California Bill That Promotes Alternatives to Policing Is Back Despite Governor’s Veto

The CRISES Act would fund emergency response programs that are not handled by police. Governor Newsom blocked the bill last year, but now advocates are pushing for a redo.

Piper French | February 17, 2021

Police in San Francisco (Photo by Thomas Hawk is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

The CRISES Act would fund emergency response programs that are not handled by police. Governor Newsom blocked the bill last year, but now advocates are pushing for a redo.

In February 2020, when California Assemblymember Sydney Kamlager introduced the CRISES Act (Assembly Bill 2054), to fund community-based emergency response programs, it didn’t make much of a splash. “It was a quiet bill,” Kamlager told The Appeal: Political Report.

Then, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis after a 911 call. As protests against police brutality unfurled across the country, similar programs were debated and passed from New York to Los Angeles. The Community Response Initiative to Strengthen Emergency Systems Act suddenly seemed like an idea whose time had come, and California’s legislators took note. “At the end of the day, there were 21 co-authors, and almost 150 listed groups of supporters,” said Kamlager. “Everyone was excited about being able to say that California was moving forward in this space.”

Law enforcement unions registered no official opposition to the CRISES Act, and it passed the legislature easily. But at the end of September, Governor Gavin Newsom returned CRISES without his signature. “I was gobsmacked,” Kamlager recalled. “It is a bill that is incredibly in line with and in touch with the moment.”

The CRISES veto is a testament to the challenges of translating political will into policy, and the particular vexations of trying to enact criminal justice reform in a state where progressive bonafides mask regressive sentencing and policing laws and an unrivalled mass incarceration system. “What you’re seeing in the governor’s seemingly arbitrary decision to veto [the CRISES Act] is a very cautious nose to the wind of this still very potent tough-on-crime voter bloc,” said Jonathan Simon, law professor at University of California, Berkeley and an expert on criminal justice reform.

Kamlager reintroduced the CRISES Act as AB 118 for the 2021 legislative session. What happens this time around will depend on how activists, community groups, and reform-minded lawmakers navigate a changing legislature, embattled but still powerful law enforcement unions, and a governor whose record on criminal justice reform has been one of deep ambivalence.

And it will give Californians another opportunity to confront the debate around whether alternatives to incarceration should originate within police departments—a compromise that seems to be acceptable to law enforcement itself, but one that activist groups have firmly resisted, maintaining that policing needs to be transformed rather than merely tweaked.

Kamlager crafted the CRISES Act in partnership with Cat Brooks, co-founder of the Oakland-based Anti Police-Terror Project. The bill would establish a grant program for community groups to create emergency response teams that would respond to a wide range of calls instead of the police. These calls might involve intimate partner violence or a mental health crisis. They might come from someone leery of calling the police because of their immigration status, or terrified that they’ll be the one sent to jail. Or they might come from any Black or Latinxperson who knows that when the police are called, someone can end up dead. “All of those groups still have the right to be able to call someone and ask for help when there’s an emergency, without the assumption that they’re criminals, and without the threat of an arrest,” Kamlager said.

The Anti Police-Terror Project weighed in on the language and scope of the bill throughout. To Brooks, it was crucial that CRISES fund existing community organizations. “That’s the thing about this conversation around alternatives to law enforcement, with the people that are kind of grasping their pearls—you can release the pearls, because we’ve been doing this,” she told the Political Report. “Just with no budget, with no resources, and we’ve been doing it quietly.”

One such example is Mental Health First, a pilot program that the Anti Police-Terror Project established in Oakland and Sacramento. “Our phones ring, and that lets me know that people who would otherwise not have an agency to call have someplace to call,” Brooks said. “A lot of Black and brown folks aren’t going to call 911, no matter how bad the crisis.”

At Mental Health First, volunteers staff phone lines from sundown to sunup over the weekend prepared to respond to a wide range of calls, including mental health crises and domestic violence situations. They use de-escalation techniques and try to come up with “exit plans,” whether it’s helping callers get in touch with a friend or family member or even calling a ride-hailing service. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has been restricted to phone support, but once the vaccine becomes readily available, Brooks is hoping to have teams back out on the street. Though she acknowledges that it’s too early to speak about impact, especially given the disruption of the pandemic, she’s been heartened to receive calls from people across the country interested in creating programs like Mental Health First in their own communities.

“The volunteers that have shown up for MH First have been an amazing demonstration of what people want to do for their communities,” Brooks said. “Programs like MH First show people that there are alternatives—which is really our job as organizers. We can’t just say ‘don’t call the police.’ Our job is to create small replicable programs for issues that don’t require badges and guns.” Her hope is that CRISES could multiply “participant-led” programs like Mental Health First across the state.

Dennis Cuevas-Romero is a legislative advocate for the ACLU, which co-sponsored the bill alongside the Anti Police-Terror Project and a number of other activist groups. CRISES posed no direct budgetary threat to law enforcement, which Cuevas-Romero suspected may have had something to do with police unions’ lack of opposition to the bill. Still, he saw it as quietly radical in its premise: that a world with less policing is possible. “It’s clear that folks in California and across the nation want a reimagining of what is considered public safety,” he said. “The time has come. And the co-sponsors think that the CRISES Act is a first step in doing that.”

As the CRISES Act moved through the legislature, Newsom’s administration had one central demand: that the bill’s proposed grant program be housed under the Board of State and Community Corrections rather than the Office of Emergency Services. According to Kamlager, the administration’s position was that the emergency services office had been overwhelmed by responding to COVID-19 and the state’s worsening wildfire problem. (Newsom’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)

The Board of State and Community Corrections is an independent agency that oversees and provides guidance to California’s courts, prisons, and jails. It has 13 members, most of whom are required to be sheriffs, chief probation officers, judges, police chiefs, and Department of Corrections officials; only two seats exist for community service providers or advocates.

In other words, Newsom essentially wanted a program designed to limit the reach of law enforcement to be placed under the purview of law enforcement. To the creators of CRISES, that idea was a nonstarter. “Having this kind of bill housed in that department is really antithetical to the intent behind the bill,” Kamlager told The Political Report.

“We don’t deal with policy that reaffirms or reinforces the relevance of policing as it exists today,” Brooks said. “The only type of reform that we engage in chips away at policing as we know it.”

Brooks and Kamlager were aware of what might happen if they didn’t agree to Newsom’s proposal. But for both women, the choice was clear. “We said hell no,” Brooks recounted. “Absolutely not.”

Brooks is on guard for reforms that ultimately serve to bolster the institution of policing. In September, she wrote a commentary that criticized law enforcement unions’ attempts to co-opt activist language like “reimagining public safety” in order to argue for investment in de-escalation programs for police.

In the months following the uprising, police have indeed made a number of attempts to respond to protesters’ demands by instituting mental health units among their own ranks. To Brooks, such developments are pernicious because they divert public attention from genuinely transformative changes to the system. “A brief look at the impact of police unions on our communities clearly demonstrate[s] that they are the last entity that should be leading the path to reform,” she wrote in the San Francisco Examiner.

The dispute over management of the CRISES Act’s grant program was emblematic of larger rifts between Newsom’s administration and the community groups on the frontlines of the movement to transform policing and incarceration in California.

Last summer, as the uprising for racial justice continued, Newsom spoke out. “We have a unique and special responsibility here in California to meet this historic moment head-on,” the governor said. “We will not sit back passively as a state.” But in the months since, he has charted a far less decisive course toward criminal justice reform than that speech suggested.

The lobbyists, lawmakers, advocates, and experts who spoke to the Political Report for this article described a governor who is reform-minded and speaks the language of systemic change, but has often been unwilling to take bold action in order to combat mass incarceration and over-policing. “Governor Newsom says a lot of great things, but we haven’t seen it reflected in his policy decisions,” Cuevas-Romero said.

Though Newsom did sign several criminal justice reform bills into law in the fall, the CRISES Act was far from the only casualty of the past legislative session. The governor also spurned bills that would have collected information about past officer misconduct and reduced the high costs of commissary items in jails and prisons.

As governor, Newsom possesses powers that go considerably beyond the decision to sign or veto bills that come across his desk; he can make a difference in whether a bill ever gets that far in the first place. Cuevas-Romero said that last year, the “biggest bill” concerning police was a measure that would have allowed a state agency to decertify cops who are fired for misconduct. “That bill didn’t even get a vote. If the governor and his administration wanted something, they could have engaged and put pressure, and that just didn’t happen,” he said. Without any signals of support from the administration, tenacious lobbying from law enforcement unions was enough to sink the bill, and several other reform measures expired in much the same manner.

In the eyes of Simon, the Berkeley law professor, Newsom’s desire to appear progressive has arguably outweighed his appetite to champion and enact legislation that reflects those values. Simon especially sees this contradiction reflected in Newsom’s treatment of capital punishment. The governor has called for the death penalty’s abolition, and he has imposed a statewide moratorium on executions, but advocates have long been urging California governors, including Newsom, to use their powers to commute the sentences of Californians on death row.

Simon also said that Newsom has failed to meaningfully reduce prison populations during the COVID-19 pandemic—a concrete reform that would have saved lives but could have been politically risky. He has also used his executive powers to stop dozens of people convicted of serious crimes from obtaining parole, against the recommendations of parole boards.

The CRISES veto follows this pattern. “The politics of crime in California remains a potent force,” Simon told the Political Report. “Getting this kind of really promising bill through the California legislature wouldn’t have been obvious at all a few years ago, but the [tough-on-crime] coalition that was anchored by DAs and sheriffs and law enforcement, that really altered the state’s political leadership for decades, has not gone away completely.” And Newsom, Simon said, is “really, really worried about it.”

Newsom’s hesitance and unpredictability on criminal justice reform have created an atmosphere that advocates described as “frustrating,” “confusing,” and “mystifying.” But it hasn’t deterred them from engaging in the legislative battles they choose to fight.

“We can’t lose hope because we didn’t have a bunch of faith in the system to begin with,” Brooks told the Political Report. “We know that the bills we engage with are the more radical ones. They require more organizing and they have less opportunity of passing.”

For that reason, the Anti-Police Terror Project’s strategy doesn’t start or stop with legislative cycles. Brooks told the Political Report that the group continued organizing around the CRISES Act between sessions. “There’s even more public support for these types of programs than there was a few months ago,” she noted. This time around, she hopes to run a stronger communications campaign and engage the public even more.

“We have to keep pushing,” Kamlager said. Though the assemblymember is open to re-evaluating the location of the grant program—as long as it isn’t housed under a law enforcement board—she is adamant that CRISES will be signed this time around.

“Communities know what’s going on in their world,” she said. “They know where the problems are and they know the solutions for those problems. And this will actually fund and grant opportunity for those communities to have a stake in how their own regulation and policing happens. Why not move towards that?”

This article has been updated to correct the description of a California bill proposed last year that would have enabled decertification of police who are fired for misconduct. This power would have rested with the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, not the state Department of Justice.