How Santa Rosa is Engaging Residents and Reimagining Public Safety

August 10, 2020 - (6 min read)

This blog post is the first in a series of CitiesSpeak posts on reimagining public safety.

Reimagine public safety…defund the police…end systemic racism. The calls come from many directions and often end up at the doorstep of mayors, city council members, and city managers.

As a point in time snapshot, Jack Calhoun, Founder and CEO of Hope Matters and Senior Consultant for the National League of Cities, caught up with Santa Rosa, Calif. Mayor Tom Schwedhelm to get one mayor’s perspective.

What encourages you the most about recent public engagement in Santa Rosa?
“I love the process, the personal exchanges, the working things out together. This is not City Council or the Mayor doing to you, but with you. Even though 190 people jammed our City Council meeting, most of them clamoring to defund the police department, I welcomed the level and growth of civic passion and participation. Different perspectives help a city and a mayor thrive, grow, and improve. And it is especially important, no, essential, to hear from those who have felt marginalized, without voice. Yes, this means more work. But it also means more involved residents. And I love that.”

Tell us about your approach to listening.
“It’s all part of deep listening. I’m not just getting information, but I want the person with whom I’m speaking to feel really heard. I met with a black man who was confronted as he removed items from the trunk of his car, a car which was parked in his driveway….A black woman who said, ‘We always get the worst service. And we’re always watched. I warn my grandchildren about the police and tell them how carefully they have to behave.’ I am willing to do more work or work in a different way, but I need candor and involvement from all residents.”

What happened when you and several council members attended a Black Lives Matter rally at a local park?
“We were assailed by a lot of questions and accusations. I implored the organizer who invited me to get his questions to me, and to schedule another meeting so we could have a forum for discussion rather than shouting at each other. Protestors demanded to paint Black Lives Matter on a city street and asked when they could get an answer from the city. I said, ‘now,’ and added that there would be a process involving other city departments, representatives from the black community and the Art in Public Places committee. Through this, I’m not stalling. I want residents to know there’s a process and I want them in that process. I want community members helping us shape our city. I always try to begin with ‘What can I do?’ and then ‘what can we do together?’”

“Yes, I marched, sickened and horrified by the murder of George Floyd. But I also felt saddened, seeing the city disrupted, portable barricades torn down, some looting. I felt a deep recommitment to the city’s homeless and at the next Council meeting.

What does “re-imagining public safety” mean to you?
“First, what if we had workers trained to deal with the homeless population (who generate 20% of calls for service) rather than the police?

Second, Chief Navarro is showing amazing leadership. He is serious: he will invite some of the most outspoken members of the protestor group to join his Advisory Council as he revisits SRPD’s mission and values. Rubin Scott, Chapter President of the Santa Rosa-Sonoma County NAACP is encouraged by the dialogue begun with the Chief who is showing his commitment to fighting systemic racism.”

How have you addressed these thorny topics with other mayors?
“Because this is new ground with few guideposts, I meet with Sonoma County’s mayors every week. It includes nine mayors, every Sonoma County police chief, the sheriff, the chair of the County Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association President. The meetings are invaluable. We’re adopting things that seem to be working and quickly shedding those that are not. This means each city doesn’t have to try everything because we’re learning from each other. It’s a setting where we can be totally candid, and accountable to each other.”

The Sonoma Commission on Human Rights has alleged some abuses by the Santa Rosa Police Department. What is the City’s response to this report?
“I’m awaiting all information before I make final policy recommendations. The City is contracting two separate reports with independent, outside parties. One that addresses the Use of Force complaints cited in the Commission report and the other, an ‘After Action Report,’ which will analyze all the activity that occurred throughout the week. It will include peaceful protesting, which we applaud, but also damage to property, and injury done to individuals, both civilian and police.

We will be pro-active, using what we’ve learned to make lasting changes. We don’t want short term fixes that don’t get at the root of the issues. To help ensure that our responses are structural and not episodic, the City Council Public Safety Subcommittee will continue to examine the whole issue of policing and racial equity. Chief Navarro will continue his dialogue with the Black and Latinx communities through his newly established Advisory Committee.

What keeps your feet under you?
“You don’t have to go through a lot to get to me. I thrive on candid dialogue, not ‘Mayor Tom to constituent,’ but ‘Tom and Jack.’ And it’s not rhetoric. I’ve got to listen well, start with myself, stay there through the anger and fear, set goals with others, pace and track the progress, and I’ll be transparent about the results. I am where I can make a tangible difference in people’s lives. I don’t want to be in Sacramento or Washington. I want to be here in a community I love with people in whose lives I can make a difference, and where I can see and taste the difference.”



Jack CalhounAbout the Author: John A. “Jack” Calhoun is an internationally-renowned public speaker and frequent media guest and editorial contributor. He currently serves as Senior Consultant to the National League of Cities and is the founder and CEO of Hope Matters. For more than 20 years, Mr. Calhoun was the founding president of the National Crime Prevention Council, prior to which he served under President Carter as the Commissioner of the Administration for Children, Youth and Families.