• Kevin Hessel

Tiburon chief makes strides on community policing vow

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, 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.

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