By Casey Murray | OBSERVER Staff Writer
Policing has never been under more scrutiny than in 2022. The role officers play in everyday life for different population groups has become a national conversation — and it’s why some violence prevention activists are raising red flags about one of Sacramento’s recent choices.
The city’s Office of Violence Prevention, which addresses and funds groups that work to prevent and interrupt violence, has been put under jurisdiction of the police department.
Some violence prevention workers oppose the change so strongly, they say they would rather go without funding.
“We have no intent of applying for any grants through Sac PD,” said Les Simmons, senior pastor at South Sacramento Christian Center who also works with violence prevention group Healing the Hood. “The population that we work with, I think that will put us in some challenging positions.”
Healing the Hood and other violence prevention groups such as Movement for Life (M4L, formerly Advance Peace) work directly with those at risk of committing gun violence.
In Sacramento, these groups have run mentorship programs, job training and connected people to services. Their representatives also show up to shootings to counsel those involved and prevent retaliatory action from gangs.
One analysis from UC Berkeley of M4L’s work over 2018 and 2019 found that “the team likely prevented 58 homicides and/or gunshots with an injury, since these are conflicts where gun use was imminent” and that for every $1 the city gave the organization, it received more than $18 in value.
Simmons and other activists, such as Julius Thibodeaux-Hasan, who works with M4L, have said that any perception that they work with police could undermine their ability to reach young people in precarious positions.
“There’s a lot of good cops in Sacramento. That doesn’t change [but] just because you’re a good person, it doesn’t change your duty,” Thibodeaux-Hasan said. “Law enforcement’s job is not to mentor and talk to individuals who are at high risk — at the highest risk — of being either perpetrators or victims of gun violence. Their job is to arrest. Our job is to provide mentorships and alternatives to that lifestyle.”
Thibodeaux-Hasan said being funded through the police department could create the idea that they are there to arrest or police the communities they serve.
Assistant City Manager Mario Lara said the change was made to facilitate better communication between the police department and the Office of Violence Prevention.
“The increase in violence across the nation, we’re not immune to that. We’ve seen that and we want to be as efficient as we possibly can in terms of getting resources out there and addressing the issue as best as we can,” Lara said. “By moving the Office of Violence Prevention over to PD there can be better coordination on identifying the areas that are in the most need.”
He said it’s unfortunate that some organizers view the change as a problem. The office will operate much as it has, he said, just under police jurisdiction.
“The individuals that they have been working with, they’re still the same individuals,” Lara said. “Hopefully, more of them will become more comfortable with this matter, because I think it could be more effective in terms of leveraging the resources that we have.”
However, some organizers see it as not just a conflict of interest between police and the communities they work with, but a wider backtracking of the shift to community-led crime reduction strategies.
“(It’s) doing what you’re accustomed to doing, not really looking at what has been the most effective,” Thibodeaux-Hasan said. “Change is uncomfortable. They’re going back to something that they’re comfortable with. This isn’t a progressive move.”
Lara said the change should facilitate more collaboration between groups and police, and that increased collaboration is a good thing.
“It’s about a collaboration between individuals, organizations and the police department in order to effectively address the increase in violence that we’re seeing in the community.”
Some said that kind of collaboration has hurt communities of color in the past. Chet Hewitt, President and CEO of the Sierra Health Foundation, which helps financially support many violence prevention organizations in the Sacramento area, said he sees the change as “net widening,” or the expansion of police into other areas of service.
He said that because many violence prevention community groups mentor youths, he sees the new structure as being bad for underprivileged children.
“We know that when you focus on law enforcement and not youth development, on young populations of color, we know what that gets,” he said.
Hewitt said that the change might seem small, but it could lead to other changes that build up. “There’s a reason why we got to the point where we had systems of mass incarceration, and they started from what seemed to be meaningless, innocuous changes, like the one we just saw in the city of Sacramento,” he said.
Now, as two of Sacramento’s primary violence prevention organizations are without funding they previously got from the city, such efforts have been hampered.
M4L has enough funding only to continue running its youth programs and not programming for young adults, Thibodeaux-Hasan said. And because it didn’t have the capacity to supervise the grants, the city recently passed on funding opportunities from the state for more violence prevention, Lara said.
“We have a lot of grants that are active and we felt we didn’t have the timeline or the capacity to do it justice,” he said.
It has community organizers worried about the future of violence prevention in the city when rates of violent crime are rising nationally.