote citizens reporting crime to the police. This initiative will combine existing police programs with collaborative and educational activities with the public providing a forum to contribute ideas to the police.

Council members disagreed that there is a police-community relationship problem because of the low crime rate but felt police response time delay is an issue. Some council members objected to giving direction to the police chief because he knows more about police work than the elected leaders of the city. The city manager stated he was absolutely opposed to a citizen advisory committee to the police chief because it would be amateurs telling him how to do his job.

When did citizen input become so threatening?

Other members said the chief is too busy to do more community communicating and it would be a waste of his time. As the leader of law enforcement the chief should spend much of his time being the pipeline of communication between his staff, the city council, other law enforcement and the community, he is a hub of critical communication. The initiative progress will be reported annually to the council.

The council approved a motion to “direct staff to work with the chief of police to seek out ideas across our community and other cities in order to formulate a community outreach initiative and have the chief and staff report back to council with what they have found suitable for Merced.”

There was mention that this report back would occur in a few months. It has been 14 months and no such report has been presented.

The current unrest and demonstrations emphasize how important it is for the council to follow through on its direction to staff and work to improve police relations with the community.

The council should be leaders to all involved to improve police relations with the community and avoid future injustices or tragedies.

Michael Belluomini is a Merced resident and former City Council member. He is also a candidate for Merced mayor in the November election.

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