September 15 marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month and that’s especially important in a city like Fresno, where more than half of the population identifies as Latino/a/x.
Fresnoland Lab Engagement reporter Dayana Jiselle and Latino Communities reporter Nadia Lopez interviewed Jerry Dyer, Fresno’s mayor-elect and its former police chief for 18 years, about Latino issues in the city. The questions came from residents, community organizations and Latino leaders who are concerned about immigration, COVID-19, housing, crime, equitable representation and policing of the Latino community.
Latinos and COVID-19 impact
Though deemed essential, many farm workers do not qualify for unemployment, have little to no access to healthcare and have been excluded from federal programs put in place to help during the pandemic, largely because many are undocumented. Often these factors mean that a worker has to choose between losing a paycheck or risking their health. Latinos are among the hardest hit by COVID-19, accounting for 57% of all coronavirus cases and 46% of deaths in the state.
Q: Given the impact of the pandemic on Fresno, what will you do as mayor to protect essential workers, such as farm workers? [00:11]
Dyer: In terms of CARES money that we have, the city of Fresno was awarded about $90 million — just over that. It’s important that CARES money be utilized in a way that benefits those who are most in need and those individuals that work in the field, those individuals who are Hispanics who have businesses, all of those individuals who perhaps don’t have a good savings account, who live paycheck to paycheck. Those are the ones that the CARES money really is designed to go into their families.
Unfortunately, I’m not the mayor until January, but if I were the mayor right now, I can tell you that we would have an expedited processes and liaisons in place so that money would get into the hands of those who are most in need and some of those happen to be individuals working in agriculture — the Hispanic population. But it’s also those Hispanics who have the mom and pop businesses, the restaurants and so forth, that are going under as well. So it’s important that that money be spent wisely. I’m hopeful that the CARES money gets extended beyond the current deadline of Dec. 30 and that money is available into my administration so that we can use that money in a more expedient manner and get it into the hands of the right people that happen to be those individuals we spoke about.
Q: Councilman Garry Bredefeld objected to housing funds going to undocumented immigrants. What’s your stance on that? [2:00]
Dyer: You know, the issue of whether or not government dollars should go into the hands of undocumented workers is something that is of tremendous debate across the country. Unfortunately it creates a lot of division. I try to look beyond the politics and look beyond whether a person is documented or undocumented and look at the fact that they have a family. They have children, who are going to go hungry. They have children, who may be forced to leave their residence. So as a compassionate person, it’s important that we look beyond all of those things and get beyond the politics and recognize we’re helping a family and that’s the right thing to do; setting aside politics. When politics gets in the way, kids suffer.
Affordable housing and homelessness
Homelessness in Fresno and Madera grew to nearly 3,700 people in 2020, a 45% spike from 2019, according to the most recent point-in-time count in January, before the pandemic hit. Some experts believe this number will continue to increase as people lose their jobs and fall behind on rent during the pandemic.
Q: What do you think could be done about homelessness? [3:04]
Dyer: Number one, it’s a collaboration that has to occur. We cannot have several different organizations who have funding available and several different organizations with different visions and different plans. As the mayor of Fresno, I plan to bring those organizations together under one umbrella as we address the issue of affordable housing and homelessness.
It’s very important that we all strategically invest our limited dollars in a way that is going to get results. I want my administration to be long on vision, and quite frankly, to be short on planning and swift on action. That means getting things done quickly. In terms of affordable housing, there’s no secret when you look across Fresno and you see the poverty that we face — we’re number two in California in poverty, when you look and see the neighborhoods in disrepair, when you look at and see how many people are out on our streets, it’s very apparent we need more than housing.
We need to address the issue of joblessness in our city and providing good jobs. We need to impact the people, being able to provide them with affordable housing and we also need to provide services, counseling services and so forth to those individuals who are out there on our street so bringing all of those organizations together, coordinating our strategies, coordinating our dollars. I’m going to have H Spees, who is our director of strategic initiatives and very involved in the homeless issue, be very engaged. The number one thing with the homeless is providing them opportunities, getting them off of our streets, off of our freeways, out of our neighborhoods and into navigation centers [temporary emergency shelter for homeless people]. Those can be locations that are decentralized across the city; they can be mobile navigation centers where we bring services to them, but we have to make contact with those individuals in the environments in which they live in and we have to provide them opportunities to have a shelter. That is — bring their belongings, bring their addiction, bring their mental illness, and we will bring them services. Then, stabilize those individuals to the point where then we can provide them with transitional housing.
We need to have mobile hygiene centers throughout Fresno for these individuals. If you look at them, they’re in a very unhealthy state. So not just mobile hygiene, get them a fresh set of clothes and to get them a shower, but also to bring in the medical care that they need. You know, I don’t question how people got where they’re at, but I know one thing; we can’t leave them. That’s inhumane. That’s not compassion.
The Homeless Task Force, a team within the Fresno police department, has gained criticism for sweeping encampments, and at times even citing and arresting homeless individuals.
Q: Will you support defunding the Homeless Task Force and moving those funds to provide mental health services to the homeless? [6:10]
Dyer: I created the homeless task force out of necessity. Really, quite frankly, after the federal lawsuit that occurred against the city of Fresno as a result of removing an encampment and not storing property. The city of Fresno faced a lawsuit. After that, there was a hands-off approach throughout the city. Complaints mounted from business owners, residents, and just about everyone in Fresno complaining about the homeless presence in their neighborhoods. We had to do something. Encampments were everywhere. There was a partnership between sanitation and the police department to prevent encampments in Fresno. When 10 or more people gather for 10 or more days in a particular location, you have to go through an extensive noticing process to remove that encampment and we know that the longer people stay in a particular location, the more potential it has to grow in terms of the people that are there.
When that happens, there is more likelihood for violence to occur, for drug sales, for a number of things to occur. Bad things happen to females in those encampments, that happen every night in our city. As a police chief, it was incumbent upon me to do something, and we did. It wasn’t the answer. It wasn’t the solution. It was a temporary alternative that we utilized. It requires us to be much more strategic in how we deal with that issue and if there is a way that we can eliminate the police department’s role from that and turn that over to individuals who, for example, over at the Rescue Mission, they have what’s called disciples. They go out, and they make sure that these encampments don’t occur around the Rescue Mission.
If we can use individuals like that, who were homeless before, to go out and do that job throughout our city, with clinicians, and to provide these mobile clinics, or navigation centers, I’m all for that. But we have to have a plan to replace the Homeless Task Force because I can tell you if we just eliminate the Homeless Task Force, we’re gonna have encampments all over Fresno. Just look at where we are today and that’s with the Homeless Task Force. You take them away right now without another solution, it’s going to be even worse.
Protecting undocumented Latinos
Notarios and fraudulent “attorneys” have stolen thousands of dollars from undocumented residents who are often seeking help to receive visas, permanent residency, DACA renewal, citizenship and other immigration services.
Q: As mayor, will you work to stop notario fraud in Fresno? [8:45]
Dyer: The answer is absolutely. You know, in my former profession as a police chief, we were made aware of those types of fraud cases. Individuals who had taken advantage of the undocumented population, giving them false hope, believing that they were working through a system to get them citizenship and taking their money, substantial amount of money to do that, only to find out a year into the process, that they weren’t doing anything for them. We can conduct joint criminal investigations with the state on those entities or the federal government in order to make that, to ensure that that’s not happening.
We don’t want people taken advantage of whether it’s our immigrant population or elderly population or anyone else who’s been defrauded of their hard-earned dollars. So working with the state, working with the county, working with the federal government, to make sure that those things don’t happen. The main thing is that we are aware of [these issues]. Oftentimes undocumented people are afraid to report that out of fear that they may be deported. I think it’s important that I continue to stress whether I was the police chief or as the mayor of the city — a person’s immigration status, whether they’re documented or undocumented, [is] not something that has been a concern or will be a concern for local government in the city of Fresno. We don’t ask a person’s immigration status. We simply don’t. We don’t want them living in shadows, living in fears and afraid to report crimes or the fact that they have been defrauded by a notary.
Q: Will you support the establishment of an Office of Immigrant Affairs? [10:38]
Dyer: I would have to look at what that entails. Quite frankly, I’m not aware of what those offices do. I would not want to duplicate a service that’s already provided by someone that is doing that now. We know that there are services available for undocumented right here in Fresno, and the consulate provides that service. Now, if it’s a matter of us working with them and providing an office to liaison with them, I am 100% for that. I don’t believe we should be utilizing local funding to support that effort when there is federal dollars generally that are available for that. But, coordinating our efforts, making sure we’re a good referral partner, I think that is something that I’d be very supportive of.
Q: What will you do to keep members of our community, regardless of status, safe and protected against deportation? [11:42]
Dyer: Our police officers in the city of Fresno do not check on a person’s immigration status when there’s a vehicle stop or an arrest. Those questions are not asked. They do not request the services of ICE to assist Fresno police officers in the city of Fresno. And there’s a reason for that. The reason is we do not want people to live in fear of the police. We don’t want people thinking that the local law enforcement agency is involved in deportation of individuals. We want people to know that police officers are there to protect them regardless of their immigration status. We want them to be good witnesses on crimes and not be fearful of reporting what they know out of fear of deportation. And so if they believe that we are in the business, local government, is in the business of deportation, they will not come forward with information that is needed to help us solve crime and to apprehend violent suspects.
However, if a person is involved in criminal activity and they are of an undocumented status, then those individuals, like anyone else, will be arrested and they should be placed in jail and face the consequences of the system. If ICE determines to intervene and deport those individuals, that is their choice.
Q: Will you create a sanctuary city policy for Fresno? [13:14]
Dyer: The truth is, no one has ever defined what a sanctuary city is. So when you say I am “this” without knowing what the definition is, I think it creates a lot of confusion in a community. What does that mean? Does that mean you’re a sanctuary for individuals who are committing crimes, who happened to be undocumented? Because that’s what a sanctuary does. It provides protection for people to prevent them from being arrested. That’s not what we want in our city.
I believe the policy that we have in place in the city of Fresno and the police department has been very effective. And I don’t believe that the city needs to take another step to say that we are a sanctuary city, just so that we can be placed on a map and say we’re sanctuary city. And by the way, risk funding from the federal government, which would have a negative impact on providing safety to those very undocumented people live in neighborhoods.
Latinos and crime
Since 2015, 22 people have been shot and killed by police in Fresno. Latinos accounted for half of those deaths. A study also showed that in 2018, almost 65% of youth arrests were Latinos compared to 22% Black youth and 9% white youth. Many Latino residents and youth feel “distrustworthy” of police officers policing their communities.
Q: As mayor, how will you help create more trust between the police and Latino neighborhoods? [14:41]
Dyer: It’s a deeper issue in terms of our educational system. We have more Latinos that are not getting the education they need that allows them to be successful in life. They have higher truancy rates and higher dropout rates. Ultimately, living in neighborhoods that allows them to be recruited into gangs, to be involved in criminal activity, and therefore they end up in the criminal justice system. So the root cause of all of that, happens to be a number of factors; the breakdown of the family, the education that they’re either not taking advantage of or not provided to them, not having the family involvement in their life, not having a good role model, making some poor decisions along the way that allows them to be involved in gangs or criminal activity. All of those things contribute to the surface data, which is, they end up being arrested. They end up being in the criminal justice system. So what we have to do is go back to the root cause and provide increased opportunity for better education for all of our individuals; people of color and people in the southern part of our city so that they can have an opportunity to succeed.
In terms of bridging that trust gap, it’s ongoing communication. It’s making sure that the police officers that are out there in the community are more than simply enforcing laws, that they’re on our campuses providing good counseling mentorship and being a role model to our youth. I don’t want them to be seen as a threat. I don’t want any of our city employees to be seen as a threat to any part of our population. But I do know that there’s oftentimes when there’s a domestic violence incident at home and a police officer comes and makes an arrest, and the child is in that home, and sees the police officer arrest their father out of the home…automatically, that child is going to look at that law enforcement officer in a different way, may not understand that their father did something that necessitated them being arrested and so there’s a breakdown. They look at police officers in a negative way, which is why we have to do so much more with our engagement of the community.
The very premise of the program that was initiated 18 years ago in Southwest Fresno, “Bringing Broken Neighborhoods Back to Life,” was to allow for more of that within our community. Unfortunately, when the demand for police services increases, there’s more 911 calls, there’s fewer police officers to meet that demand; it prevents officers from engaging in community policing in those neighborhoods and providing that positive role model. So, we have to make sure police officers are freed up from all of the other duties that they do so that they can be more engaged in a positive manner, within those neighborhoods.
Q: It sounds like you’re placing a lot of the blame on the individuals and not seeing a systemic issue. [18:21]
Dyer: No, I think it is a systemic problem. In fact, there’s plenty of blame to go around for everyone in terms of how our kids end up in an environment where they’re making a choice to commit a crime or to join a gang. Gang members aren’t born; criminals aren’t born; they evolve. And it’s because of the environment in which they live in, and oftentimes, it’s because they aren’t given the same opportunities as other people are to be successful in life. Their starting point is behind other individuals, and when you talk about systemic racism or systemic lack of opportunity for these kids, it is absolutely present and that’s why they don’t do as well in school. It’s not because they’re not smart. They’re very, very intelligent. They just don’t have, sometimes, the same opportunity to take advantage of their education so that they can be successful.
Q: If such force against Black and Brown communities continues, what type of consequences for the involved officers do you support? [19:38]
Dyer: Well, if you have wrongdoing on the part of an officer — where that act is egregious, or if there’s ongoing actions of an officer that is against policy and their behavior doesn’t change, then sometimes, those officers can no longer be a part of law enforcement.
As a police chief in my 18 years, I terminated approximately 100 police officers from the department. I believe in giving second chances to officers, but I cannot give, and I could not give a second chance to an officer that created an egregious act that violated the trust of the community to the degree they could no longer perform their duties. So training is key.
In my time as a police chief, we implemented 40 hours on top of all the other training, called Crisis Intervention Training. It was solely meant to deal with de-escalation so that officers would be less likely to use force, making sure that they’re providing themselves proper distance and cover so that we have more time to make a good decision and not a split second decision, which oftentimes leads up to sometimes a bad decision, and to understand mental health, and to understand how to deal with with situations that become a crisis. That training was provided to every single uniformed officer and continues to be. And I believe you’ve seen officer-involved shootings continually decline, as well as the number of uses of forces.
When you look at the number of calls that police officers handle and then number of use of force cases, it’s very minimal. But sometimes, we only hear about those one or two incidents that occur. And when they do occur, it’s important we take appropriate action. So training is key. Having the right policies in place are key, and making sure that you’re holding your people accountable is key.