In 2010, the Bay Area was a hotspot for criminal justice issues that have been brewing nationwide. From the shooting death of Oscar Grant to the campaign to legalize marijuana, we provided sparks that ignited controversies. That trend will likely continue in 2011– many themes of the past year will continue to resonate in policy and politics. Here are five that we’ll be watching:
- Police shootings. On New Years Day 2010, Oscar Grant was shot in the back at point blank range by a BART officer, Johannes Mehserle, who was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter. That shooting sparked police-community tensions in Oakland and other parts of the Bay Area. It also, in a nation where officer-involved shootings are frequent, galvanized a broad-based movement calling for more police oversight and greater consequences for misuse of force. However distraught many people were over the former BART-officer’s light sentence, Mehserle’s case represented a rare criminal conviction for an officer who used his or her gun while on duty. What effect will the event have in the long run? For one, Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts has asked the FBI to investigate another recent officer-involved shooting in late 2010 which claimed the life of Oakland’s Derrick Jones. In the past few days, we’ve already seen officer-involved shootings in San Jose, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Hayward. In 2011, we’ll see see indications of whether this greater commitment to oversight will continue in Oakland and inspire changes in other cities as well.
- Cuts. Police forces all over the Bay Area (and the country) will shrink this year. Oakland’s dropping about ten officers a month. San Francisco’s cracking down on overtime. Ideas are flowing to cover the cuts to patrols: How about sending civilian employees and volunteers to respond to some calls? Should some beats just be discontinued? Why not outsource the whole police department? If any of the more radical suggestions take hold, we’re likely to experience a shift not only in how police departments are run, but in the culture of law enforcement. Assuming that no massive midyear cash-flow bonanzas take place, 2011 will be an experiment in bare-bones professional policing–one that’ll sink or swim with the crime rate.
- Marijuana. Last year was a big one for the drug, but how will 2011 play out for cannabis? As of January 1, possession of an ounce or less of marijuana in California became an infraction–meaning, not a criminal act, but something akin to running a stop sign–essentially decriminalizing small-time use. But in the weeks before the new year, the legalization movement also suffered a set-back: Oakland, arguably the most pot-forward city in the nation, back-pedaled on its plans to authorize industrial pot grows. Marijuana is now at a crossroads–will momentum push it forward or has the movement stalled? Many believe that with all the gains of 2010, the drug is on the cusp of legality. This year will likely reveal how close legalization actually is.
- Prison overcrowding. This year, the US Supreme Court will decide whether California will be required to comply with an unprecedented court order: one that requires the state to cut the prison population by some 40,000 inmates. Meanwhile, correctional officers in California are still working without a contract and the department is facing about $1.1 billion in cuts. Is it time to cut back on incarceration as the main solution to criminal activity? Is it worth the investment to build more prisons? Can we and should we change the nature of prisons? What the state does in the face of this court order (and if it’s struck down, financial pressure will still remain) will set the tone for the coming decade.
- Surveillance. These days, it takes very little to end up on a terrorism watch list. Or to create a national frenzy over government intrusions into privacy. Where does the balance fall? That’s a far-from-resolved question, but our state is on the front lines of the fight. According to a recent Washington Post investigation, federal agencies have been colluding to gather and consolidate information on private citizens. California ranks first among states in the number of organizations focused on domestic terrorism threats, and third in federal spending on counterterrorism. As a technology capital, a port and border state, and a hub for privacy rights advocates, the push and pull over privacy and security will continue to play out here.