Valley Voices

Should Fresno use $200,000 on a SWAT vehicle or a program to teach peace to gang members?

Kathryn Forbes of Fresno State’s Women’s Studies Program.
Kathryn Forbes of Fresno State’s Women’s Studies Program. Fresno Bee file

During the Fresno City Council’s June budget hearings, Police Chief Jerry Dyer stated that more personnel would allow a return to the “problem-oriented” policing the city embraced over two decades ago. In law enforcement, among criminologists, and in civic culture this model gained currency in the 1990s as a way to make law enforcement more responsive to community needs. It was considered a gentler approach to reducing criminal activity as it adopted strategies that strengthened the relationship between law enforcement agencies and communities, especially vulnerable ones, by working alongside service providers. The Fresno Police Department, for instance, won a National Institute of Justice Problem-Oriented Award in 1999 for its approach to child custody disputes.

When the Fresno Police Department ostensibly was implementing a community-centered approach to crime reduction, it also was embracing the militaristic approach to law enforcement that had emerged in the industry in the 1970s. Modeled on the military, police paramilitary units were formed and equipped with a wide range of weaponry, including percussion grenades, tear gas and armored tactical vehicles. PPU personnel trained together, saw themselves as distinct from their peers, and promoted an identity akin to elite armed forces groups, like the Navy SEALS.

The PPUs had a halo effect on regular police duties, including beat work. As profiled in a 1995 article in Police Magazine, a professional monthly journal for law enforcement personnel, the Fresno Police Department used a 30 person Violent Crime Suppression Unit to patrol the streets of south Fresno. Dressed in tactical military gear and equipped with heavy weaponry, Fresno police aimed to suppress gang and drug crime in vulnerable communities through displays of intimidation. While some critics have noted that the Fresno Police Department was one of the nation’s most enthusiastic adopters of militarization, Fresno certainly was not alone in using PPU tactics for everyday work. A study published in 1997 found that 20 percent of 487 surveyed police departments were using PPUs in the same way Fresno was — everyday patrolling of the very communities they said they were building relationships with through non-threatening, “problem-oriented policing.”

This same study, however, documented criticism of this practice. One commander surveyed said armored patrol was “operationally stupid” and characterized it as “intimidation with no purpose.” Another commander said that PPU unit personnel repeatedly requested to wear their gear while on patrol as a way to signal their elite status.

Jump ahead several decades. Fresno’s 2020 budget includes approximately $200,000 to upgrade its mobile SWAT vehicle historically used in “no-knock” warrants (i.e. drug raids). In the multiday City Council budget hearings, only one city councilmember asked Chief Dyer to explain the scope of this budget item. No leader questioned its necessity, despite the fact that there is good evidence to suggest that that these vehicles, especially in a city the size of Fresno, are merely symbolic displays of police competency rather than instruments that provide tactical advantage to law enforcement. The council’s silence on the matter reflects the normalization of the militarization of everyday policing: either we think this is the way it is supposed to be, or the political risk is too great to say that a SWAT vehicle is bonkers.

And yet there was much discussion about the $200,000 budget request for Advance Peace, a tested violence-reduction program rooted in grassroots community organizing. Chief Dyer did not support the proposal because he was “morally and philosophically opposed to giving gang members money” (a statement that I will just leave hanging there). What is more, he and his elected supporters maintained that what our community really needs to advance peace, to reduce violence in our communities, is a return to the community-problem-oriented-policing of the past, an approach attainable only with more officers on the street.

This past never existed. Yet Chief Dyer keeps repeating this romantic vision of Fresno’s law enforcement’s past while ignoring its very real paramilitary history as a way to position police budgetary requests above every other community need. Don’t believe him. Listen to the councilmembers who explain that decades of disinvestment in shared public goods are at the root of violence. Listen to the advocates for Advance Peace who actually work in communities organizing for change. And take the $200,000 in funding for the police vanity mobile and give it to the people actually doing problem-oriented community work.

Kathryn Forbes is a professor and program coordinator with the Women’s Studies Program at Fresno State.