Last Updated on November 16, 2023 by BVN

Santa Cruz County, CA passed a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis, with actions across six of nine categories. The declaration includes education efforts, community engagement, and partnerships with organizations with a history of confronting racism. The county has also focused on addressing affordable housing, access to equitable health care, and police interactions within Black communities and established the Office of the Inspector General to ensure transparency and accountability.

Breanna Reeves

Editor’s Note: Mapping Black California (MBC), created by Black Voice News, is a project that aims to collect and publish data to help eliminate systemic inequalities. One of MBC’s projects is an interactive map of official declarations by local and regional government officials establishing racism as a public health crisis. The aim of this is to provide a resource for tracking and holding these entities accountable for following through on declarations and statements. For this series, Black Voice News partnered with The Starling Lab for Data Integrity, a research lab anchored at Stanford University’s School of Engineering and the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation. The Lab prototypes authentication technologies and principles to bring journalists, legal experts and archivists into the emerging world of the decentralized web. These tools underscore the importance of accuracy and serve to combat mis- and disinformation. Decentralized tools can create a technological chain that identifies the history, or “provenance,” of a piece of digital content, serving to reduce information uncertainty and bolster trust in digital content. To learn more about these technologies, click here.

In the midst of a global pandemic that further exposed systemic racial inequity in health care, ongoing violence against Black people and other longstanding injustices, formal government resolutions that declared racism as a public health crisis were groundbreaking.

The acknowledgement that Black individuals have been physically, economically, financially and emotionally crippled by racist institutional policies gave way to validation across many communities. For some local governments, that acknowledgement came with pledges to address these unequal systems and practices, and to implement new procedures and policies that would ensure equity, inclusion and justice. 

While 31 jurisdictions made declarations and passed resolutions, their resolutions vary greatly. Some resolutions include robust lists of actions and strategic plans on how new policies will be implemented to address institutional racism. Other resolutions use vague and broad language that lacks specific details on how the city or local government plans to carry out some of the pledges.

According to the Racism as a Public Health Crisis Dashboard, created by research team Alex Reed and Candice Mays of Mapping Black California (MBC), Santa Cruz County and the City of Oakland have some of the most inclusive resolutions.

Across nine different action categories and 39 different measures outlined by MBC’s rubric, Santa Cruz County’s resolution incorporates actions across six of the nine different categories which include Data & Accountability, Community Engagement and Economic Opportunities.

On Aug. 18, 2020, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution to declare racism a public health crisis. Included in the declaration are actions that reference incorporating education efforts, promoting community engagement, and “partnering and building alliances with local organizations that have a legacy and track record of confronting racism.”

The idea to propose the declaration in Santa Cruz was the result of existent and growing racial inequality across the county as national conversations about racism gained traction. Efforts to broaden the declaration from the city level to the county level was a collaborative effort that included Justin Cummings, who was the mayor of the City of Santa Cruz during the time; county board supervisors; and community representative Joy Flynn, founding member of Santa Cruz County Black Coalition for Justice and Racial Equity.

Cummings shared that Flynn was the first community member to hold a demonstration in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, bringing more awareness of racism in the region. With the declaration, the city and county were very intentional about focusing these conversations on Black communities and communities of color, and understanding how they are being treated.

“What I hoped for with the action that I did is that I wanted the wider and the whiter community to recognize that Black people live here, and this is affecting us,” Flynn said. “We need to be seen, and we need to be seen by one another because we’re all so siloed.”

Part of Santa Cruz County’s declaration included promoting racially equitable economic development. For Black residents in Santa Cruz, addressing affordable housing is one of the most pressing issues. An annual report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition released in June noted that Santa Cruz County is the most expensive area for renters in the U.S.

According to a 2023 housing report released by the Santa Cruz Planning Department, Black/African American mortgage rate applications were rejected in roughly 33% of the cases, compared to between 13% and 21% for other applicants.

Addressing affordable housing was one of many elements that Santa Cruz focused on. City and county officials also set out to understand ongoing issues with equitable health care access and police interactions within Black communities.

“We know if we improve those conditions for African Americans, we improve those conditions for everyone, as a whole,” Cummings explained. In 2020, Cummings became the first Black man appointed to serve as mayor of Santa Cruz. In November 2022, Cummings was elected as Third District Supervisor and is the first Black individual to serve on the County Board of Supervisors.

County Supervisor Zach Friend explained that his conversations with Flynn helped identify issues that arise as a result of systemic racism in Santa Cruz County and what the outcomes are. The board also developed partnerships with other departments and organizations to analyze issues impacting Black communities such as law enforcement policies.

Within Santa Cruz’s declaration is a pledge to identify “clear goals and objectives, including periodic reports to the public to assess progress and capitalize on opportunities to further advance racial equity.”

Equity and Funding for Marginalized Communities

Following increased conversations around police practices after a series of fatal altercations with Black individuals like Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and Manuel Ellis, Santa Cruz County’s Criminal Justice Council (CJC) reviewed its law enforcement policies regarding use of force, technology and community transparency, among other standards.

The CJC is made up of local elected officials, the head of each local police agency, the district attorney and Chief Probation Officer, the public defender, the county superintendent of schools, and local non-profit leaders, among others.

Published in 2021, Friend and Cummings co-authored a report in partnership with law enforcement agencies that examined policies and procedures.

“In our county, this proposal was met with support across all the sectors that we were challenging these issues with. Over the last couple of years, there has been some movement in each of those sectors to help address, or at least provide, in a more transparent way, the issues that are being faced in each of those sub-sectors,” Friend said.

The report was compiled based on survey responses from police chiefs of Santa Cruz, Scotts Valley, Capitola, Watsonville and the South County Santa Cruz County Sheriff, distributed in 2021. The analysis assessed the responses from different law enforcement agencies to questions like, “Does your department report out on complaints against police personnel to elected officials, to the community, or both?” Eighty percent of law enforcement agencies that were surveyed answered “none of the above.”

Another survey question asked, “Does your agency require implicit bias training?” One hundred percent of law enforcement agencies that were surveyed responded “yes.”

Conversations between Cummings and former Santa Cruz Police Chief Andrew Mills revealed that the department had been practicing transparency and accountability policies, but the public had been unaware about these practices. Additionally, Cummings learned that Black residents — who make up roughly 1.5% of the county population — have different sentiments about law enforcement agencies across county regions.

The 2021 report was inspired by concerns expressed by Black community members and conversations with the police chief to understand what gaps in procedures exist, and how they compare across different regions.

“Let’s see if we can fill those gaps. It really was a great opportunity for us to conduct that review, and now have a document that we can refer people to when these kinds of situations come up and these questions arise,” Cummings said.

As a result of the report, Santa Cruz County’s Sheriff implemented the practice of independent review. In 2023, the board of supervisors established the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) “to ensure that the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office…is transparent and accountable to all residents of Santa Cruz County.” 

According to the OIG’s scope of work, the agency has access to the Sheriff Office’s complaint database and other records, and will “regularly assess” systems. The OIG will also review allegations of misconduct and complaints made by community members against the Sheriff’s Office.

An important element of Santa Cruz’s strategy for making their declaration actionable has been engaging with the community. The City of Watsonville established an Ad-Hoc Committee on Policing and Social Equity in 2020, and Santa Cruz County’s Criminal Justice Council formed an Ad Hoc Committee on Law Enforcement Policies and Procedures.

Additionally, the Circle on Anti-Racism, Economic, and Social Justice (CARESJ) was convened by the former County Supervisor John Leopold and is centered around racial justice and equity. The circle is comprised of seven leaders of color who have been historically marginalized and largely excluded from decision-making processes, including former Santa Cruz NAACP President Brenda Griffin, Cat Moses (formerly Willis), and Flynn.

After a year and a half, and surveying roughly one thousand individuals from the community and county staff, CARESJ developed an equity statement and equity definition that was adopted by the board on Oct. 4, 2023.

“Equity in action in Santa Cruz County is a transformative process that embraces individuals of every status, providing unwavering support, dignity, and compassion,” the county’s equity statement reads.

Now that the county has a clear definition of equity that will guide their decision-making processes moving forward, Moses said this is just the beginning. One of the next steps is digging into the county’s budget and examining how and where funds have been allocated because “numbers don’t lie,” according to Moses.

“They tell us so much about the state of our decisions, and the state of what is real when it comes to equity,” Moses said. “Because that’s what it comes down to: race and equity, and getting that language and that understanding into the bureaucracy and model — [that] race and inequity go hand-in-hand.”

By actively employing an equity lens, Santa Cruz plans to prioritize what kinds of programs and resources they’re going to fund through Collective of Results and Evidence-based (CORE) Investments, a funding model used by the County and the City of Santa Cruz to allocate funding to nonprofit organizations.

Joy Flynn poses beside the Black Lives Matter mural located on Center Street, in Downtown Santa Cruz, in front of City Hall. (Kevin Painchaud)

Flynn shared that she is pleased with the progress the county has made so far, but at times, there are challenges that arise when collaborating with a governmental system.

“We do not subscribe to your bureaucratic hierarchy because you’re serving us. Everything that you do is to serve the community, therefore, you need the community involvement and input to make this work,” Flynn explained. From the moment the declaration was passed, it was community-led and community-driven.

For Friend, the conversations he’s had with community leaders like Flynn have centered around what actions can be taken to change the structure around the experiences of historically marginalized people in Santa Cruz County. 

“My experience has been much more about programs and policies that we’re implementing to actually make this a living document and not a checkbox document,” Friend explained. 

By identifying tangible problems in communities like South County which includes the City of Watsonville, city and county officials are working to develop tangible solutions. In October 2021, Santa Cruz County purchased a building in Watsonville that is slated to become a government center so that surrounding communities won’t have to commute an hour to receive social services. Additionally, the county purchased property in South County for the creation of a park because the region lacks activity fields.

Cummings expressed that the dialogue between communities who have been neglected and elected officials is important to learn more about their needs and understand their priorities.

“Because we can say that we care, but it’s really about what we can do, and finding out from those communities what they need and how we can meet those needs,” Cummings concluded.

Measuring success 

In the three years since their declaration, Santa Cruz County has made progress on the pledges outlined in their resolution by consistently talking with community members and centering their voices.

“If you’re serving a community that isn’t very vocal and just kind of goes along with things, then I can understand why it would be [less community-driven],” Flynn explained. “But the problem is, [counties] need to have a community engagement coordinator who’s going out and engaging with the community and asking for their input.”

According to the MBC’s dashboard, none of the resolutions attempt to address all nine action categories and 39 different measures outlined in its rubric. However, Santa Cruz County has made significant strides to address nearly all the actions they referenced in their resolution.

Flynn believes the progress the county has made, while slow moving, has been faster than other jurisdictions. She partly attributes their headway to the community, which is very vocal about its needs.

“When we talk about how promises are made, and declarations are made, and then they disappear — one of the things that we’re aware of is that  with the internet, you can delete things and act like they never happened,” Mays explained.

In partnership with MBC, The Starling Lab for Data Integrity used technology that will seal and certify these declarations in time. Unlike using a screenshot of the document that can’t be verified or embedding a tweet that could be deleted later on, The Starling Lab for Data Integrity’s technology captures the full context of a webpage or content that creates a “fingerprint” that cannot be faked.

“Authentication is really important, because we have so much information around us. It’s really important that we establish ways to technically authenticate digital content,” said Lindsay Walker, product lead at The Starling Lab for Data Integrity. 

“And if we need to call something into question, we have a piece of evidence, we have an audit trail, we have some unfakeable evidence that something is what it purports to be, or isn’t.”

Sealing the declarations within the dashboard is a way to preserve these documents, and allow residents to revisit the declarations in order to hold city and county governments accountable to the promises made.

Breanna Reeves is a reporter in Riverside, California, and uses data-driven reporting to cover issues that affect the lives of Black Californians. Breanna joins Black Voice News as a Report for America Corps member. Previously, Breanna reported on activism and social inequality in San Francisco and Los Angeles, her hometown. Breanna graduated from San Francisco State University with a bachelor’s degree in Print & Online Journalism. She received her master’s degree in Politics and Communication from the London School of Economics. Contact Breanna with tips, comments or concerns at or via twitter @_breereeves.