Officer shooting reignites public safety debate

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

With the fatal shooting last week of Whittier police officer Keith Boyer, public safety officials are pointing to the “criminal justice trifecta” that has yielded a landscape that extends more protection to convicted felons than to the general public.

“I think it’s becoming more difficult to hide the negative consequences of the laws that have been passed,” said Ridgecrest Police Chief Ron Strand, who for years has pointed to the dangers of Assembly Bill 109 and Propositions 47 and 57.

In 2011, the state legislature passed AB 109 with the stated intent to reduce the state’s prison population. Those incarcerated were transferred to county facilities, and more than 10,000 lesser “non-violent” offenders were released en masse to make room.

In 2014, the state put forth Prop 47 for voter consideration. The state reduced felonies ranging from drug possession to firearm theft to misdemeanors. To compensate, resources were promised for programs that would assist those coping with addiction — although nothing materialized for rural communities like Ridgecrest.

Last fall, voters approved Prop 57, which allowed for early release of prisoners, and reduced the criminal justice system’s ability to prosecute based on past crimes.

In the last seven months, 26-year-old Michael Mejia of Los Angeles has been arrested five times, but spent little time incarcerated. Last week, he was identified as the suspect in slaying his cousin, Roy Torres, as well as Boyer, who was part of the officer-involved shoot-out that followed.

“Our system is not addressing repeat offenders in a sufficient manner. This weakness is obvious when you look at what happened in Whittier,” said Strand.

Law-enforcement agencies are pointing to a steady rise in violent crimes across the state as evidence that California’s attempt to reduce its prison population has only resulted in creating more victims.

“People said it was too early to tell, but as California crime continues to outpace that of the rest of the nation, it’s hard to make the causation of the increase anything other than these reforms,” said Strand.

Among the most significant challenges has been to address crimes tied to substance abuse — which account for more than half of crimes committed.

“It used to be that we could offer reduced sentences to people who would pursue substance-abuse treatment,” said Strand. “Now that sentences have been so greatly reduced already, there is no incentive for seeking treatment. And fewer and fewer people are availing themselves of that option during custody.”

This has led to what public safety officials are calling a “revolving-door” system of incarceration. “We have people we have arrested literally 20, 30, 40 times,” said Strand.

On top of the crimes committed by those under the influence, a majority of commercial and private thefts are tied to individuals looking for a means to support their habits.

“People are frustrated, seeing the same people getting arrested over and over, and looking at us like, ‘Why is this happening?’

“What people don’t understand is that this is partly a consequence of laws Californians voted for. We can’t keep people locked up for stealing, which in effect has put the burden of protecting property on the citizen.

“Of course that was not the intent of these initiatives, but that’s pretty much where we are now.”

Strand said that his department has adapted by aggressively working serious crimes in order to remove the most potentially dangers criminals off the street. However, property crimes no longer carry substantial sentences — often resulting in an expeditious release of those convicted of stealing.

“The best way the public can help is by doing what they can to secure their own properties — put an alarm on your house, invest in a high-quality camera, know your neighbors, and keep your valuables locked up and out of sight,” said Strand.

One positive advantage of living in the technological age, he said, is the assistance video surveillance and social media have played in solving crimes.

“The more people who have video coverage of their property, the better chance we have of identifying those committing the crimes.”

In terms of a policy shift at the state level, Strand acknowledged that the climate may get worse before it gets better.

“I think this has brought about an awareness about how important it is for people to be proactive in protecting their property. But I hope it’s also shown that it’s important for people to really understand what they are voting for.”

Story First Published: 2017-03-03