When I was invited to attend a meeting with California Attorney General Rob Bonta, I was expecting to have a tame discussion about public health and safety. However, it seemed as though the other attendants had other plans. In truth, the meeting ended up much more heavily focused on alleged unprofessional actions of the Merced Police Department than anything I was prepared for. By the time I had digested all of the new information, I was exceedingly glad I learned it when something was being done to correct it; if I had heard this any prior my anger at the injustice would have surely boiled over.
Many members of the community in Merced were invited to let Bonta know what their concerns with the Merced Police Department are, telling stories they know or things that happened to them. For example, a few members told stories on behalf of those who couldn’t attend but who needed their stories told, like members of the Hmong community. Others talked about how there have been instances where police should have been called, but due to a general lack of trust in the Merced police they weren’t; or when they were called and the caller later stated to regret their choice.
After presenting their case to Bonta, he took a long moment to collect himself and fully digest the information. I took the moment to ask him one of the only questions I had prepared that could still apply to the new situation.
“Mr. Bonta, as the California Attorney General, what can you and your office do to help?”
After taking a moment to thank everyone he gave a very earnest response.
“We do reviews of police departments,” he said. “We call them Pattern of Practice reviews when they’re systemically consistently violating civil rights or constitutional rights of community members in the course of their duties.”
A few meeting-goers looked relieved to hear the words the Attorney General had to say.
“We conduct interviews, we request records, we speak to community members… and then we put in place requirements for change,” Bonta said. “We would bring a lawsuit and have a stipulated settlement… and have a court oversee the execution of those changes and their implementation.”
Bonta proceeded to list a few of the other counties across the whole of California where such reviews had taken place and had ended in successes.
Unfortunately, time was not limitless, and in the midst of the following conversation about the specific things Bonta’s office could do to help the people of Merced, he was called away to his next meeting. And after giving everyone a firm handshake, his business card, and a promise to file for the review of the Merced Police Department, Bonta made a swift exit. Much more cheerful than when they’d arrived, the rest of the attendees talked animatedly about how they all hoped this time would be different. That this time they had brought their concerns to the correct person, to someone who would actually do something in their power to help make the citizens of the Merced feel safe.