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Friday, June 12, 2020

Santa Barbara County takes first step toward tackling its racial inequities

Posted By on Fri, Jun 12, 2020 at 6:25 PM

As protests continue throughout the country in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Santa Barbara County officials took the first step of coming to grips with the racial inequities that exist locally.

click to enlarge ASKING FOR CHANGE Some Santa Barbara County residents demand change from law enforcement agencies as protests continue across the country against police violence. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • ASKING FOR CHANGE Some Santa Barbara County residents demand change from law enforcement agencies as protests continue across the country against police violence.
The county Board of Supervisors held a hearing on June 11, during which numerous residents spoke about racism they’ve faced or experienced while living in the county, while also demanding changes from different county law enforcement offices.

Wendy Sims-Moten, the executive director of First 5 Santa Barbara County, and Aaron Jones, the director of the Educational Opportunity Program at the University of California Santa Barbara, moderated the roughly six-hour meeting. Jones said that before addressing racism and police brutality against black people, we need to realize that these are structural issues.

“What we’re experiencing right now is rooted in the very fabric of this country,” Jones said. “Until we begin to excise that, until we begin to acknowledge that … We will continue to be here.”

Among the demands people listed at the meeting were for the Sheriff’s Office to update its use-of-force policy to focus on de-escalation, for the District Attorney’s Office to implement more diversion programs that can serve as alternatives to incarceration, and for the creation of a citizen’s review board for local law enforcement agencies.

Lawanda Lyons-Pruitt, the president of the Santa Maria-Lompoc Branch of the NAACP, supported these demands and also called on the Sheriff’s Office to abandon chokeholds.

“The uprising you’re seeing all across the nation, including in Santa Barbara and in Santa Maria are a result of the anger, the fear, the sadness and distress that have manifested for years throughout our community,” Lyons-Pruitt said. “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

After listening to all of the speakers, supervisors took some actions and acknowledged that this will be an ongoing discussion that’ll require more meetings and public testimony.

The county reduced the number of inmates in its jail by 39 percent to allow for additional social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The board approved a motion that requests the Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney’s Office report back on ways to maintain this reduced population after the public health crisis is over.

First District Supervisor Das Williams said reducing the county jail population is especially necessary considering that prior to the recent reduction, about 70 percent of the people in jail were still awaiting trial. And a disproportionate number of the people in the county’s jail are black or Latino.

“Our law enforcement agencies are more progressive than some that have been in the news,” Williams said, “but that doesn’t mean that we can’t have an embedded bias in the institution and that those embedded biases don’t endanger people of color.”

Second District Supervisor Gregg Hart said he’d like the County Executive Office to return to the board with a suggested list of community leaders who can serve on a working group that would partner with the county to identify projects the board could fund with $500,000 it set aside in its budget for racial equity programs. ∆

—Zac Ezzone
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