A forum of concern: Nevada City police reform, budgets discussed at town hall
The town hall gave Nevada City residents a forum to speak about their police department.
What resulted was a voicing of concerns, and a series of recommendations — including the possibility of merging the city’s police force with another agency.
No action, however, was taken at the Thursday town hall.
Titled “Public Safety and the Future of Policing in Nevada City,” the town hall served as an opportunity for community members to weigh in and make recommendations to city leaders on a host of topics, ranging from from discussions of the Nevada City Police Department budget to concerns over how the Aug. 9, 2020, Black Lives Matter protest was handled by law enforcement.
Hosting the meeting were City Council members Daniela Fernandez and Gary Petersen, who fielded questions from attendees and facilitated discussion on the different topics. Also in attendance were a number of police officials, including Nevada City Interim Police Chief Ted Stec and Grass Valley Police Chief Alex Gammelgard.
A number of city residents, including attendees from the Nevada City Community Oversight Task Force, stressed the need for better training and education for Nevada City officers when it comes to dealing with issues of mental illness and drug abuse in the city’s homeless population.
Several of those present — including Pauli Halstead, a city resident and a member of the task force — expressed concern that Nevada City officers had not received training in accordance with the most up-to-date guidelines when it comes to dealing with mentally ill people.
“We still have several individuals in town who are seriously mentally ill and need a more constant support, rather than an armed, uniformed response,” Halstead said in a statement on behalf of the task force.
“It is evident, from our findings, regarding trainings, that all of our officers need more training in how to deal effectively with the mentally ill. Police officers are not social workers or therapists and do not have sufficient training for this demographic.” Halstead went on to recommend that city leaders might consider replacing some police officers with social workers when it comes to responding to those suffering from mental illness.
Another theme of the town hall meeting was widespread dissatisfaction with Nevada City police’s level of involvement and connection with the community.
“The police here need to be more interactive and accessible to members of this community,” said longtime city resident Sean Leydon.
The events of last year’s Aug. 9 protest and a perceived lack of subsequent reforms following the incident, combined with a deeper lack of connection with residents, have collectively helped undermine local trust in the police department, said Jamie Williams, speaking on behalf of her section group.
The town hall was broken up into various discussion groups throughout the evening.
“The BLM protest generated a bad experience, with police just refusing to take action against white supremacists…the police didn’t intervene when someone was assaulted right in front of them,” Williams said. “There’s just no interaction between police and citizens, and the police don’t seem to be community oriented.”
Instead the officers “were insufficiently trained and equipped to handle the protest,” according to the report.
Another item of concern repeatedly brought up during the town hall was the apparent lack of data collected by authorities regarding the city’s crime rate. Numerous longtime residents, including Halstead, stressed that a concerted effort by Nevada City police to procure and release such data would help citizens better understand the underlying issues in their community, and in turn would inform better police reform efforts on the part of city leaders.
“We’d like to see the police chief put together some data on police calls for service…we need this data to help plan our city’s response to crime,” Halstead said.
Petersen agreed with attendees that collecting more crime data will be an essential step toward effective police reform, saying that the City Council is in the beginning stages of collecting and “synthesizing” this kind of information. He added that such data collection, however, will need to align with the eventual hiring of a new Nevada City manager and police chief. Once both roles are filled, the City Council plans to publish this data in some form to inform more effective city policy, Petersen added.
“Synthesizing this data and having information on hand that the council can consider is very important…we’re not messing around with this stuff,” Petersen said. “At the same time, that needs to align with the hiring process for manager and police chief…we need to have that team structure in place for this data collection to happen.”
While declining to give an exact time frame in which such data would be released as well as when a new police chief and city manager would be hired, Petersen said that the city was hoping for substantial action on all of these fronts within a roughly 90-day period.
“I think that by the 1st of 2022 we’ll be able to really take up these issues in the council for action,” the councilman said.
Among the various proposals brought up at Thursday’s meeting was a recommendation made by multiple city residents that the Nevada City Police Department should ultimately be merged into the Grass Valley Police Department or the Sheriff’s Office, rather than being a separate entity.
In its statement to the City Council, the Nevada City Community Oversight Task Force said that such a merger would save the city a considerable amount of money, noting that the police department takes up nearly half of the city budget.
“At 46.8% of the total city budget, the budget is too high, considering our low crime rate…Reworking the police budget and hiring less expensive personnel to do some jobs would result in savings to the city,” the statement read.
Petersen did not say whether the council was seriously considering such a move, but expressed that it would not be off the table for consideration as city leaders work to ensure that the police department both serves public safety and remains cost effective for the city budget in the future.
“(Interim City Manager) Joan Phillipe completely rebuilt our budget from scratch, which was necessary, so we clearly understand what the costs are…this issue of budgets is a national conversation that needs to happen here, too,” Petersen said, while cautioning that merging the city police department with another agency could bring its own problems.
“I’ve been part of merging departments before, and it’s not as simple as it sounds,” he added. “We’d have to give it a lot of consideration as far as partnering with GVPD or the Sheriff’s Office. We’d have to really look at our city’s economics and structure.”
The councilman added that officials would have a much better idea of what such a potential “merger” would entail once a full-time city manager and police chief take office.
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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