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Keyrollos Ibrahim still remembers his first encounter with Carlsbad police: an officer singled him out of a group and searched him for allegedly matching the description of a local drug dealer spotted in the area.
Ibrahim was 11 years old.
“Do you understand why I’m doing this?” Ibrahim recalls the officer asking him. Though he had done nothing wrong, he did understand.
Ibrahim, whose parents emigrated from Egypt, received “the police talk” from his dad like most young men of color, he said. Growing up in Carlsbad, he was told to respect law enforcement, but with an understanding that he could be treated differently because of the color of his skin. He was told: “Don’t believe that they’re there to protect you, but do believe that they have authority over you. Have the respect that you need to have to survive.”
“A child should not have been put through that,” Ibrahim said. Experiences like that one shaped his view of police, leading him to the work he does today.
Now a law student at age 30, Ibrahim has spent two years working with the Carlsbad City Council and Police Department to implement oversight and reforms in a city where some residents didn’t see a need for it.
Carlsbad was one of many cities in the county that saw days of peaceful protests against police brutality and racism after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. What people called America’s “racial reckoning” sparked the demand for citizen review boards and other accountability checks for police.
Instead, two years later, Carlsbad settled on a Community-Police Engagement Commission, a citizen body intended to foster public trust in the Police Department, but which appears to do little for accountability.
The commission isn’t exactly what activists hoped for. Yusef Miller, founder of the Racial Justice Coalition, has worked on police reforms throughout the county. He says they wanted a group with sharper teeth, one that could review excessive force incidents and other complaints. Ibrahim said that “wasn’t in the cards for us in Carlsbad.” There is little public support for civilian oversight in the city, according to a survey that helped guide the city’s decision.
The commission will likely be a forum where police explain their policies and practices to the public and hear any concerns or recommendations. This could include commission members evaluating how new programs “might impact disenfranchised and marginalized communities,” according to the city. That doesn’t go as far as the city of San Diego’s commission, which can review cases being investigated by the SDPD Internal Affairs Unit and other alleged violations by the police – and San Diego is in the process of replacing that commission with one that could conduct its own, independent investigations into use-of-force allegations.
“When it comes to making these community oversight, or community engagement committees, those are a heavier lift, because law enforcement doesn’t want anybody in their business, and if they can avoid it … they will,” Miller said.
Still, Miller said the commission is a “small gain.”
The City Council voted 4-1 in June to move forward with creating the commission, with the lone no vote coming from Mayor Matt Hall. Hall said he doesn’t believe the city needs one and sees it as a waste of money.
The city has set the commission’s broad objectives, but has not yet detailed how the commission will operate. An ordinance forming the commission won’t be presented to council until the fall, giving officials more time to decide how involved commission members can be in police decisions.
In 2020, staff presented the council with several commission options that included boards able to review active or completed investigations into alleged misconduct, or even investigate complaints independently. But after surveying the community and holding public forums in 2021, city staff and independent consultants recommended the engagement commission instead.
Their final report to council stated that despite the different responsibilities, each option had “the potential to increase accountability and public confidence.”
The city conducted an online survey between Jan. 11 and Feb. 10, 2021, and received 512 responses. Though far from scientific, the survey showed that 58 percent of participants felt community oversight of police had limited to no value.
Hall opposed the commission for the same reasons as many residents who opposed it during the city’s public forums: they said it was unnecessary, costly and likely to become political.
Ibrahim and others have taken issue with this last point, arguing that the discussions so far haven’t been partisan. They’ve instead shown how both sides can agree on and benefit from reforms.
As for costs, Hall said it’s time to start “hunkering down” in one of the “worst economies” in over 50 years. Still, Carlsbad’s 2022-23 budget includes a 5.1 percent increase for the police department over the previous budget, and Hall said he’s sure the department could cover any costs of the new commission, such as staff time and minute motions.
At the same time, Hall said he appreciates and understands wanting to make sure officers are well trained, understanding of people’s rights and always professional. But he said he believes Carlsbad police go “above and beyond” in setting a high standard. The department says they follow all eight of Campaign Zero’s police reforms and has bolstered training to respond to mental health crises alongside social workers.
“Sometimes we’re trying to create a problem so we can fix it,” Hall said. “I truly didn’t see the need [for a commission]. And I’m only speaking for Carlsbad — other cities might have a need.”
About three percent of Carlsbad’s arrests result in an officer’s use of force each year, according to a Carlsbad Police presentation in 2020. None of these incidents resulted in death, and 16% required medical treatment at a hospital. When Voice of San Diego adjusted for population, arrests involving Black and Hispanic people resulted in greater use of force than their White counterparts in 2018 and 2019. In total over the two years, about 6 percent of arrests of Black and Hispanic individuals involved use of force incidents, compared to 4.5 percent of White individuals.
According to Carlsbad Police Chief Mickey Williams, use of force incidents are defined, at a bare minimum, as “any act of an officer that causes more than momentary discomfort,” or “any strike, kick by an officer, whether it causes injury or not.”
The city’s survey of residents on creating a commission found
disparate levels of trust in Carlsbad police by Council district.
District 4, which has the highest White population, showed the most trust in Carlsbad police and the lowest support for an oversight body from survey respondents.
District 2, on the other hand, has the highest representation of Black residents (2.14 percent) and Latinos (14.75 percent), and the lowest makeup of White residents at 70.7 percent. This district reported the lowest amount of trust in the police department, with 11 percent saying they had low or very low trust. Here, about 50 percent saw little need or value in civilian oversight.
Miller said these disparities are noteworthy, as the people most affected by policing should be the ones judging whether reforms are “acceptable to them.”
“The people who are least affected by police brutality and over policing and police bias are the ones who are making decisions on whether police bias and over policing even exist, which is absolutely insane,” Miller said. “Some people call this post-racial America, but you can still see the disparities, even in our experiences living in the same city.”
The ordinance will include further details on the commission, including member qualifications and the appointment process. Once the ordinance passes, the city will have to recruit applicants.
Councilwoman Priya Bhat-Patel said each council member will likely choose one resident from each of the districts, and the mayor will appoint an additional person. A police representative will be present at meetings and consider any policy changes as a result of the discussions.
“[We have been] really just trying to figure out what we can do to bring this forward and make sure that it’s something that works, is palatable for everyone, and is something that we can have an open conversation around,” Bhat-Patel said.
As of now, activists suggested that no active law enforcement officers should be on the commission. To balance it out, Mayor Pro Tem Keith Blackburn recommended that anyone involved in activist groups would not be allowed, either.
“I do think that they are still wrong on that issue,” Ibrahim said. “I think that there are plenty of activists who have demonstrated an ability to work with police. Active duty law enforcement, that’s different. Now you’re talking about somebody who’s bread and butter is being affected, potentially, by how the community views policing.”
Ibrahim can’t serve on the commission himself, as he’s no longer living in Carlsbad. Miller lives in Escondido. In the meantime, they and others have helped secure a new de-escalation policy for Carlsbad, while the city has also increased training on mental health and has made room for more social workers. Chief Williams praised Ibrahim for his idea to expand an officer’s duty to intervene in the de-escalation policy — a recommendation inspired by Ibrahim’s own experience at 17, when police stood by as one officer became violent and aggressive toward him.
“I’m grateful for [the incident] now because it’s the root of what I think grew into something that was positive for the city at the end,” Ibrahim said.
After George Floyd’s murder, Ibrahim saw more people willing to learn, understand and help. For years before that, he was treated like a “troublemaker” for talking about equity in Carlsbad. It’s a “nearly perfect” hometown, he said, but he wants to make it better for the kids who look like him.
“When you grow up in an idyllic paradise it’s easy not to see, or want to see, problems that are hidden underneath the veil,” Ibrahim said.