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There was plenty of agreement during a recent forum that police in Concord, and elsewhere, are often cast into situations they aren’t rigorously trained for.

But during the special City Council meeting called this past Wednesday to discuss local policing policies, there was no immediate consensus about how that should be remedied locally.

A number of callers into the meeting agreed that police shouldn’t necessarily answer calls involving mental health issues and/or homelessness.

And while some praised a proposed police pilot program to team with mental health clinicians and county Coordinated Outreach Referral, Engagement (CORE) team staff trained to respond to such calls, several commenters said the change needs to go much further than that.

“There should be a reimagining of our approach to public safety,” resident Laura Nakamura said. She and others told the council that public safety is more than police protection.

Andrea Rios added, “It is access to mental health, food security and racial justice.”

They didn’t teach this in school

Concord Police Chief Mark Bustillos, who was sworn into his job April 6, said early in the meeting that his officers respond to many calls — often by default — that the police academy didn’t necessarily prepare them for.

“The underfunding of mental health services … has landed in police departments’ laps,” Bustillos said. “It happens because we answer the phone.

“We’re going out on a lot of calls that are (only) tangentially law-enforcement-related,” Bustillos said.

Changes in the legal landscape, he said, have compromised officers’ ability to get some people off the street. Bustillos said he used to work narcotics cases in Santa Clara County, and that a drug addict’s fourth arrest would land them in a rehab program. Those days, Bustillos said, are over.

“We can tell them what to do all we want,” Bustillos said. “We don’t have the tools at all to lead them to the water.”

Vice Mayor Dominic Aliano said he supports Bustillos’ proposed pilot program; Bustillos said he hopes to get such a program going “sooner rather than later.”

Councilwoman Laura Hoffmeister said she doesn’t support any police “defunding,” the reallocation of some police funding to other uses including mental health and housing assistance. Instead, Hoffmeister called for more officer training to handle this kind of call.

That was a minority viewpoint Wednesday night, when many callers said they favored measures that largely take police out of mental health, homelessness and substance abuse responses altogether.

Eyes on oversight and outreach

Some supported police defunding; others suggested establishing a civilian police oversight body; and a few called for a more robust public outreach to all neighborhoods, especially those in which many people are afraid to engage the police.

Mara Barton, in response to Bustillo’s observation that police typically engage with people “on their worst days,” called for more preemptive work.

“More should be put into resources that help people to have fewer bad days,” Barton said.

The size of Concord’s police force was also called into question.

In Concord, 185 of 382 total city employees — 48 percent — work in the Police Department. Police operations account for over 58 percent of the city’s $102.4 million general fund budget.

But the number of sworn officers per 1,000 residents has gone down; in 2000, the city had 162 sworn officers for a population of just over 120,000; in 2020, there are 140 sworn officers to protect a city of about 132,000 residents. That, Bustillos said, is about average staffing for the Bay Area.

Technology, Bustillos said, is helping the Concord Police Department do more with fewer officers.

Of the 3,222 arrests made by Concord officers in 2019, 148 included use of force by officers, Bustillos told the City Council. He also noted his department has banned both “no-knock” warrants and the use of the carotid restraint, restricting the flow of blood to the brain by compressing the sides of the neck.

Mayor Tim McGallian said he wants to schedule another meeting like this soon, perhaps with a slightly different format and with more participating agencies.

Aliano said this is a difficult but necessary conversation to have.

“It’s important that it doesn’t end here, and there are other people we should bring into it.”