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Reckoning with our needs 

When tragedy strikes, let's come together instead of drawing more dividing lines

On May 20, I attended the funeral service for SLO Police Detective Luca Benedetti, who was tragically shot and killed while serving a search warrant on May 10. I am heartbroken over this loss, and along with our community, I grieve for Detective Benedetti's wife and two young girls, who will now grow up without their dad. It's heart-wrenching.

Since the funeral service, I keep thinking about how their tragic story could have been mine. My dad was an officer and detective with the SLO Police Department for more than 25 years, and growing up, I lived with the reality that one day my dad might not come home from work. Like Detective Benedetti, my dad put his life on the line every day, doing a tough job that is often misunderstood and under-appreciated.

The details of what happened on May 10and the weeks and months leading up to it are part of an ongoing investigation, but it's been reported that the shooter, Eddie Giron, was experiencing severe mental illness, and that his friends and family had unsuccessfully been trying to help him for months. It's unclear if Mr. Giron would ever have been receptive to mental health support, but it is clear that our community's resources were not enough to prevent him from turning to violence.

This isn't the first time a person suffering from mental illness attacked law enforcement in our county. Last June, four officers were shot at and wounded in Paso Robles by someone experiencing a severe mental health crisis. As in this case, the shooter's family had also tried countless times to get him help, but were also unsuccessful. Less than a year later, we're forced to reckon with the fact that once again our mental health resources have proven insufficient.

The fact that Mr. Giron was experiencing a mental health crisis in no way excuses his decision to ambush the police officers serving the search warrant. But the facts of this story require us to take a long, hard look in the mirror and recognize that we are failing to keep our community safe, including first responders like law enforcement, if we know our friends and neighbors need mental health support, yet we can't provide it to them.

When tragedy strikes a community, it can serve as an opportunity to bring people together to grieve as a community and lend support to each other. It can be a chance to temporarily put aside our differences to work together to find solutions so that such tragedies do not befall our community again.Unfortunately, that isn't happening like it should. Much of the conversation so far seems to be finger pointing.

Some in our community have used divisive rhetoric that seeks to inflame rather than heal, insinuating that Detective Benedetti's killing should be linked to past protests of police.As the proud son of a police officer, I will always stand up for good law enforcement officers. But I also believe that creating a dichotomy between "pro-police" and "pro-social services" is a false choice driven by national political antagonism.We need to move beyond the divisive politics that pit us against one another at the expense of practical solutions.Most people recognize that developing support networks to coordinate support for those experiencing acute mental health deterioration combined with better training for first responders in mental health support and addiction-related challenges makes all of us safer, including police officers.Now is the time to both support law enforcement and expand mental health resources so we can reduce the number of senseless deaths in our community.

I know that we are far more united on issues of public safety than what we see on TV or read on Facebook. Last summer, the Arroyo Grande City Council updated its police use of force standards with the support of both our police department and our community. And we did it with unanimous, bipartisan support from our council.

A commitment to working together, in support of both law enforcement and those experiencing mental illness, is what we need right now, not dividing into camps and exploiting tragedy for political gain.

Let's use this moment to reckon with the urgent need to build a safer, healthier community. One where tragedies like this never happen again. Δ

Jimmy Paulding is an Arroyo Grande City Council member. Send comments for publication to [email protected].

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