Visalia residents mistakenly call to defund police training

Three residents ask city not to accept small grant from U.S. Department of Justice used for use-of-force training

VISALIA – A routine grant accounting for less than a fraction of a percent of the Visalia Police Department’s annual budget became the latest showdown in the defund the police movement.

At its Sept. 21 meeting, the Visalia City Council held a public hearing to accept a $29,767 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The Edward Byrne Memorial [Justice] Assistance Grant (JAG) is the primary provider of federal criminal justice funding to state and local jurisdictions. The grant provides states and local governments with funding to support a range of program areas including law enforcement and court programs, prevention and education programs, drug treatment/enforcement programs, and technology improvement programs.

Maria Cortez told the council not to accept or distribute any additional funds to VPD for what she called “Visalia police officers’ appalling domestic abuse history and their history with taking advantage of the community.”

Cortez went on to list examples of sexual assault, and fatal officer involved shootings in Delano and Tulare going back to 2018, none of which involved a Visalia Police officer. VPD did arrest two of its own in 2018 on charges of conspiring to file false police reports and submitting unlawful search warrants, mostly for narcotics cases, but none of the charges involved excessive use of force, domestic violence or an officer involved shooting.

“These are the same people that go to school to study laws to uphold them and turn around and use them against community members,” Cortez said.

Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen said the United States had problems within its criminal justice system and understood there are varying viewpoints on what the future role of law enforcement will be, but none of those examples locally or at the national level had anything to do with VPD. In some cases, Nelsen said officers are the victims when they are forced to subdue suspects with narcotic levels so high they do not respond to non-lethal measures such as tasers.

“It concerns me when we use a broad brush and paint every agency with that brush,” Nelsen said. “Let’s look at city of Visalia, I will support our law enforcement folks because I know the training they do go through.”

Tiffany Villagomez asked the council not to approve the funding which included $18,009 for equipment simulating human movement during firearms training.

“Those funds are going to criminalize and murder our community members,” Villagomez said.

Police Chief Jason Salazar explained that part of the target system is to help officers identify what is a threat and what is not, which not only improves reaction time and accuracy but also de-escalation techniques. Salazar also pointed out the grant included $7,632 for materials and curriculum to update the department’s Use of Force training specifically to lower the risk of injuries, severity of injuries and exposure to liability. More specifically, it will help the department comply with new use of force training requirements outlined in Senate Bill 230 and Assembly Bill 392, both passed last year and take effect on Jan. 1, 2021.

“The goal is to minimize use of force but with that comes the need for better training,” Salazar said.

Councilmember Phil Cox took exception to the comments about criminalizing and murdering citizens.

“Officers do training all the time,” said Cox, who is a longtime volunteer for both VPD and the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department. “You don’t just go to Academy, learn how to put handcuffs on someone and then they give you a badge and a gun.”

Villagomez said the grant was setting a model of behavior based on punishment and would lead to more criminal behavior if officers continued to treat people as criminals first and citizens second. “Look at the statistics,” she said, “it’s not working.”

Salazar went on to say the grant is smaller than in previous years because it is based on a city’s violent crime rate. Visalia’s violent crime rate is at a 20-year low according to the most recent statistics gathered by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“It’s always been the council’s position we want to ensure our people are well trained to avoid many situations we see in the press,” Councilmember Greg Collins said. “We have a great organization that works on that training.”

Unfazed by the arguments, Villagomez said the city could better use those funds to address greater needs in the community, such as an increase in the number of younger homeless people, drug and alcohol addiction treatment and mental health programs.

“Instead of accepting that money, how about we try to reimagine and look at solutions,” Villagomez said.

After approving the grant unanimously, the council approved more than $1.2 million in contracts for rental and utility assistance to those who have fallen behind on their bills and are in danger of becoming homeless on the very next agenda item.

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