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  • Writer's pictureKevin Hessel

Tiburon chief makes strides on community policing vow

Updated: Jan 22

But on pledge to be aligned with most progressive reforms, Monaghan shows resistance


Asher (far right) and Ella have a meet-and-greet with Chief Ryan Monaghan at the Tiburon police station on Aug. 2 during National Night Out, an annual community-building initiative held by law enforcement agencies. Participation is part of Monaghan’s stepped-up community policing goals. (Elliot Karlan photo / For The Ark)

As Tiburon police officers played cornhole with kids and mingled with families during National Night Out on Aug. 2, Chief Ryan Monaghan stressed that the community-building between police and civilians at the core of the event was a key to creating an environment in which all residents can thrive.


Hired 16 months ago amid national calls for police reform and a local series of incidents that highlighted, and for many widened, cracks in that relationship, Monaghan has made frequent calls to renew the department’s commitment to community policing. His officers now walk the beat downtown to get to know residents and business owners. They’re working on an app that makes it easy to access local business information. They hand out business cards to allow for anonymous feedback through a third-party website. They’ve established department liaisons in three regions of town. They’re starting neighborhood watch programs. They’re updating an internal registry to help officers better respond to callers with special needs. They’ve stepped up direct communication through social-media platforms.


Tonight, Tiburon will also introduce its newest officer, a high-school basketball coach turned cop who has a history in social work, including as a student counselor and working with children with autism and the homeless.


Other goals, including establishing a citizens advisory panel and an officer-wellness program, are also on the department’s radar.


In large part, the practices align with the six pillars outlined in 2015 by President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing and frequently cited by Monaghan: building trust and legitimacy; policy and oversight; technology and social media; community policing and crime reduction; officer training and education; and officer safety and wellness. But how those pillars are implemented leaves broad room for interpretation, particularly when framed against more recent justice-reform movements.


Resident reactions to Monaghan’s changes have landed across the spectrum, from the initiatives being unnecessarily burdensome on officers just trying to do their jobs, to being positive steps forward for a community seeking to heal, to not going nearly far enough to translate to the street, where some 80 percent of all Tiburon police encounters are traffic stops — and nearly half of all those stopped for any reason are people of color in a community that’s 80-percent white.


Though Monaghan pledged when he took over as chief to ensure the department’s practices were in line with the most progressive of their kind, many communities in the Bay Area and around the nation have gone significantly further in instituting reform, experimenting with full police-oversight models and redirecting some funding to other resources known to address crime at its root causes, or to the hiring of unarmed licensed therapists for certain calls. Monaghan has rejected both a true oversight committee as potentially “adversarial” and the hiring of dedicated therapists, while he instead sought and won approval to expand the force amid historically low crime.


Other progressive street-level programs implemented regionally and nationwide — Berkeley, Los Angeles, Seattle, the states of Oregon and Virginia — include dramatically curtailing pretextual stops, or those for legitimate yet trivial infractions that don’t pose immediate public-safety threats but that are used discretionarily by officers to investigate hunches, disproportionately involving people of color. In Tiburon, for instance, all six window-tint stops in the first quarter of the year were of Hispanic drivers; a recent point-of-time count of vehicles with illegally tinted front windows at The Ark’s Boardwalk Shopping Center parking lot yielded the same number during a single lunch hour.


Still other communities are seeking the reduction of civil-asset forfeitures, in which property can be seized for an alleged connection to a crime but without enough suspicion for police to make an arrest. That happened in March, when Tiburon police seized a vehicle associated with a San Jose burglary but released all its occupants, who couldn’t be tied to that or any other active investigation. Each year since 2014, police nationally have seized more net assets than burglars have, according to FBI statistics and the Institute for Justice.


Most of the initiatives that are being considered and implemented in Tiburon were born from summer 2020, when the national Black Lives Matter movement homed in on issues of race and policing, use of force and calls for reform after the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of then-current and former police.


The seeds of reform


When protests made their way to Marin, the previous Tiburon chief warned in June 2020 that a demonstration planned in predominantly Black Marin City could turn violent but didn’t issue such warnings for closer protests in predominantly white neighborhoods. In the weeks following, protesters made their way to Tiburon’s streets, while vandals in response scrawled “all lives matter” and “white lives matter more” on public property in separate incidents downtown.


As public debate was increasingly revealing division among residents, Tiburon police in August 2020 stopped the Black owners of downtown clothing boutique Yema inside their store after hours, demanding identification and proof they belonged there, which drew additional allegations of profiling.


That incident led to an outside investigation, the results of which are sealed, and a four-hour community forum drawing 450 listeners and some 140 commenters, most of them critical of the police response and many sharing their own encounters, calling race issues systemic in the department. The forum then led to the creation of the Diversity Inclusion Task Force to examine town policies and to extra officer training sessions on transformative justice and unconscious bias. But amid these moves toward reform, a resident complained about an officer wearing a face-covering with a Blue Lives Matter flag, symbol that features a blue stripe across an otherwise black-and-white U.S. flag that had been banned by other departments as divisive after being co-opted by white supremacists and used as a direct response to the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality.


Then, just as Monaghan came on the job in April 2021, a sergeant — at the time the president of the police union — was charged with domestic abuse and soon resigned; a mistrial was declared after a hung jury, and prosecutors dropped the case.


Monaghan immediately said he wanted to recalibrate the department’s relationship with the community. He brought his staff on “walkabouts” to introduce them to the business owners and residents around town and announced plans to create the area-ofcommand model with regionally dedicated sergeants as community points of contact. He also pledged to continue developing the business app and transparency of demographic stop data of civilian encounters with police, both started under interim Chief Jamie Scardina, who is now the Marin sheriff.


Monaghan also announced he would hold a series of five “Living and Growing Together” community forums, moderated by the Transformative Justice Institute — which had been conducting some of the officer training — to give different local groups a chance to offer feedback about community policing. Again those were met with mixed reviews, from high praise for the unique effort to connect with the community, to disappointment in a format that didn’t offer clear accountability, to fear that participation itself could lead to retribution.

Some of the initiatives since rolled out by the department resulted from those meetings. Others were formalized as part of a $150,000 settlement between the shop owners at Yema — Yema Khalif and Hawi Awash — in a claim filed against the town. And still others have been internal initiatives long in the works.


Town updates special-needs registry


In a March presentation to the Diversity Inclusion Task Force, Monaghan identified three top priorities: the creation of a police advisory board and officer-wellness programs, which are still being developed, and updating the department’s registry of people in town with special needs.


That registry was implemented in late 2020 after a request from Tiburon resident Valerie Montague, whose adult son has special needs that make it difficult for him to respond appropriately to police orders and questions from strangers.


“Nationwide there have been several instances where people like my son were shot by officers when they misinterpreted what the individual was doing,” Montague said at the time. “That’s scary for parents like me who have kids who don’t know how to respond to orders or strangers.”


Families who sign up are asked to provide a recent photo of the registrant as well as information about the individual’s sensory triggers, favorite locations and details that would help officers de-escalate a stressful situation.


Department spokesperson Laurie Nilsen said if officers know, for instance, that someone has a fear of loud noises or red lights, they won’t use lights or a siren.


As part of the updates, the department’s computer-aided dispatch system flags Tiburon addresses that have associated special-needs registry forms. Nilsen said the department has to be careful about what information they put into databases and computers and what goes out over the radio, so the officers cross-reference the alert with a binder they carry on patrol that has the specific information volunteered by the registrants.


Monaghan said the department is working with mobile app developer FirstTwo to see if they can integrate some of the registrant information into the app. FirstTwo — named for the importance of what an officer learns in the first 2 minutes of an incident — draws from social media, public databases and other sources to provide instantly available profiles to law enforcement of those associated with any address.


So far, Nilsen said the department’s homegrown flagging feature has been helpful.


“The last thing we want to do is to have somebody be scared, and we don’t want somebody to be lost, and so the best help that we can provide sometimes is just getting them home safely and with compassion,” Nilsen said.


According to Nilsen, eight people are listed on the registry. She said the program information is on the department’s website, found directly at townoftiburon.org/372, but officers also spread the word while on the job. For example, she said officers recently responded to a call from a Reed Ranch Road resident who reported a confused-looking elderly woman on their property. When the officers helped the woman home to her husband, they used that as an opportunity to tell them about the special-needs registry.


According to Monaghan, Tiburon officers currently receive 24 hours of crisis-intervention training, two hours of deescalation training and three to four hours of strategic-communications training that all have components associated with responding to people with special needs.


He said this year the department will be scheduling officers for a two-hour autism recognition and response training as well as two hours on responding to people in crisis.


However, Monaghan has pushed back on suggestions of hiring an unsworn, unarmed licensed mental-health professionals or social workers to accompany sworn officers on certain noncriminal calls, including such crisis calls, which has been implemented elsewhere in the Bay Area and U.S.


Full social weight on police


To advocates of such a system, social workers are more fully trained to offer immediate assistance, can help relieve training and response burdens on police to free them for other emergencies and can reduce the potential for a violent confrontation with an armed officer, whose appearance alone can feel threatening or escalating to someone in a crisis. More than 20 percent of all people shot and killed by police have mental-health conditions, according to data compiled by the Washington Post, and some 95 percent of all emergency calls are for nonviolent circumstances.


Officers themselves have said they feel the weight of the job.


“The demands and expectations of an average sworn officer are unrealistic and unreasonable,” former Tiburon police Sgt. Michael Blasi wrote on question-and-answer site Quora in 2019, a year before his involvement with the Yema stop that led to his resignation. “Cops are being held to a standard of expertise in a vast field of professions and areas like negotiations, medical response, mental-health evaluation, civil law, family counseling and juvenile issues. And these are all on top of criminal law, firearms, defensive driving, self-defense, computer skills, investigations, civil rights, case law, evidence law and a dozen other required skill sets that the public expects us to be experts at.”


In Healdsburg, for instance, now-late Chief Kevin Burke requested in June 2020 that his City Council hold open an officer position to help create a Community Oriented and Equity policing team. The city approved the pilot program, hiring a licensed marriage- and-family therapist to pair up with a sworn officer to respond to mental-health calls, neighbor disputes, family-and-youth service calls, homelessness and other noncrime calls.


In December 2021 the city of San Mateo, where Monaghan just departed as a former police lieutenant, became one of four cities in its namesake county to launch a pilot program that teams a sworn officer with a mental-health clinician in a partnership with the county’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.


Other cities are using entirely unarmed teams, like Oakland, which is pairing therapists with a paramedic. Berkeley and BART have filled vacant sworn-officer positions with crisis-intervention specialists. San Francisco rolled out its Street Crisis Response Team, as have other cities like Los Angeles and Sacramento, based on Eugene, Ore.’s Cahoots team — Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets — formed in 1989. In Tiburon, Monaghan has said he hopes to have enhanced wellness programs for officers themselves, which could range from additional time off to exercise to mentalhealth counseling, up and running by the fall.


Meanwhile, the Town Council in June granted Monaghan’s request to create another new sworn-officer position, a captain, growing the department to 14 — the most since 2008, when crime rates were 50 percent higher than today. The position, eliminated in 2014 to make way for another patrol officer, will be reinstated, with interviews now underway. The new captain position will cost the town $250,000 per year.


Tiburon gets about 10,000 service calls annually, with an average of about 83 property and 3.5 violent crimes per year over the past five years, according to internal department statistics and data submitted annually to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program. Property crime’s currently less than half that of the mid-1980s, which averaged 192 annually in Tiburon for 1985-1989, and violent crime’s down 73 percent, from an average of 13 per year.


Monaghan has said he’d prioritize the hiring of officers with a background in psychology or social work, and the swearing-in tonight, Aug. 17, of former care coordinator Alvin Stephenson appears to fulfill that promise.


In an email before Stephenson’s hiring, Monaghan said he was “not seeing the data in our calls to justify” a dedicated unsworn social-worker position, reiterating a statement he first made to the Diversity Inclusion Task Force in May 2021, a month after being hired, that he would look into the potential of a regionally shared worker.


However, Monaghan, who indicated he was unfamiliar with Healdsburg’s program, did not respond to followup inquiries about whether he consulted with any other departments or explored any other staffing reforms before concluding Tiburon needed more sworn officers, what data he used to determine those needs or how he assessed that data if unfamiliar with alternative staffing options.


Monaghan also did not respond to questions about what steps he’s made toward regional implementation of a shared social worker or whether such a worker has since joined a Tiburon officer on a call.


Liaisons connect officers to regions


Tiburon police have also rolled out a three-area community-liaison program, which Monaghan said he learned about during his time at the San Mateo Police Department. He announced the plan when he was first hired, though it was also stipulated as part of the town’s settlement agreement with Khalif and Awash.


Under the model, the department’s jurisdiction area is split into three geographic zones — two residential and one incorporating the town’s main business district — each designated its own sergeant to act as a stable point of contact and better address ongoing needs. For instance, if someone were to call about teenagers causing trouble at a business, the sergeant can work with officers to come up with a solution or to set up extra patrols.


With the divide at Avenida Miraflores, Sgt. Rob Law leads the area northwest region and Sgt. Freddy Gutierrez leads the southeast, while Sgt. Jerry Jones is heading up the downtown area.


Monaghan said the goal is to help community members problem-solve ongoing quality-of-life issues and other matters that don’t need a more standard police response.


“These types of programs have worked in larger cities, and time will tell if the same model works for us,” he said.


Nilsen said the department is in the process of revamping its website to include information on each of the three areas, with contact information for the assigned sergeant.


The direct business-district liaison also complements the ongoing effort to develop a way for officers to easily access businessowner information.


Developing a businessinformation app


One of the major criticisms of the officers in the confrontation at Yema was that they failed to recognize the owners of Tiburon’s only Black-owned downtown business — owners who at the time were 10-year residents involved in the community and whose shop featured posters of both modeling their self-designed fashions.


Under the interim chief, Scardina, the department began working with the Chamber of Commerce and has now put all publicly available information about local businesses into the FirstTwo mobile app. Monaghan said he has reached out to the chamber to discuss its interest around potentially adding more content.


The move complements police efforts to be more visible downtown and to introduce themselves to business owners.


“One of the really exciting developments that happened was (Monaghan’s) commitment to getting his officers out in the community and engaged with both residents and our business owners, which has been incredibly effective,” Chamber Executive Director DeAnn Biss said. “That, combined with a tool, has been very helpful.”


She noted she was recently downtown speaking with the owner of Malibu Farm, a restaurant slated to open on Main Street this year or early next. She said Monaghan happened to be downtown, and the owner and the chief were able to make introductions and get to know each other.


Feedback, oversight and community participation


As part of those regular interactions, officers now also hand out business cards after any encounter they have with a member of the public — something Monaghan said was a soft practice but was defined in the settlement with Khalif and Awash as something “officers will do as a matter of policy in most instances.”


To further community feedback following interactions, in May the department launched its own page on Open Policing, a website that aims help communities and lawenforcement agencies build trust in policing and obtain real-time public feedback. The page, at tiburon.openpolicing.org, allows residents to submit feedback on police interactions and rate police on respect, fairness, voice and trust, as well as file complaints. Since the launch, the page has received 21 responses.


Monaghan said they are still evaluating the product for long-term use.


Such feedback sites can be self-filtering and mask underlying issues if members of the community feel their complaints will be ignored, excused or the basis for retribution and decline to use it. During Monaghan’s community forums, resident Ruby Monte was among those who noted that if a brown or Black person feels they cannot go to police and raise their concerns because they feel the perpetrators of a crime against them are actually those in power, “that leaves people like me at huge risk.” Monaghan and others who spoke with The Ark acknowledged that such reluctance may have prevented fuller participation in the forums themselves.


Monte was also among those who wanted to see an independent review board with teeth.


Following the community forums, Monaghan in March announced his intent to form a citizen advisory body by November as a way for residents to have a more prominent say and opportunity to provide constant input to the department — though it would not be an oversight committee, which he defined as a group of trained professionals who fully understand police policy and procedures and has the authority to investigate mistakes or alleged unlawful incidents.


While oversight is included among the six pillars of community policing, Monaghan noted Tiburon’s a small community and doesn’t have the staffing resources for a full oversight model, and that he’s seen oversight bodies turn adversarial with police. Civilian oversight committees typically allow citizens to lodge complaints and concerns to a body outside the law-enforcement agency itself, can improve accountability and the quality of internal investigations and increase transparency of the disciplinary process.


Monaghan didn’t detail his specific concern with such a panel, but none of those tasks appear to be on the table for Tiburon, with the chief instead giving examples such as feedback on policies or on how the department can improve or set goals for community engagement.


For models he’s examined, he pointed to Novato, Palo Alto and Redwood City. The latter appears most like what he’s proposed for Tiburon. Novato’s Police Advisory and Review Board plays an active role in examining policies, procedures and practices, and it reviews citizen complaints referred by the city manager. Palo Alto uses a contract independent- auditor model, rather than a citizen board. Others have adopted a hybrid of both, with Petaluma’s new independent auditor expected to cost about $25,000 a year — about a tenth that of the new captain.


Though the formation of the panel was prominently touted as part of the settlement agreement with Khalif and Awash, the only new component was that one of them will serve on the panel once it’s up and running.


Khalif appears hopeful, saying publicly that his hope is that the body will be independent and representative of citizens but that he also fears such panels can be performative.


In another program requiring direct community participation, Nilsen and police service aide Angie Delnevo have been working to create a neighborhood-watch program. The plan moved to the forefront early this year after a string of burglaries in January was followed by an antisemitic flyering campaign at more than 60 Tiburon homes in February, putting residents on edge.


Police say they hope to get neighbors to start talking to each other, to report suspicious activity, to be each other’s eyes and to look out for each other when neighbors go out of town.


“Neighbors helping neighbors goes a long way in a small town,” Nilsen said.


Already a couple of neighborhoods have organized to talk about suspicious activity and when to call police. Neighbors on Blackfield and Cypress Hollow drives have also gotten together for a meeting on crime prevention, public safety and disaster preparedness, and they also took the extra step of installing neighborhood-watch signs.


Monaghan has repeatedly emphasized that residents should be clear about what they’re reporting.


“If you are going to report something suspicious, tell us what it is that you’re seeing. … Be specific about it,” he said during an online forum last year. “We don’t want to do something that’s going to put us or that individual in a position where they can otherwise be unfairly targeted. … Race in and of itself should not be a suspicion factor.”


Department diversity an ongoing mission


Monaghan said that diversifying the Police Department’s own workforce was one of the key takeaways from the five community forums. At the time, all 10 sworn officers were men, with three of Hispanic descent and bilingual.


Tiburon’s Diversity Inclusion Task Force has been vocal about its desire to see the department diversify. In an interview, taskforce member Karen Carrera said the group is responsible for looking at the overall picture of how minorities are being recruited, hired and retained by the Police Department and all other town departments.


She said the group is currently studying how to then retain them, noting it’s not enough to recruit and hire people from traditionally marginalized groups; people must feel included once they’re hired.


At the task force’s meeting in March, one department-reform advocate also urged during public comment that diversity in appearance wasn’t enough — that recruits needed diverse backgrounds, thinking and lived experiences.


Stephenson, who is Black, grew up in Oakland and was a star high-school basketball player who went on to coach a powerhouse prep-school team in Hawaii, where he was also a student counselor. He stepped down in 2020 to return to the Bay Area to care for his mother, joining the police academy and then the San Mateo Police Department last year.


In May, Monaghan’s first hire as chief was 23-year-old Talisa Azevedo, who graduated from the academy later that month and was sworn in as an officer in June as she completes her field-training program. Azevedo comes from a family of law enforcement, and during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests calling for reform against police violence and brutality, she posted an “I Back the Blue” logo against a Blue Lives Matter flag as part of her Facebook profile picture.


Monaghan said such a post from an aspiring officer with family in law enforcement doesn’t indicate that person’s not supportive of other causes or empathetic, while Azevedo said in an interview that to her the flag meant support of officers doing the right thing.


At The Ark’s press time, the town was also preparing to interview five candidates for the reinstated captain’s position, including one Hispanic man, one LGBTQ woman and three white men in a process that will include interview panel drawn from members of the diversity task force and the larger community.


Reach Belvedere and public-safety reporter Katherine Martine at 415-944-4627 and Executive Editor Kevin Hessel at 415-435-2652.

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