A group of approximately 20 citizens have organized in Cotati to help eradicate racism and work with local city and police department officials to strategize steps to proactively minimize prejudices and intolerance in our community. Called COAR, (Cotati Organized Against Racism), the group was created in June in response to the rise in the Black Lives Matter movement, spurred into our collective consciousness after the murder of George Floyd at the end of May. A feeling of helplessness motivated the group to take action in a positive, constructive way that could develop tangible results.
“All of us are on Next Door,” explains Marjorie Crump-Shears, resident of Cotati and chairperson of COAR. “One person, Sue Hirsch, posted something around the time of George Floyd’s murder. She asked if anyone else was out there who was concerned about this and wanted to do something. I was one of four or five people who answered saying ‘yes.’ We had a meeting and started talking.”
While initially the group was hoping to extend their efforts to encompass both Rohnert Park and Cotati, they found this too overwhelming to do simultaneously and therefore decided to focus their work on Cotati.
“People throughout our country, and no less here in Cotati and Rohnert Park, are really concerned about the racism out there and anything that would allow what happened to George Floyd and to millions of black and brown people and the poor and immigrants in this country over time,” says Crump-Shears.
As an initial first step, COAR members completed an initial, informal survey in both English and Spanish of neighbors, friends and people throughout the community to find out their experiences with local law enforcement. Over 70 people answered the survey which revealed some eye-opening experiences of racism in the community, reinforcing the groups’ resolve to continue with their efforts. They took their results and ideas to a special town hall meeting designed solely for this purpose on July 22. The meeting was intended as a forum for a community discussion around policing in Cotati, including the current use of force policies. It was a positive, respectful discussion among COAR and other members of the community, Cotati City Council members, City Manager Damien O’Bid, as well as Cotati Police Chief Michael Parish. During the meeting Chief Parish also presented on current police training requirements, community engagement, Cotati crime statistics and overall where the department stands in terms of its current police use of force policies.
For the purposes of the meeting, COAR also developed four key matters that they felt should be addressed and which they as a group could assist with. These include creating an on-going working group which supports the city’s government and an included Cotati community; developing a broad based and widely distributed formal survey regarding residents’ experiences who live, work and own in the City of Cotati; establishing a civilian oversight group or committee which works with the police department to support its functions and provide regular cross-communication between it and the residents; and implementing a faster track of developing a means to aggregate and disseminate data regarding police activities and the racial groups involved.
“The town hall was a good opportunity to get everyone together and have a discussion about the state of policing in Cotati and get people’s thoughts, input and feedback from the community,” says Damien O’Bid, City Manager for the City of Cotati. “There is a national dialogue going on about policing and we’re not perfect and we’re always looking to get better. If we can do a better job in our policing duties for the community then we’re definitely open to the discussion to try and get better. That’s always our goal – to improve how we do things.”
Besides the town hall meeting, members of COAR have participated in other council meetings and ongoing communications with city leaders to continue the discussions.
Some initial first steps approved by city council after the town hall meeting included looking into doing a formal community survey, reviewing different models of oversight for small cities, as well as examining what it would take to do an earlier implementation of RIPA, (Racial and Identity Profiling Act). RIPA was formed to eliminate racial and identity profiling and improve diversity and racial and identity sensitivity in law enforcement. The law is already in statute and has been adopted by larger agencies and is now starting to be implemented by smaller agencies. Cotati, in addition to all other cities in Sonoma County, are in the fourth group of implementations, those under 330 sworn officers. According to the statute, Cotati has until 2022 to implement the act, but the city is exploring the possibility of implementing it a year earlier, in 2021.
“The law basically requires officers to collect certain data when they make contact with people,” says O’Bid. “If they are doing a traffic stop or contacting them for some other reason, they are supposed to record information like what the stop was for, what the outcome was, what time of the day it was, what the officer’s perception of race was, the gender of the person and what the officer’s perception of the sexual orientation of the person was. Some of it is straight-forward like date and time, but other data they’re asked to collect is more about the officer’s perception…People analyze the data and try to draw conclusions from it in aggregate. It’s trying to get at the question of what kind of biases are out there and what there is to do about it.”
The town hall meeting, subsequent council meeting and other communications have been a positive first step. The council hopes to move forward with some of their initial data gathering and research and report on that work at a meeting in September, the date yet to be determined.
“The council members, city hall and police department are all on the same page that community policing is important, and the national dialogue is a good opportunity to look at how we do things and see if there are ways we can improve,” says O’Bid.