Stanford: George Brown will split his time between Santa Monica and Stanford to fulfill his new role. Photo credit: Nikolas Liepins

For a man who worked on racial justice and police reform long before they trended on social media and rose to the fore of public attention, the chance to lead the Stanford Center for Racial Justice presents an exciting new opportunity. George Brown is ready for the challenge.

As the Chair of the Public Safety Reform & Oversight Commission, Brown has been at the forefront of Santa Monica’s recent efforts to increase transparency and justice in policing. As the newly appointed executive director of the recently founded Stanford Center for Racial Justice, he will be developing legal and policy solutions to advance these efforts on a national scale.

Both positions are important to him and Brown is planning on splitting his time between Santa Monica and Stanford so that he can fulfill both roles.

The Center will serve as a research hub for racial inequity issues with a focus on developing action-oriented reforms that can be applied by policymakers to generate real world solutions.

“We’re going to be building the plane and flying it at the same time,” said Brown on diving into his work. “One of the things we really want to do is look for innovative solutions to intractable challenges, and then when we find those solutions we want to help them get adopted out in places where they matter.”

The Center already has a list of research initiatives in development around the priorities of public safety, economic advancement and educational opportunity. Brown is especially excited about a project to develop a new model for use of force policies, which he believes could be utilized by small and midsize cities, such as Santa Monica, all over the country.

According to Brown, the police departments of most small and midsize cities do not have adequate legal resources to develop their own use of force policies and instead rely on models created by a single national vendor called Lexipol.

“I think generally the national vendor policy leans towards being law enforcement friendly, in the sense that it leaves wide areas of discretion to the police in a lot of different areas and sometimes that can be inconsistent with perhaps what the people in an area would prefer,” said Brown.

The Center is working on developing a turnkey use of force policy, meaning that it is a document that can easily be copied and slightly tweaked with local information in order to be utilized by a police department. Brown expects the Stanford policy to provide helpful details on best de-escalation practices, the very specific instances in which use of force is authorized, and what the principles for using force should be.

His credentials for working on such issues are lengthy. Brown has served as board co-chair of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, a role in which he brought some of the early voting rights lawsuits under the California Voting Rights Act. Additionally, Brown was vice-chair of Fresh Lifelines for Youth, a juvenile justice organization, and helped chair and create the Boys and Girls Club of Metro Los Angeles.

In the wake of the George Floyd protests and Santa Monica’s new efforts to address racial injustice and pursue police reform, Brown has emerged as a prominent local leader.

This important, complex, and at times contentious work has been off to a somewhat rocky start.

Shortly after members were appointed to the new Public Safety Reform & Oversight Commission in April, the Santa Monica Police Officers Association filed an unfair labor practice complaint objecting to the manner in which the Commission was formed and the powers it was granted. As a result of the litigation, City Councilmembers entered a temporary agreement freezing the majority of the Commission’s abilities. Brown strongly opposed the agreement and denounced it publicly.

While the agreement has now expired, the litigation is ongoing.

One of the activities the Commission was allowed to continue while the agreement was active was a report and recommendations responding to the OIR Group’s review of SMPD’s response to the May 31 riots. Unfortunately, commissioners failed to reach a consensus on the appropriate response and Brown submitted the draft version without the Commission’s formal backing.

Despite these early road bumps, Brown holds much optimism for the future efficacy of the Commission. This confidence comes in part from the new appointment of pro-reform Police Chief Ramon Batista.

“I’m very encouraged about Chief Batista joining us. From all indications I think he will be very supportive of civilian oversight and help make it work,” said Brown, adding that he is also encouraged by the background and attitude of new City Manager David White.

While Brown opposes the Police Officer Association’s desire to have a SMPD officer on the Commission, saying this undermines the principle of independent civilian oversight, he is intent on building a collaborative and trusting relationship with the department.

“The appearance that there’s undue influence can really undermine the legitimacy of the Commission,” said Brown. “At the same time we need to have good channels of communication with the police department leadership and other officers, because we’re going to be most effective if we can have open and honest dialogue about key issues of the day.”

From Brown’s perspective, the role of an oversight commission is to help ensure that the way policing functions in a city reflects a shared understanding of the community’s values with a particular attention to the perspectives of groups who bear the brunt of policing. This is a goal he will be working on at a local level in his role as commissioner and on a national level in his new executive director position at Stanford.