Signal Hill declares local emergency due to civil unrest

Police Department to procure equipment to help detect racial profiling.

A+pie+chart+showing+the+distribution+of+the+Signal+Hill+Police+Department%E2%80%99s+budgeted+expenses+for+the+next+fiscal+year.+Public+safety+accounts+for+42%25+of+total+Signal+Hill+expenses+in+its+proposed+2020-2021+budget.

Courtesy City of SH

A pie chart showing the distribution of the Signal Hill Police Department’s budgeted expenses for the next fiscal year. Public safety accounts for 42% of total Signal Hill expenses in its proposed 2020-2021 budget.

In the wake of George Floyd’s demise at the hands of Minneapolis police officers on May 25 and resulting nationwide public outcries since then, the Signal Hill City Council convened a virtual special meeting on June 4 to declare a local emergency.

Taking its lead from Los Angeles County’s emergency declaration on May 31, the council ratified a proclamation declaring that a local emergency exists as of June 1.

“This action was taken to address any threats to life, safety and property within the City of Signal Hill,” City Manager Hannah Shin-Heydorn told the council.

The proclamation allows the City to respond to civil unrest, such as by establishing curfews, ensuring the continuity of public-safety services and seeking aid and potential expense reimbursement from the State, Shin-Heydorn said.

Primary costs include overtime hours for police officers and maintenance staff, plus supplies such as plywood for boarding up windows and traffic-management tools, according to a staff report.

Since the city manager also serves as Director of Emergency Services, Shin-Heydorn can now make decisions related to the “protection of life and liberty” without city-council approval, according to the city’s charter. The council must review the need to continue the local emergency after 60 days or whenever the emergency ends.

A few council members took the meeting opportunity to condemn George Floyd’s manner of death.

“We’re all hurt, angered and infuriated by the tragic and wrongful death of Mr. Floyd,” Mayor Robert Copeland said. “We add our voices to those calling for justice and the righting of the wrongs of institutional and systemic racism. As a council, we hear, understand and support these voices for working to spread the message for needed change through peaceful protest.”

Copeland added that unlawful looters and rioters have distracted from the message of peaceful protesters who are exercising their right to free speech.

Signal Hill follows “community-based policing” and its police officers are trained in racial equality, implicit bias and de-escalation techniques, Copeland said.

“Our policies require officers to intervene in the event another officer is using unnecessary force,” Copeland said. “In addition, the police department has implemented transparency measures such as body-worn cameras and car cameras for all police vehicles.”

Copeland commended the Police Department for increasing its patrol presence last week and the Public Works Department for setting up barricades to protect local businesses against looters.

He said he will ask the council to schedule a community meeting to gather feedback on police-related issue.

City Clerk Carmen Brooks affirmed that she felt safe in Signal Hill while Long Beach experienced looting. But because deaths like Floyd’s happen frequently, one community meeting would not be enough, she said.

“It should be a continuous dialogue,” Brooks said.

Councilmember Keir Jones commented that, though painful, this is a time of opportunity for the city.

“Over the past week, we have seen how acts of hate and violence, based on perceived differences, no matter where they happen, hurt us all,” Jones said. “Signal Hill is a diverse community and that is our strength. We have an opportunity to raise our voices in unity to speak out against injustice and promote dialogue to advance a shared platform of inclusivity.”

Police efforts
Signal Hill Police Chief Christopher Nunley attended the June 4 special meeting and told the Signal Tribune the following week that his officers were quick to respond to theft and property damage in the city that began on May 31, the same day Long Beach experienced heavy looting.

See related story: Peaceful protest against police brutality interfered with by multiple police forces and ill-intended looters

“Our local Target, Best Buy, 7-11, Kaiser medical office, and a beauty-supply store suffered broken windows,” Nunley said. “The pharmacy at the Kaiser medical office was broken into, and lost less than $500 in cough syrup.”

Nunley added that there was a subsequent protest in Signal Hill on June 6 with 250 to 300 people at Cherry Avenue and Hill Street that remained peaceful.

“It was a very well-organized event,” he noted.

Commenting on the events that led to the protests, Nunley said that he was “shocked and disturbed” by the video of Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“The actions, and inactions, of the officers involved, and the lack of compassion on display tarnishes the badge of police officers nationwide, and is completely inconsistent with our training and the oath we all take when assuming our positions,” Nunley said. “While I believe that law enforcement in Southern California has made many positive changes during my career, this tragedy is a stark reminder that there is much work left to be done.”

However, given the City’s financial issues compounded by COVID-19-related business closures reducing tax revenues, his department will have to do that work with a reduced budget next year.​

See related story: SH City Council considers raising taxes during budget workshop

During a May 28 City Council budget workshop, Nunley said police expenses– which comprise 42% of Signal Hill’s total expenses– will reduce from $10 million currently to $9.2 million, mostly by reducing personnel.

The police department’s current staff of 49 full-time employees will reduce to 45–though none of them patrol officers– and 4,200 part-time hours will reduce to 2,300. When asked by the Signal Tribune if he would ask for additional funds given the changed climate of protesting and potential looting that have developed since the workshop, Nunley said he would not.

“I have no intention of asking for additional funds,” he said. “The reduced funding allows the City to continue to be financially responsible, yet still allows us to provide the police services our community expects.”

Nunley had displayed a chart at that workshop showing that next year’s budget includes “ethics” training, which Nunley later explained is based on the California Police Officer Standards and Training (POST).

“Ethics training is designed to provide practical information on how to recognize and deal with ethical issues commonly faced by police officers,” he said. “[It] reinforces law-enforcement principles such as honesty, integrity, fairness, caring, respect and accountability.”

The department’s strategic priorities for next year include expanding community policing and outreach efforts, Nunley said at the workshop. He called the community-outreach arm “very robust” in orchestrating prevention and volunteer programs and increasing the department’s social-media presence.

However, that budget will be cut in half, from about $75,000 currently to $35,500 next year.

Community-outreach personnel costs consist entirely of overtime hours and will reduce by about $5,000. An annual “contract services” cost of $35,000 is not in the outreach budget for next year.

“Outreach is part of what we do on a daily basis in Signal Hill,” Nunley explained to the Signal Tribune. “And that is shared along all divisions of our budget, including patrol services.”

He added that the majority of outreach is funded by the Signal Hill Police Foundation (SHPF), an organization whose purpose is to augment the police department’s community-outreach efforts, such as its National Night Out program, Tip-A-Cop, Holiday Outreach, Coffee with Cops and Open House.

However, most of those programs are currently suspended because of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions preventing group gatherings.

“We are exploring options at the moment for reimagining these events to fit within County health guidelines,” Nunley said.

Despite the budget cuts, the police department will get $75,000 out of the City’s asset-seizure fund to help officers meet the requirements of California’s Racial and Identity Profiling Act of 2015.

The Act requires officers to answer a series of questions each time after detaining a member of the public, such as during a traffic stop, Nunley said at the workshop.​

He added that most area law-enforcement agencies are issuing cellphones to officers so they can enter that data after each stop and transmit it to the station. The department can then transfer total data to the State Attorney General’s office at the end of the year, as required by the law.

The council expressed support for implementing the racial-profiling law’s requirements when it approved budgeting for the equipment.

“People have a certain perception, and this can help us determine if that perception is accurate or inaccurate,” Councilmember Edward Wilson said during the workshop.

The cellphones will be enhanced to also become digital citation-writers to help get officers back to duty as quickly as possible after completing the required questionnaire, Nunley said.

He affirmed to the Signal Tribune that his department is committed to community-oriented policing, as Copeland had mentioned, by partnering with residents to create a safer environment.

“I am looking forward to working with our community and with our city council,” Nunley said, “as we consider the path forward for law enforcement within the City of Signal Hill.”