Dismembered Reform

Black Santa Feans cut ties with city’s effort to reimagine policing after task force’s stifled beginning

In May 2020, the world watched in horror as George Floyd died under the knee of a Minnesota police officer outside a convenience store.

The ripples stretched as far as Santa Fe, where the City Council announced plans to examine whether the police brutality directed against Black Americans in other places had crept into the City Different.

Mayor Alan Webber and Councilors Renee Villarreal and Chris Rivera sponsored a resolution creating a task force charged with digging into the thorny questions of race, policing and public safety as a whole—a move that mirrored similar efforts in cities across the nation that easily gained support from the full governing body.

Sixteen months have passed since then, and the city’s Community Health and Safety Task Force has struggled to make progress. A mandated review of police policies and procedures has yet to materialize, and the council is expected to extend the task force’s initial expiration date of Dec. 31.

Meanwhile, the group—charged to determine whether the city’s public safety departments harm communities of color—saw departures of the task force’s only three Black members, including its facilitator, in its first year.

Naja Druva, a mental health therapist, signed on shortly after the group’s creation. She cites a recent commitment to social justice work as a contributing factor for her applying.

Druva, who is Black, resigned in January, expressing a loss of faith in the government-led structure and what she calls a toxic environment. In her time with the task force she discovered “how damaging it is to hear your experience, your lived experience, debated.”

“When I left, they were still deciding how they would find out whether or not there is an issue in policing in Santa Fe,” Druva tells SFR of the six months she spent on the task force. She argues, based on her experience as a Black woman and mother, that the question should not be whether there is an issue, but how the city can work to address it.

“We know that there’s an issue worldwide—absolutely in our nation, absolutely in our state and in our city—with policing,” says Druva. She adds that “the change won’t happen in a space that is designed to maintain the status quo.”

The task force’s leaders, Villarreal and Rivera, say the group is taking its time to ensure it does the hard, necessary work. Both councilors are asking the governing body to extend the term of the group until December 2022, during which time the task force hopes to hear from citizens through a community outreach and engagement plan.

The task force’s stated goal is to examine how Santa Fe’s community health and safety services can better work together to benefit residents. In the resolution establishing the group, the duties of the task force include assessing Santa Fe Police and Fire Departments’ internal policies and procedures and listening to the experiences of Santa Feans with public safety.

The group was initially contracted to end in December 2021 and gave its first presentation to the governing body only last week; it’s clear the work is moving slower than anticipated.

“What happened with police-sanctioned violence that was occurring around the country, I think activated peoples’, not just perceptions, but experiences happening locally,” Villarreal says of the impetus behind creating the task force.

Hearing from his fellow task force members, Rivera admits, was an eye-opening experience.

“As a Hispanic male in this community, I feel pretty safe,” says Rivera. He adds that many of the city’s police are also Hispanic, “but for other people in the community, things are different.”

Rivera says the departure of Black Santa Feans from the task force stresses the need to hear from a range of voices: from immigrants and young people to police officers and the incarcerated.

“And I think some of that transparency and some of that feeling,” Rivera tells SFR, explaining what he anticipates his fellow citizens to share, “is going to be somewhat shocking to the community, as it was to me.”

Villarreal acknowledges that the task force’s socially fraught mission and its pandemic-forced forum for meetings—Zoom—has presented challenges.

“We’re trying to build trust with community members that have never met each other in person,” she says.

Villarreal explains that until January, the group was stifled from moving forward because it lacked a facilitator. The city hired Sunshine Muse, a health equity consultant who is Black; she resigned earlier in the year for personal reasons, according to Rivera.

Also stalling the group’s progress was the public format of the meetings. Villarreal says amending the resolution to allow closed meetings for the group, which happened in March, took up time.

“We’re working in a very hard structure. It’s government-led, it’s somewhat government-sanctioned, it’s funded partially at the moment by the city,” she says. Villarreal explains that other cities that have attempted government-led efforts to examine public safety reform have faced similar challenges. Alternatively, she adds, community-led approaches face different challenges.

Recounting her exhausting experience while on the task force, which led to her resignation, Druva asks, “Why I resigned, to me, is less important a question than why has every Black person that was involved in this task force resigned?”

Druva says she does not speak for the other, former members when pointing out this important fact. She explains that three of the initial 12 on the task force, including Muse, were Black. Neither Raashan Ahmad nor Muse could be reached for comment.

The councilors confirm that none of the current members are Black. Villarreal notes that some of the former members have agreed to participate in focus groups.

Druva soured on the task force ultimately because she found that the attempts at police reform could not come from the group. As she says, “We’re asking the fox how to make the hen house safer.”

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