City officials and members of the Walnut Creek community offered mostly praise Tuesday night for the city’s “Community Listening Session” program, established following the shooting death by police of Miles Hall in 2019.
But while optimism was palpable at Tuesday’s special City Council meeting to discuss the now-concluded Community Listening Session series of meetings, those same people said there is still substantial work ahead to advance the healing process in Walnut Creek following Hall’s death.
They said other events in the meantime have eroded trust in the city’s Police Department, and have highlighted the need for improved response to people in mental health crises — the situation the 23-year-old Hall was in when he was killed near his home.
Councilwoman Cindy Silva said Hall’s death has helped expose the significant gaps in the overall mental health care structure.
“There was a general consensus that police officers are not the best equipped to handle mental health crises.”Jason Seals, Community Listening Session consultant
“I really think it shows this system is an equal opportunity system, that it mistreats people of all races, all income levels,” said Silva, who also on Tuesday night apologized for Hall’s death. Silva also said it is clear that society has come to expect too much of police officers — a point echoed by Jason Seals, a consultant whose firm led the nine Community Listening Session gatherings during the second half of 2020.
Six of those sessions included members of the broader community; one session was with city staff. The sessions, Seals said, focused on policing and public safety, Walnut Creek’s racial climate, and mental health wellness. Approximately 115 people overall took part in the sessions.
“There was a general consensus that police officers are not the best equipped to handle mental health crises,” Seals told the council Tuesday.
Participants also said systemic racism remains alive and well in Walnut Creek and beyond. Some long-term local residents of color said they have experienced this personally, Seals said. Some of those commenters, he added, said they would be afraid to call 911 if a family member or friend was experiencing a mental health episode, for fear of lethal force being used. City leaders, Seals said, should take the lead in rebuilding trust with the community, and he said these listening sessions were a positive step.
Keeping the conversation alive
The listening sessions were established with help from members of the Friends of Scott, Alexis and Taun Hall — FOSATH — to offer a series of listening sessions for community members who supported a dialogue about issues related to the killing of Miles Hall.
Members and supporters of FOSATH have spoken out at every Walnut Creek City Council meeting, in-person and virtual, since Miles Hall’s death, and said they wanted to be part of a dialogue about mental health and public safety, and the point at which those two issues meet, outside of a regular public City Council meeting.
Councilwoman Cindy Darling said she has come away with mixed feelings on this process so far. While she is pleased with the response of Walnut Creek and neighboring cities to establish a regional 24-hour non-police mental health response team — an ongoing effort — she said she rues the persistence of systemic racism. She, and others, said the work to fight that must continue.
Both Silva and Mayor Kevin Wilk expressed anger Tuesday that the Police Department has not yet received the official report from the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office about Miles Hall’s killing, and the police officers’ role in it. Wilk said the lack of a report has left his city’s police officers open to judgment without all the facts being known.
On Wednesday, District Attorney’s Office spokesman Scott Alonso said his office’s criminal investigation is still ongoing, and that no decision has been made yet regarding the officers involved in the death of Miles Hall. If no charges are filed, Alonso said, a public report will be issued.
If and when charges are filed, “When a final decision is reached, that information will be communicated to the family of Miles Hall, as well as the officers involved in the incident,” Alonso said in an email Wednesday.
Members of the public who weighed in Tuesday had mixed opinions on the city’s efforts thus far to address issues of where mental health and public safety meet. While some said city leaders still have not moved decisively enough, others said they are encouraged by the work done so far.
Said Laura Halpin of Walnut Creek, “It’s amazingly heartening to hear the depth and nuance of the solutions they’re proposing.”