“Defund police. They are the problem.”
“Back the badge. Nothing’s wrong with law enforcement.”
Both extremes are wrong. The reasonable position is somewhere in the middle.
Fortunately, the two largest law enforcement agencies in this area both recognize this truth.
A few law-and-order politicians before the June primary warned against dismantling the Modesto Police Department and the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department. These office seekers were trying to scare people, and to win votes. But there is no such credible movement against law enforcement in these parts.
At the same time, both agencies know they are not perfect. Both know there is room for improvement, a fact periodically underlined on this opinion page, especially when people needing help end up hurt or dead because of officers’ actions.
Recent headlines provide real cases in point. Within a 10-day stretch, Modesto police shot two different men in mental crisis; the first, on the Fourth of July, remains hospitalized, while the second, on July 14, was killed.
Every officer-involved shooting invites scrutiny, especially since George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis policeman two years ago. That stoked the Black Lives Matter movement and steps toward reform, including Forward Together for Modesto police and Project Resolve for Stanislaus deputies.
While we await the product of these initiatives, both agencies independently are pursuing alternative responses to traditional policing. This means sending someone other than or in addition to an officer, when people need help.
“People can be intimidated or triggered by a uniform,” Modesto Police Chief Brandon Gillespie said in an interview. “Being able to chat with people and build rapport, that’s the key.”
Modesto police get points for their fledgling Community Health and Assistance Team. The CHAT team so far this year has responded to 1,239 calls, resulting in 191 people placed in shelters and five in other housing. Hundreds more accepted some other type of help, including referrals to myriad services offered by the county and nonprofits.
CHAT, said Mayor Sue Zwahlen, is worthwhile because instead of bringing a rigid institutional response to every problem, “you’re dealing with every situation one by one by one. Every person’s needs are unique, and it takes time to deal with each person individually.”
Also, 16 Modesto officers recently completed 40 hours of crisis intervention training aimed at helping officers see themselves more as public servants than warriors, a reboot of a former effort. Eventually all department employees will receive the same training, Gillespie said. In another program, rangers this week began patrolling problem parks.
People wondering how they might pitch in should consider volunteering to serve on the city’s new Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, an excellent way to make a positive difference. Applications are open at modestogov.com.
Meanwhile, county supervisors a few days ago approved funding for a similar team helping ease deputies’ load.
The county’s Mobile Crisis Response Unit will put a clinician with an emergency medical technician in an ambulance-like vehicle, bypassing law enforcement altogether, Sheriff Jeff Dirkse said. His office just began the recruitment process, so it could take a few months for the unit to get off the ground, but it eventually could be offered to cities contracting with the county for police services: Riverbank, Patterson, Hughson and Waterford.
“Every cop will tell you they deal with mental health issues on a daily basis,” Dirkse said in an interview.
In recent times, The Modesto Bee has called for reform while calling out questionable deaths at the hands of officers.
Victims include Trevor Seever, who was unarmed when shot and killed by Modesto policeman Joseph Lamantia in late 2020; Evin Yadegar, killed by Stanislaus Deputy Justin Wall in 2017; and Eloy Gonzalez, killed by deputies escalating a confrontation with the homeless man in September 2020. The common thread: mental crisis.
Too many pay with their lives when overly aggressive warriors show up and see a criminal to neutralize rather than a human being in need.
Even with the recent focus away from lethal force, officers continue using what should be the last resort when dealing with people in mental crisis — shooting them. The July 4 and 14 incidents involving Modesto police provide examples.
The calm patience embodied on July 4 by Officer Jacob Mertz while talking Dylan Harvey off a figurative ledge is undisputed. In a July 20 interview, City Manager Joe Lopez proudly called Mertz’s comportment “fantastic. He acted like a mental health professional.”
Whether a standard critical incident review finds some level of fault remains to be seen. When Mertz smartly walked Harvey away from knives in a bedroom, why didn’t Mertz’s partner secure the weapons? Why did both officers go to retrieve documents from their patrol vehicle, allowing Harvey — momentarily left alone — to reenter the home, grab a knife and injure Mertz, essentially forcing the officer to shoot him?
Footage from the second incident, on July 14, was not available at the writing of this editorial. But Gillespie, the chief, said the CHAT team would have been sent to neither incident because both involved people armed with weapons — knives in the first, a trailer hitch in the second. Unarmed civilians like CHAT members are not dispatched to scenes with potential for violence.
Regardless, it’s clear that the focus of law enforcement on alternative responses is appropriate, and can’t come soon enough.