A half-dozen top officials from San Mateo County’s law enforcement community gathered virtually on Monday afternoon to answer questions from Coastsiders in a forum organized by La Honda Indivisible, a local chapter of a national social justice organization. They dedicated an hour and a half to hear polite, mostly prepared questions about their interactions with federal immigration agents, racism in the ranks, the use of body cameras and how police handle calls involving the mentally ill. And, for the most part, your public officials answered with the expected platitudes.

Then there was the text chat, which ran alongside the official discussion. Some of the 59 people on the call were, shall we say, less polite.

“Horsley and Bolanos need to stop talking about things they know nothing about.”

“The type of person who wants to be a policeman may be inclined to use force no matter what the training.”

“Officers are incompetent as mental health clinicians.”

“Sheriff Bolanos, educate yourself.”

If one thing was clear at the end of an hour and a half of well-meaning discussion it was that law enforcement suffers from a credibility gap — and that is as true in the Manor District as it is in Minneapolis. On Monday, it wasn’t Black men or Antifa operatives questioning the motives of local law enforcement. It was mostly middle-aged white women, and they were skeptical, to say the least.

The trouble for men like San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos Bolanos is that every American now knows too much to blindly accept that the professionals know best. Now that everyone has a pocket-size video camera on hand at all times, we’ve simply seen too much. The police beating of Rodney King 30 years ago might have been explained away as an anomaly, a few bad apples in blue. We didn’t see it every day unless we lived in communities of color. Partly due to the cellphone, we’ve since learned that police overreach is an everyday occurrence. Don’t think so? Look for the Wikipedia entry created to list every police killing in America. At last check there were 51 police killings this month alone.

We know too much to think a tweak in police training is going to move the needle.

There is a reckoning upon us. Somehow society must find a balance between the need for armed agents of the state who are sworn to keep us safe from people who follow no law and the need to keep us all safe from those same agents of the state.

Make no mistake: We appreciate how difficult it is to police our streets. We understand it must be galling to be questioned by civilians who don’t know what it’s like to answer a call alone at night and be expected to make split-second, life-or-death decisions. But we also know that our modern, militarized police forces are ill-equipped to deal with many, if not most, of the assignments that come their way.

Meaningful change won’t come from inside. We need a holistic approach to police reform that acknowledges that implicit bias isn’t trained away in a few hours at the academy. We need meaningful civilian oversight. We need to work to remedy other societal ills — drugs, mental illness, poverty, the proliferation of guns — that often end in police confrontation. And we need more people like those in the local Indivisible chapter to see this through to fruition.

— Clay Lambert

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