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Reimagine, not rebrand

A $52 million-plus 'public safety center' isn't the direction SLO needs to go with policing

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At the Nov. 2 SLO City Council meeting, there was a lot of discussion about "reimagining policing." However, the proposal—doubling the size of the existing police station at a cost of more than $52 million—is anything but that.

Calls to halt the expansion proposal began in the summer of 2020 amid a national protest movement over police brutality and intensified public scrutiny of municipal budgets. At that time, concerned residents were assured by City Council members and City Manager Derek Johnson that there would be time to discuss the proposal and the associated costs as a community. It appears that the city simply waited for public outcry to die down before continuing with its plans to expand the SLOPD station, now under the deceptive name of the "public safety center."

Rebranding and expanding the carceral system under the guise of public safety is still an expansion, and we reject that expansion outright.

SLO has already effectively criminalized poverty through a series of punitive laws and actions aimed most often at those experiencing homelessness. In the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our community members, including those who are housed but living in precarious financial circumstances, are more likely to become further impoverished and face police violence through the continued criminalization of poverty in SLO. The money intended for the police station should be reallocated to help our community recover, both from the pandemic and systemic underfunding of these at-risk groups.

The city clearly has the resources to provide major funding for actual public safety, especially with the influx of Measure G funds that Johnson claims will provide funding for this proposed project. If we truly want to "re-imagine policing" as the city claims, we would be investing in safety programs that address the root causes of crime: housing, education, child and elder care, health care, public transportation, and more. Investments like these benefit everyone in our community.

Building a high-trust community in which everyone lives with dignity and does not live in fear and antagonism toward law enforcement, nor even have need of them, should be the goal. To invest that money into a larger station that expands the scope and power of one of the most powerful institutions in the United States—the police—is not a re-imagination; it is simply a rebranding of the same failed policies that have gotten us to where we are today.

Members of the San Luis Obispo chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA SLO) and our allies have seen, and experienced, directly how SLO County's economy disenfranchises many residents. We have been canvassing local tenants for more than six months. We talked to renters scared of being evicted, workers in the service and tourism industries who have kept our city running and cannot afford to live in the city where they work, and people fearful of being priced out of the area where they grew up. All in a city that is currently being sued for their mistreatment of the unhoused community. We are told that we cannot afford proactive tenant protection, to build more truly affordable housing, nor to provide permanent housing and services to the unhoused. It is insulting to people who are truly struggling right now to be discussing spending more than $52 million on a new station for a department that already takes up more than a quarter of the city's budget.

Additionally, to claim that this gross expansion of police power is a step toward meeting the city's major goal of diversity, equity, and inclusion is both cynical and insulting to the populations disproportionately affected by the police, including our communities of color. Literal transparency via a so-called community center or more windows in a building does nothing to promote a sense of community, nor make any meaningful changes to the institution of policing. The idea that anyone would feel welcome to hang out in a space where everyone around them is armed and has the capacity to detain them with virtual impunity is ludicrous.

The uncomfortable truth is that the current system of policing does not work the way that many think it does. It is reactive, only responding when harm has already been done, and then, most often, in the interest of protecting property, not people.

There are evidence-based programs that treat the root causes of crime before they are committed. If San Luis Obispo is truly interested in investing in public safety, then those are the types of programs in which we should be investing. Reimagining public safety means moving away from reactive, punitive enforcement and toward proactive, equitable empowerment of the people. How does this proposed project empower anyone but the police in our community? What resources does it provide to anyone beyond punishment? Δ

Brandon Messerly and Tasia Trevino-Hill are co-chairs of the Democratic Socialists of America's SLO County chapter. Send a response for publication to [email protected].

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