Calls to reform the Bakersfield Police Department are seemingly coming in from around the world.
Public comments from as far away as the Netherlands and Germany were sent to the Bakersfield City Council as part of online campaigns calling for changes to BPD policies, including demands to defund the police.
Over the last week, city email accounts have been swarmed with such calls to action. On Wednesday, the City Clerk’s Office reported the city had received 1,995 email messages that were logged as public comments for that day’s City Council meeting.
The sheer volume of messages appears to have overwhelmed city staffers, potentially skewing analyses of the comments. A review of the comments reveals that several email advertisements for webinars were included in the city’s list of emails, and some messages were sent from the same account multiple times. Many of the emails vary only by sender, with the same message sent by multiple people.
The emails portray a strong desire to scale back the BPD, which commenters portrayed as violent and unnecessary.
“In the face of cyclical police violence happening throughout North America right now, there is no better time to commit ourselves to change,” read a message sent by a woman who identified herself as Pearl Baneulos. “What we need in Bakersfield is leadership that can initiate reform that aims towards the eventual abolition of police and prisons — and, in turn, the immense police violence that targets our most marginalized people.”
She and others called for the city to “never again” increase the BPD budget and expand community-led health and safety initiatives.
The comments come just as the city is attempting to pass the budget for the next fiscal year. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the $628 million fiscal 2020-21 budget on June 24.
But instead of decreasing BPD’s budget, the city is scheduled to expand it by nearly 10 percent. The Public Safety and Vital Services Measure has allowed city officials to expand the BPD. The city is planning to devote $119.9 million to the department, and add 44 positions over the next fiscal year, including 15 civilian employees that will support officers and detectives.
The BPD has said the new officers will allow the department to respond to calls for service faster.
“The most important thing we feel we can do is to address our response times,” Assistant Police Chief Joe Mullins said during a budget workshop in late May.
According to BPD statistics, officers only arrive at priority-one calls in under five minutes 30 percent of the time. In some cases, those calls are not responded to in under 10 minutes, an eternity for someone experiencing an active crime.
“A priority-one call is a call where a person’s life where there is bodily harm imminent,” Mullins said, noting domestic violence with a weapon and someone kicking the door of a residence down before beginning to shoot were classified as priority one. “Ten minutes can be an extremely long time when a crime is in progress. And we are striving to get there in that 10 minutes 80 percent of the time.”
The BPD didn't respond to a request for comment about the requests to defund the police.
While largely ignoring the public comments at Wednesday’s meeting, the City Council took steps to address some of the concerns. Councilman Andrae Gonzales made a series of recommendations that included the city review the #8CantWait policy proposals and form a community task force that would analyze requests coming from the public.
Both he and other council members want the public to realize the council has been working to address issues in the Police Department.
“The community needs to understand that we have realized some years ago, and have been moving forward on changing the culture in the Police Department,” Councilman Bob Smith said during the meeting. “I personally went to what they call Principled Policing (training) and heard a lot of discussion on implicit bias, and recognizing that we all have implicit bias and working through that. I think it’s important that we reach out to the community and let them know where we’re at and continue to change.”
When asked if the city would change its budget proposal before the council voted to approve, spokesman Joe Conroy didn't directly answer.
“The City takes a wide variety of input and feedback into account throughout the budgeting process to present a balanced budget for Council’s approval,” he wrote in an email to The Californian. “Staff will prepare a budget that reflects the Council’s guidance, goals and inquiries.”