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With the election approaching, the two candidates share their thoughts on public safety

(Somerville Wire) – Mayoral candidates and city councilors Katjana Ballantyne and Will Mbah tackle the issues of how they would like to see policing approached under their leadership.

What are your current thoughts on the policing system as it stands now, and how would you like to see policing evolve or change under your leadership? How would your vision address the issues of racial and social justice?

Katjana Ballantyne:

The foremost priority in public safety is to serve the needs of Somerville residents, and to do so we need to provide appropriate mental health and abuse recovery services as alternatives to arrest, training in de-escalation techniques, and enhanced accountability—especially for issues of systemic racism and implicit bias.

To make fundamental and lasting changes in all these areas, and to make Somerville a model of transformative justice, I think we need to focus on clear, achievable, measurable goals. That is why I supported the 10-point plan, proposed last year by Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley and a broad coalition of Massachusetts elected officials of color. The plan provides an ambitious but achievable roadmap for improving training and disciplinary procedures and reducing confrontational or abusive tactics at the street and neighborhood level.

While we have already declared systemic racism to be a public safety and health emergency and have taken the first steps toward the creation of a permanent civilian oversight review structure, it will fall to our next mayor to lead the effort to define and implement changes appropriate for our city.

I supported hiring the city’s first racial and social justice director whose office we charge with reviewing and improving our systems and structures. The racial and social justice director is also responsible to receive and coordinate community input. As mayor, I will support the work of the director and her office. We will have work to do, including the work to establish civilian oversight which was first proposed by the Somerville Human Rights Commission some twenty years ago.

I’ve committed to establishing civilian oversight and I’ve hosted community meetings via the city council to find the right approach for Somerville. This is in line with my commitment to hearing all voices on this and all matters of public safety. It is especially important to hear from the vulnerable communities, who often face the greatest barriers to participation, because these policies must be made with input from our neighbors who will be most affected by them.

We must also push for greater diversity in the police force. Other improvements would include ensuring that officers are licensed under “POST” (Peace Officer Standards and Training) protocols, establishing a full curriculum of training and refresher courses in implicit bias, de-escalation, crisis intervention, and health and mental wellness. I think our initial focus should be on implementing the recommendations described above. I am committed to making changes to public safety that will best serve the needs and safety of Somerville residents.

Will Mbah:

As a person of color, the father of two black children, and an immigrant, this issue is deeply personal to me. I have witnessed how the police system has failed to protect and often endangered people of color. I myself have personally been racially profiled, which is why I led the effort to ban racial profiling in Somerville. Some of the problems with our current system of policing is the result of tasking policing officers with jobs that they are not equipped to handle. This can often result in the unnecessary escalation of incidents they are called to and have dire consequences. We should not be sending someone with a gun to address calls that involve the unhoused, addiction, and mental health. These issues can be best handled by professionals with backgrounds in public health like addiction specialists and social workers, not police. Cities that have taken this approach have saved money by cutting down on the costs associated with arresting individuals and improving public health outcomes by addressing the root problems of houselessness, addiction, and mental health.

One piece that has been missing from policing is a lack of transparency and accountability. This is why I lead the effort on the City Council to create the Civilian Oversight Board, which will serve as another layer of oversight and protection for residents of Somerville in instances of police misconduct. It will be the job of the next mayor to implement the Oversight Board and ensure it has the resources it needs to carry out its mission, and I am committed to doing that.

We also need to diversify our police force. Police officers should be representative of the communities that they are charged with protecting. We need to have officers of color in senior positions of the police force so that we have leaders with different backgrounds and experiences. This will lead to better decision making among our police force’s leadership and give the police force a perspective it has been missing for decades. This is why I am especially proud of initiating an effort on the City Council to get two officers of color promoted into senior leadership positions. This was a great start, but there is definitely more work to do to make our police force representative of our community.

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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