Opinion: Law enforcement groups betray community trust when they embrace racist campaign rhetoric

Jones-Wright is executive director of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance and lives in Encanto.

As a Black woman activist and former political candidate who has faced an onslaught of racist attacks, I’ve learned an undeniable truth: When you challenge power structures, you quickly discover the depths to which some individuals are willing to descend. You can reliably gauge a person’s true stance on racism, their tolerance for racist acts and anti-Black rhetoric, and their own racial biases when you threaten their power.

The San Diego County District Attorney’s office and our local police and sheriff departments all have a troubling track record of perpetuating anti-Black tropes by painting Black women as threats and using harmful stereotypes to undermine their leadership and political campaigns. These tactics are nothing short of appalling, and they persist. These acts must be exposed, condemned and ended.

One glaring example is the recent disinformation campaign our local deputy district attorneys and police officer associations launched against Monica Montgomery Steppe in her run for the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Both law enforcement groups paid for ads — featuring black and white images of Montgomery Steppe reminiscent of a bygone era — that labeled her a “threat to public safety” and included a myriad of debunked lies.

It should be lost on no one that these attacks are orchestrated by the very institutions responsible for prosecuting and arresting individuals for hate crimes. How can we trust them to do their jobs fairly when they exhibit racial bias and openly lie to deceive the public? How can we trust their promise to use surveillance responsibly in response to the concerns voiced by community members who are racially profiled? To say it plainly, it is hard to stomach San Diego Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office telling us to trust they will ensure an ethical use of the city’s smart streetlights and automated license plate recognition technologies. Yet, more and more we are asked to trust law enforcement agencies with the responsible use of surveillance technologies, all while their members engage in racist behavior. It is especially laughable when the people who use this technology pay dues and vote to send out racist mailers about a sitting Black city council member without batting an eye.

During my run for district attorney, I encountered a disturbingly similar set of attacks. One outrageous example is the website threattosandiego.com sanctioned by my then-opponent and current District Attorney Summer Stephan to strike fear in the hearts of voters. The website was riddled with misleading information and images that referenced “Antifa,” playing on anti-Blackness to label me a threat. The website’s claims were debunked as lies by KPBS in an article that fact-checked the content, but Stephan was not held accountable, let alone taken to task for these shameful and racially-motivated untruths. She did not have to answer for it to anyone. The website’s content was not only a smear campaign against me, but a manifestation of how Black women are unfairly targeted in San Diego politics by painting us as radical and threats to public safety. This tactic is not unique to me or Monica; it is a page out of the age-old playbook used to discredit many Black women who want to make change through elected office.

Make no mistake about it: It is intentional. Law enforcement agencies leveraging racial stereotypes and harmful tropes against Black women who dare to seek office is not only dangerous and misleading but deeply rooted in bigotry and racism. Their tactics often include attempts to portray us as “angry,” “radical,” or “divisive.” Such stereotypes are used to discourage voters from supporting Black women and to diminish their voices and influence in the political arena.

As we grapple with the calls for police reform and the overhaul of our criminal legal system, it is crucial to recognize that these issues are not isolated from the struggles for racial and gender equity in the political sphere. The tactics used against Black women in political campaigns mirror the broader issues of racial bias that persist in our law enforcement institutions. In San Diego, it is apparent that law enforcement believes the end justifies the means, even if that means being openly bigoted against a proven and compassionate leader like Monica Montgomery Steppe. Given their positions of power and authority in our communities, those responsible for such behavior need to be called to account, even if their actions fail.

My experiences have only reinforced my commitment to advocating for justice, equity and moral governance. We must challenge and stand up to those who seek to perpetuate the status quo by any means necessary. As we do, we must also remember that real progress often requires confronting the ugly truths hidden behind the veneer of power. We must demand an end to these reprehensible tactics. Our communities deserve better. The message to those who use racism and misogyny as a tool to maintain their power and influence must be clear: Do better or be ready to vacate your posts.

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