Why Community Leaders Are Concerned About Police Messaging On Prop. 47

Mar. 25, 2015 / By

Compton resident Cherlleen Poe, 54, received a felony conviction for drug possession in her late 30’s, and since has faced trouble finding a job that pays well enough to find a decent place to live. She cycled on and off the street, and on and off drugs.

Poe is one of the many Californians who will benefit from Proposition 47, a landmark law that was passed on the ballot in November with the intent to ease California’s overcrowded prison system.

All 33 prisons in the state are at or over-capacity, leaving more than 15,000 inmates in conditions that are cruel and unsafe, as affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2011.

“With Prop. 47 going into implementation… it means a great deal,” said Poe, who has been off drugs for seven years. “Now I feel as though I can do something… I can enter society [while] looking for a job.”

As cities across California implement the new law, Long Beach residents have recently expressed concerns over local police officers’ commentary at community meetings. According to meeting attendees, police officers have attributed upticks in crime and drug usage to those being released from prison as a result of Prop. 47.

Laura Merryfield, a community organizer with Building Healthy Communities, said she has heard police officers speak about the “ills” of Proposition 47 at six different community meetings. She said the narrative tends to be the same: officers say they may find a person using “crack in an alley” or using meth in the street, but, reportedly, they can’t do anything more than give a ticket because of the Proposition.

Some community members have responded with fear to the officer’s stories.

“‘Why would people vote for that? That’s crazy!’” Merryfield said, paraphrasing some community members’ reactions.

At these meetings, which include those of Latinos in Action, Semillas de Esperanza, and Comunidades Con Poder Para El Cambio, police have been allegedly warning residents to watch out as potentially dangerous criminals are being released into the streets.

Prop. 47 advocates like Merryfield argue that the release of inmates under Prop. 47 has been too slow to cause any spikes in crime. And while warnings at community meetings tell otherwise, L.A. County Assistant Sheriff Michael Rothans also said it was too soon to gouge the effects of the law.

About 2,923 non-violent offenders have been released from prison under Prop. 47 as of early March, according to the Huffington Post.

The Long Beach Police Officer’s Association endorsed the anti-Prop.47’s effort. City Prosecutor Doug Haubert published an editorial soon after the proposition passed, arguing it “could cause crime to spike.”

Long Beach West Division Commander Robert Smith says there is no formal campaign by LBPD to undermine Prop. 47, and that instead this commentary is coming from individual officers.

“There’s no orchestrated effort by the police department to share information on Prop. 47 with the community,” he said.

Smith said there might have been some confusion on what the Proposition meant for law enforcement, adding that he “could see some of our personnel saying there could be drug offenses that were cited versus arrests.”

The LBPD recently released training bulletins that teach officers how to handle non-violent crimes cited in the new law.

Whether it is an orchestrated effort or not, community leaders argue that this narrative is misleading.

“If we perpetuate fear, we continue to have a population that supports mass incarceration,” Merryfield said. “[Police are] suggesting more people are getting out and creating harm in our communities. We have to remember the Prop. 47 crimes are not violent crimes.”

Local Prop. 47 advocates worry that spreading fear could change the way people, especially in the Spanish-speaking community, feel about the law.

“Cops shouldn’t be spreading one-sided, extreme examples of Prop. 47,” said Jan Andasan, 24, an organizer with East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. He said he has heard the same narrative from police officers at many meetings since December.

Fifty-eight percent of CA voters supported Proposition 47, which reduces certain nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors. This includes possession of a controlled substance or petty theft crimes where the stolen item was valued less than $950.

Ten thousand to 20,000 inmates are now eligible to apply for reduced sentencing and may be released, according to A New Way of Life Reentry Project. In addition, two million Californians, including Poe, can apply to reclassify their felony status to a misdemeanor.

“[Prop. 47] reduces the overcrowded prison system and give[s] people a second chance,” Merryfield said. “Ultimately, we’re starting to attack the system and institutional racism.”

African-Americans make up 29 percent of California’s male inmate population, and Latinos make up 41 percent, according to the Public Policy Institute of California. Only 6.6 percent of California’s total population is African-American, and 38.4 percent is Latino, according to 2013 Census data.

“Prop 47. brings some racial justice to the whole dynamic of criminal justice because it’s not just white people, not just rich people, but all people that qualify,” said Susan Burton, executive director from A New Way of Life Reentry Project.

The law will use the estimated $100 million to $200 million in savings made from fewer incarcerations on K-12 student drop out reductions, victim services, and drug and mental health services designed to keep people out of prison. That provision is slated to take effect next year.

“Prop. 47 opened a whole new way in working with people to get beyond imprisonment to get into productive, law-abiding lives,” said Burton.

Since Prop.47 went into effect, crime in Long Beach overall has fallen, except on the city’s West Side, where property crime has been on the rise since January.

“I will not tie any increase or decrease [in crime] specific to Prop. 47…[That] would be very difficult to do,” said Smith, who argues that the law only took effect recently.

Merryfield said that when individual officers at community meetings publically predict increases in violent crime, “it’s especially problematic.”

“These are not violent offenders,” she said. “It’s a different set of crimes.”

The West Side’s increase in crime compelled Smith to organize a community forum on Feb. 25, offering tips on preventing burglaries. These tips include: keeping items out of sight in your car, protecting personal documents, locking doors, parking in a well-lit area, and calling the police if you see something suspicious.

Since the forum, Smith has seen crime fall back down in his division. “That’s a good sign,” he said.

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Michael Lozano

Michael is an editor and multimedia journalist born to Mexican parents who started their own Domestic Violence counseling center in Southeast Los Angeles. His mentorship has provided youth opportunities to share their stories online on NPR, KCET, the Long Beach Post, and other national websites. His articles have been syndicated and translated into multiple languages via New America Media and ImpreMedia, the nation’s largest Spanish-language news publisher. He was a fellow with UCLA's Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies, and has recently been a Votebeat Reporter for CalMatters and the Long Beach Post. Michael graduated from CSULB in 2011 with research honors in Sociology and a Journalism minor. Follow his work @chicanochico on Twitter and @thechicanochicoreport on Instagram.