USA

Bankruptcy forced this California city to defund police. Here's how it changed public safety

Resolute, sincere and white, Stockton Police Chief Eric Jones stood in front of a Black congregation in 2016 and apologized for a history that most law enforcement officials dismiss: the slave patrol origins behind modern American policing.

Not long ago, he said, police were dispatched to keep order at lynchings, part of the dark legacy of the metal shield on his chest that has long prevented Black communities from trusting police. He spoke in uniform, with a black band across his badge to honor five Dallas officers ambushed days earlier by an Army reservist angry about the killings of Black men by police.

Though Jones said he and his officers were not responsible for the actions of those who have worn the uniform before them, the history of injury, both chronicled and fresh, was a truth that had to be owned if he wanted this community to believe he meant to do things differently.

And he wanted them to believe.

“That badge carries that burden,” Jones said in a recent interview. “As the law enforcement leader, I had to be the first one to give the acknowledgment of the past harms.”

As California and the nation debate the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, Stockton has some insights, if not answers, about what it means to rethink policing.

Eight years into leading law enforcement in this long-troubled seaport town on the delta of the San Joaquin River, the results of Jones’ experimental approach are a lesson for a nation in turmoil about what defunding means, how far and fast reform can go, and the degree police should be held responsible for racism that is systematic in schools, banks, healthcare and other institutions.

Even with fewer officers, crime here has fallen and the department currently has a clearance rate on homicides of about 80%. More striking to some, Jones has earned trust from his mayor, many in communities of color and from the officers’ union. It is a nearly unheard of hat trick of confidence, even as he has massively changed what it means to be on either side of the thin blue line.

As protests and uprisings over police brutality have swept the U.S. in recent weeks, Stockton hasn’t “had to do one curfew, no rubber bullets, no tear gas,” said Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs, a dynamic Black politician who has gained a national following for championing ideas such as a universal basic income.

But Stockton is also a lesson in what can’t be done, even with nearly a decade of trying, and the grueling realities of what American policing may face as it seeks a new way to do business.

“Nobody including Eric Jones would look at facts on the ground in Stockton right now and say everything is great,” said David Kennedy, a professor of criminology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who has worked with Stockton on reforms. “Trying to get this right is a difficult, grinding, long-term work in progress.”

Few dispute that life in Stockton has improved since 2012, when Jones took over, but largely because it’s hard to envision how it could be worse. In his first year, about 20% of Stocktonians were unemployed, and crime and homelessness were spiking with homicides nearly tripling.

Stockton, with a population around 300,000, was hit hard by foreclosures and bad municipal investments during the Great Recession. The city was forced to declare bankruptcy that year, slashing the Police Department’s budget by $14 million and losing a quarter of its 440 officers — an involuntary defunding that dropped the number of sworn officers to some of the lowest levels per capita in the country.

At the same time, a troubling string of police shootings continued, 27 between 2009 and 2014, according to local media. Black and brown communities were simultaneously angry at police mistreatment, and demanding more help in violent neighborhoods.

A “good dude,” as one supporter describes him, with a deep Christian faith, Jones used the fiscal meltdown to begin reshaping the department under a personal vision he dubbed “principled policing” that rejected the “zero-tolerance, blanket enforcement” he was taught as a rookie, instead allowing “community to have a say in the way they want to be policed,” he said.

But despite the usual fixes — implicit bias training, more officers in high-crime spots — not enough was changing. So in 2014, Jones made a “risky” move, he said, and volunteered Stockton to be one of six cities, including Minneapolis, for a national initiative on police reform. That effort promised to help with racial reconciliation, which was increasingly being recognized as a necessary step to restoring the legitimacy of police within communities of color.

He began talking about race with his officers, and on stage at the church months later, made a snap decision to try it in public.

Mayor Michael Tubbs in front of City Hall in downtown Stockton.

(Max Whittaker / For The Times)

Though aware the conversations were happening within the department, hearing it as he sat in the audience made him “teary-eyed,” said Tubbs, who was on the City Council at the time. He remembers it as “one of the moments that made me think I want to be mayor.”

Tubbs’ father, whom he is named after, went to prison on a life sentence for robbery, including a kidnapping charge for forcing his victim to drive to a bank and withdraw cash, according to court records. Tubbs was about 4 at the time, and his father was 25.

The robbery netted the elder Tubbs about $3,000 in money and goods — which the mayor recently learned was meant to pay for the funeral of his baby sister, who died while an infant. That detail was unearthed this year during the filming of an upcoming HBO documentary, “Stockton on My Mind.”

While Jones began taking his apology to other churches and forums, he was also broaching another volatile topic internally: officers’ expectations of each other and their jobs.

He is well aware that, across the country, chiefs had been stymied and even ousted by police unions unhappy with pushes to reform. Still reeling from the bankruptcy and ongoing protests of police shootings, his officers were demoralized and in “preservation mode,” said Chuck Harris, the head of the local police union.

“The ship was sinking in everybody’s eyes,” Harris said.

Jones realized that the job of being a Stockton cop was often unpleasant. How, he wondered, could he expect them to change when they were struggling just to find reasons to stick with it? Officers, he suggested, suffered from working in an oppressive system, and that too needed to change.

Harris said that the culture of how officers are taught and treated has morphed drastically under Jones.

“Twenty, 30 years ago, you had, ‘You’re going to learn this rookie,’” Harris said. Today, he said, that has transformed to “I’m going to treat you 100% decent like any other person, and we are going to go through this together.”

Stockton also tries to address mental health, believing that well-adjusted officers make better decisions in the field, Jones said.

When Harris was working as a homicide detective in 2012, there were a record 71 killings, he said, and it was “miserable ... for the families, for the citizens, for us.” He recalls the pressure of going home to his family with the images of murder scenes in his head.

Now, young officers are given a welcome package that has included a teddy bear that sings when its paw is pushed, and are taught, “It’s OK to talk about your problems,” Harris said. “You don’t need to go home and drink. You don’t need to go out and party.”

Retention remains a problem because of pay, though — a remnant of defunding. Stockton police still earn less than counterparts in surrounding areas. The result is that about 75% of officers have less than five years of experience. The oldest homicide detective, usually a job that requires decades of experience, is 33, Harris said.

The plus side of the youthful ranks, Harris said, is an inclusive culture that doesn’t nurture the kind of blind obeisance to veterans that some have suggested kept inexperienced officers from stepping in as George Floyd was killed.

But there are drawbacks to this young force, paid for on the cheap. Many officers aren’t from the area and don’t live in Stockton, and they are far from matching the diverse demographics of the city. The neighborhoods they patrol are unfamiliar, and community members are often strangers.

Burnice Redic, a Stockton native who was formerly incarcerated and now works in a violence prevention program, recalls what it was like to know the officers who walked his block when he was a kid. Once, when he was about 11, a well-known officer everyone called “Blondie” caught him with drugs, he said. But the beat cop knew his mother, father, aunt and grandmother, and let him go with a warning.

“He just looked at me and was like, ‘You know, Burnice, you’re better than this,’” Redic recalled. “Discretion goes a long way. People remember that. Like I said, I remember when he did that for me.”

Harris agrees that not having officers that know the people they police is a loss.

“I’ve missed that, too,” he said, “You don’t have a steady group who’s like, ‘This is my city. I know everybody in it.’”

Dionne Smith-Downs, one of the harshest critics of the department, said the problems in Stockton go beyond what the department admits, and that changes have been superficial. Her son, James Rivera Jr., was shot by two Stockton officers and a San Joaquin sheriff’s deputy in 2010.

“The only thing I see is that they pick and choose what they want to show the world, but they are still cutting us down,” Smith-Downs said recently. “We are still being profiled, we are still being falsely arrested, and we are still [having] guns put on us.”

Nuri “Brian” Muhammad, the leader of Advance Peace in Stockton, thinks programs such as his are necessary because of that remaining mistrust. Police alone will never be the answer to public safety, he said.

“The people that we deal with, they look at the police as somebody that’s there to put them in jail,” Muhammad said. “They won’t open up to them the way they open up to us.”

Redic said that recently, he prevented a shooting between two teens, one of whom was dating the other’s mother and allegedly beat her up. The son of the woman who Redic said was assaulted found the other teen at a club and, armed with a handgun, threatened to shoot him.

Redic was unable to calm the teen with the gun, but brokered a deal instead, he said: The young men would fight without weapons, and let the matter go, no matter who won. Redic said he had to improvise or else someone would die, and those kinds of solutions are unorthodox but necessary.

“They squashed it and everything’s been solid ever since,” he said.

Jones said he will take help where he can get it, and has made community interventions a cornerstone of his approach since there still aren’t enough officers to respond to every call.

Though there are bright spots — incidents of police shooting people decreased about 33% for the last five years compared to five years prior — gun violence remains a problem, homelessness continues to grow and the pandemic is causing a new round of economic problems.

The last years are “just the beginning,” he said, and an urgency for change remains.

“It’s such hard work, difficult work, but my goal is infusing it into who we are as a department,” Jones said. “Because I could be gone tomorrow ... and it needs to live.”

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