Transgender rights vs. parent rights. California goes to court to settle school divide

Supporters of a proposed November ballot initiative wanted the all-important title of their measure to reflect their beliefs, a name like “Protect Kids of California Act.” But Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta saw things differently when his office chose the name signature gatherers must use: “Restricts Rights of Transgender Youth.”

Among its provisions, the initiative in question — which has not yet qualified for the ballot — would require schools to notify parents if a child changed gender identification unofficially or in schools records, such as a roll sheet.

With a May 28 deadline to submit signatures — and 25% of the way to the goal — initiative backers must use the state’s description, which they say is hindering their effort. They have sued the state, claiming the initiative was “branded with a misleading, false, and prejudicial title” A hearing is set for April 19.

The litigation is one of several high-profile legal jousts in California’s education culture wars over policies that have taken hold mostly in a few deep red, inland or rural areas. In addition to parent notification, activists and conservative school board members have approved restrictions on library books and curriculum. The Newsom administration and its allies — including the attorney general and the state education department — have pushed back aggressively. Now, opposing sides are facing off in courtrooms with broad implications for state and local school policies.

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“There are long-standing questions about what’s the role of the school versus what’s the role of the parents, and that’s true with regard to parent notification but it’s also true with regard to curriculum like sex education, for instance, or talking about LGBT issues in the classroom,” said Morgan Polikoff, a professor at USC’s Rossier School of Education.

In addition to the court case over the ballot name, partisans have taken each other to court over locally approved parental notification policies — or the lack of them.

Supporters believe parents have a fundamental right to be involved in all aspects of their children’s lives, especially on matters as consequential as gender identification. More broadly, proponents hope to energize a Republican and conservative religious voting base while attracting centrist voters, especially parents, for electoral wins down the road.

Democratic officials contend that blanket parental notification policies violate student privacy and civil rights enshrined in state law and the education code and that the near universal outing of transgender students to parents would put some children at serious risk.

The Chino Valley and Temecula school districts, both led by conservative boards, are being sued to rescind their parent-notification policies. In Escondido and Chico, however, it’s conservatives who have filed the litigation against state and local policies they consider too liberal and even immoral — casting themselves as protectors of the long-term interests of students they see as at risk of being drawn into a transgender lifestyle.

Other Southern California school districts where such issues are playing out have included Orange Unified and Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified in Orange County and Murrieta Valley Unified in Riverside County. A similar scenario has unfolded in Rocklin Unified and Dry Creek Joint Elementary, north of Sacramento, and the Anderson Union High School District in Northern California.

Collectively, these school systems represent a tiny fraction of the more than 1,000 in California, which is why a statewide initiative implanting their values in the state constitution could have such a sweeping effect.

What’s in a name?

Court battles over the names and descriptions of ballot measures occur periodically, with the law requiring that the attorney general affix a neutral title. At least 10 lawsuits sought changes to the descriptions of half a dozen ballot measures presented to voters in November 2020.

In the case of the proposed ballot measure related to transgender youth, supporters object not only to Bonta’s title but also a summary of the initiative that they contend in court documents is “inaccurate, blatantly argumentative, and prejudicial.” They said a title that includes “protecting students” could appeal to voters. One that focuses on limiting an individual’s rights might not.

The measure would also ban children‘s medical treatment or surgery to address gender dysphoria — distress caused when an individual’s biological sex does not match that person’s gender identity. It also would bar transgender students born as biological males from participating in girls sports, including at the college level. And it would delete an education code that allows students to participate in sports “irrespective of the gender listed on the pupil’s records.”

The current name, Restricts Rights of Transgender Youth, has made it harder to get signatures and attract donors to pay for signature-gathering, said lead proponent Jonathan Zachreson, who must collect 546,651 signatures from registered votes. He said he is reasonably confident the measure will qualify.

“Talking to our volunteers, we realized it did have a detrimental impact,” said Zachreson.

In a statement, the attorney general’s office defended its title and summary: “We take this responsibility seriously and stand by our title and summary for this measure. However, we cannot comment on pending litigation.”

Defenders of the attorney general’s language include parent and former teacher Kristi Hirst, leader of Our Schools USA, which is based in Chino and has attempted to counter the right-wing activists.

“The people screaming for ‘parental rights’ are trying to take rights away from my kids while telling me how to raise them,” Hirst said.

Chino Valley, a hot spot

Chino Valley Unified is at the center of litigation over its parent-notification policy, which resulted in a lawsuit led by Bonta. In a preliminary ruling, San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Michael A. Sachs said the policy was discriminatory because it specifically targeted students who identify as transgender.

Under it, for example, parents were to be notified of any request by a student “to use pronouns that do not align with the student’s biological sex or gender listed on the student’s birth certificate or other official records.” The same notification rules applied to the use of bathrooms or participation in sports.

Sachs wrote in his January rulingthat these policies “on their face, discriminate on the basis of sex.” In California, transgender individuals are a protected class against whom discrimination is not permitted. The judge noted that a straight male student who wanted to use a different name would not be subject to the policy.

In March, the Chino ValleyBoard of Education revised the policy, expanding it to all students. Under the revised policy, if any student “requests a change to their official or unofficial records, parents/guardians shall be notified to ensure that parents/guardians are informed and involved in all aspects of their child’s education.”

In other words, if a straight male student named William suddenly decided he wanted to be called Robert, his parents would be notified.

The revised notification rules apply to a potentially huge number of situations, requiring an alert to parents whenever their child “participates in school-sponsored extracurricular and cocurricular activities or team(s) immediately or as soon as reasonably possible.”

For instance, if a child joins a club, parents would be told. The policy, if followed, will keep administrators busy making many notifications to parents, a few of which would pertain to transgender students, the original aim of the policy.

“The updated policy maintains the district’s original requirement that school administrators notify parents within three days if their child requests changes to their official or unofficial records, but removed language from the policy requiring staff to notify parents when a student requests to use facilities or pronouns that differ from their sex at birth,” according to Liberty Justice Center, a firm with a national profile that has offered pro bono legal assistance and helped map out a legal strategy for Chino Valley and districts with like-minded school boards.

There’s a hearing to set a trial date in early May.

Different ruling in Temecula

The parent-notification policy approved by the Temecula Board of Education was essentially the same as the original version in Chino Valley. And Temecula also was sued — not by the state but by the local teachers union, individual teachers, students and parents.

But in this case, Riverside CountySuperior Court Judge Eric Keen did not stop the policy from going into effect. He concluded, at least preliminarily, that the rules applied equally to all students and were “gender neutral.”

That lawsuit also alleges the board majority is hostile toward LGBTQ+ topics and students — citing the board’s refusal to adopt state-approved curriculum for elementary schools that included a brief, optional passage in fourth grade about former San Francisco County Supervisor Harvey Milk, the state’s first openly gay elected official.

A threatened fine by Gov. Gavin Newsom prompted the board to approve the curriculum, which had been recommended by teachers and administrators and was in line with state learning standards.

The issue is not over. The board voted to move this fourth-grade lesson on California civil rights movements to the end of the year, to give time to find an “age-appropriate curriculum” that could be substituted in place of “sexualized topics of instruction.”

The lesson in question includes paragraphs noting that LGBTQ+ individuals and groups fought for civil rights, including the right to marry, but has no discussion of sex.

That Temecula teacher-led suit also seeks to overturn the district policy to restrict the teaching of critical race theory, which examines the extent to which racial inequality and racism have been systemically embedded in American institutions.

Critical race theory has been another culture-war flashpoint across the nation. The Temecula list of banned concepts embodies common conservative assertions, including that teachers use critical race theory to make white students feel guilty about being white. Many education experts consider this characterization of how teachers have been dealing with the topic of race to be inaccurate and incomplete.

Amanda Mangaser Savage, an attorney with the firm Public Counsel, which is pursuing the litigation against the Temecula school district, said she knows of no other California school system involved in litigation over critical race theory.

The lawyers who filed the case are preparing an appeal of the court’s ruling.

More to come

In a lawsuit involving the Escondido school district in San Diego County, a judge has issued a preliminary ruling allowing two teachers to opt out of a district student privacy policy, giving the teachers the freedom to notify parents about a change in their child’s gender identity. The case is ongoing.

In Chico, a parent lost a suit for damages over the school district not informing her about her child’s gender-identity issues. The ruling is being appealed.

Book restrictions also could be headed toward litigation, especially in light of a new state law limiting bans and censorship, according to advocates on both sides. So far, Chino Valley may be the only California school district to approve a policy that allows parents to flag books that contain “sexually obscene content considered unsuitable for students,” which would trigger the book’s immediate removal until the issue has been decided through a formal public hearing.

Conservatives say their goal is to remove sexually explicit and profane materials from school libraries, especially at the lower grade levels. Opponents portray these efforts as part of a campaign to enforce conservative religious beliefs in schools and to make LGBTQ+ students and their stories invisible within the school community.

One legal strategy used by conservative activists has been to submit public records requests to school systems — to search out policies and practices to which they object.

A Glendale teacher faced a death threat after records obtained this way indicated that she may have shown a gay pride video to students.

Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school system, is the subject of a lawsuit for failing to turn over public records in the time frame required by law.

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They were ready for S.F.’s nightmare permit process. Then a simple mistake made ‘all hell break loose’

When Alan Billingsley and John Podolsky sought to expand an 85-square-foot-room on the second story of their home in San Francisco’s Eureka Valley neighborhood, they thought they knew what they were getting into. 

John Podolsky and Alan Billingsley stand in the area that they have been trying for five years to get approved for a small addition on the second floor of their San Francisco home. Scott Strazzante/The Chronicle

Both longtime San Francisco residents, Billingsley and Podolsky have friends in city government and are involved in local politics. Podolsky works in construction, focusing on tenant improvements in downtown high-rises.

Still, they did not expect that getting approval for their home project would take five years, two permit expediters, an attorney and tens of thousands of dollars — and counting.

Start of nightmare

Their problems, like those of many San Francisco homeowners in the throes of permit nightmares, stemmed from a stream of neighbor complaints that went on for months, as well as a misunderstanding of the city’s complex building code — both examples of how seemingly straightforward projects can get stuck in an endless cycle of delays.

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Based on the couple’s familiarity with the city’s system, Billingsley said that while San Francisco might be bureaucracy-heavy, he thinks it’s likely that most permit applications for small projects are reviewed and approved “in a timely manner with no drama.” 

But “the two exceptions to this are when a neighbor complains and when you make a building code mistake,” he said. “We had both.”

Billingsley and Podolsky embarked on their project in 2018. They wanted to expand a sunroom out onto an existing balcony space on their second floor, turning the balcony into about 100 more square feet of enclosed sunroom space. The work was all on one story and did not require any special exemptions from the city planning code. 

During the planning application process, they had to inform neighbors of the plans with a 311 notice, named for a planning code section. According to Billingsley and Podolsky, two neighbors showed up at the meeting and opposed part of the original plan, in which the roof of the expansion would also function as a rooftop deck. 

Rather than fight the neighbors, Billingsley and Podolsky removed that part of the project, submitting revised plans in September 2019 in which the expansion was covered with a regular roof, not a usable rooftop deck. No one filed an appeal to those plans.

“We were pleasantly surprised,” Billingsley said. “We thought, ‘OK, phew, we’re past that.’ ”

As they moved forward with construction plans and finalizing a building permit, knowing that that would take time, the couple decided that they would do some garden work they had been planning — including reducing the size of an existing wooden backyard deck off the first floor, unrelated to the expansion. 

“That’s when all hell broke loose,” Billingsley said.

Their landscape architect told them that they wouldn’t need a permit or city approval for this work. The couple also had a permit expediter — an outside consultant who helps homeowners navigate San Francisco’s Department of Building Inspection — double-check that that was accurate.

Stream of complaints

Cities and counties across California have complaint-driven code enforcement. Many, like San Francisco, send inspectors to check on alleged violations. Others, like Oakland and Sacramento County, send a letter to the homeowner, giving them a chance to prove that they do not have a violation, before sending someone to the site.

Officials in Oakland, with a population about half the size of San Francisco’s, said they received 6,683 complaints in 2023, compared to San Francisco’s 14,179 — or 55 per business day on average, according to Patrick Hannan, a department spokesperson.

San Francisco DBI records show at least 11 complaints filed between October 2020 and September 2021 related to Billingsley and Podolsky’s property, all claiming, in various ways, that work was being done without a permit or outside of the scope of the permit. The complaints, though they do not name the person who filed them, describe seeing the backyard work from a neighbor’s vantage point. The couple said they confirmed that a neighbor was making them.

Complaints to DBI do not necessarily mean anything is wrong or illegal and, unlike San Francisco’s notorious “discretionary review” process, do not trigger a public hearing. But they do prompt DBI to send an inspector to the site every time a complaint is made.

For Billingsley and Podolsky, the complaints meant a rotating roster of inspectors was dispatched to the house on different days to check if there actually were any violations.

In response to the first complaint, made in October 2020, inspectors determined that, despite what Billingsley and Podolsky’s consultant said, a permit actually was needed for the garden and ground-level deck work, as it included rebuilding two stairs that were more than 36 inches above grade. They issued a correction notice, and Billingsley said the inspector said the issue was minor.

“Mea culpa, ignorance of the law,” Billingsley said. “We were wrong.”

Another problem was that the first floor deck extended into the minimum rear yard space required by the city. Billingsley and Podolsky, who bought the house in 2008, said that the deck had been expanded by the previous owners around 2000, likely without a permit. But one of the inspectors who had visited the property due to the complaints noticed that the expansion was not compliant with city codes, and it was the couple’s responsibility to fix it.

“Regardless of when the illegal construction occurred, a property owner is responsible for obtaining a permit and ensuring their building is safe and code compliant,” Hannan of DBI told the Chronicle. 

To resolve the issue, the couple needed to file a revision permit to their original project application for the addition, which showed in the drawings that the first floor deck existed prior to their addition project, but was not shown in drawings on the original permit application.

Another complaint, lodged in November 2020, said that Billingsley and Podolsky seemed to be “expanding the envelope of their structure.” While that was not the case, records indicate that DBI spoke with the homeowner and directed a stop work notice for first floor deck work until a permit was issued. 

The inspector decided that “given the controversy, we should apply for a full permit for the deck and stair modifications,” Billingsley said. They asked their architect to prepare the plans and applied for the permit the same month, records show. It was approved soon after.

After another complaint about construction in November, an inspector visited and said no work was being done on the deck, and that “surface work” on their ground patio was OK to proceed. 

At the beginning of December, another complaint was filed, this time alleging that a “common wall with neighbor’s building has been removed and a new structure is being built.” An inspector visited and found that a vegetation trellis panel — which it noted was not part of the wall — had been removed with the consent of the affected neighbor, and that there was no new structure.

In December 2020, Billingsley and Podolsky applied for the revision permit that would show that their first-floor deck existed prior to their addition project application, records show.

“This turned into a very lengthy process as DBI kept having comments and then required structural drawings and analysis,” Billingsley said. “Our architect, engineer and consultants thought this way over the top, but we proceeded.” 

Records show that permit going back and forth between the planning department, the building inspection department and the applicants until it was finally approved and issued in November 2022.

In the meantime, Billingsley said, the couple told their gardening contractor to continue to work on the garden, just not touching the deck — work that by city rules was all OK to do without a permit. Plumbers and electricians were also on site, with approved permits, he added. But the couple did ask an inspector if they could still repair the top two deck stairs, as they were dangerous, he said.

The inspector “agreed, but not in writing,” Billingsley said. “Big mistake.”

In February 2021, another complaint about work without a permit was called in. An inspector went out and determined that the permit for which Billingsley and Podolsky had filed the previous November would address the issue.

A few months passed before yet another complaint was filed, in August 2021. An inspector went out and determined that no work was being done without a permit and that work being done on the patio slab did not need a permit. The inspector closed the case.

With the work generating so many complaints, Billingsley said the couple discontinued the garden project for two years. With no work going on, they went to Europe.

Deck problem resolved

At the beginning of September 2021, the neighbors filed another complaint about work without a permit. An inspector visited and found no one home. (That complaint was still open as of March 28, 2024. When asked about it by the Chronicle, Hannan said that this complaint was “inadvertently” left open. It was closed the following day, March 29.)

A week later, another complaint was filed. This time, the inspector said that metal guardrails had been installed and that the stairs were finished on the first-floor deck, without a permit, and issued a notice of violation. Billingsley said the stairs were the work that a different inspector had told them verbally they could proceed with, even without the permit, for safety reasons. 

Throughout the month, inspectors visited, finding no one home, as the couple was traveling — even though, according to Billingsley, no construction was happening during that time.

At the end of September, records show an inspector met with the homeowner and architect and determined that all work requiring a permit had stopped and the couple were in the process of getting a permit for the deck. The case got referred to city Code Enforcement, prompting further review. The permit for the deck was put on hold to wait for a hearing with the zoning administrator.

The same month, in September 2021, a zoning administrator, who works with the Planning Department, determined that their deck was legal but noncompliant with current codes. A month later, at the end of October 2021, an enforcement planner and the inspector who had already visited the property several times determined that the noncompliant portion of the deck had not been reconstructed or replaced.

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Why California is the state conservatives love to hate

For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, residents of the rest of the country often saw California as the place their wacky or adventurous or beautiful cousin went to seek gold, celebrity, sunny beaches, sexual freedom, and maybe a new identity, away from the family and the baggage in St. Paul, Philadelphia or Levittown.

Its current status as a punching bag for the right in a national culture war has taken decades to achieve.

For conservatives, the state’s glamorous image became tarnished in the 1960s and 1970s. They blasted Berkeley for its protesters and San Francisco for its hippies and gay life. Eastern elites mocked Los Angeles — at least the parts they saw in the movies — for its shallowness.

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Former Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown earned a nickname in his first stint that surprised those who knew him but embodied a sense that the place was sort of kooky: Gov. Moonbeam.

The jabs were sometimes playful, sometimes acid, often overstated. But even if conservatives thought the Bay Area was too far-out, they still had Orange County’s megachurches, John Wayne’s westerns and Ronald Reagan.

That mix shifted dramatically in 1992.

The state’s voters chose a Democrat in a presidential election, Bill Clinton, for the first time since 1964, starting a blue streak that has yet to be reversed. Voters sent Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein to the Senate, a pair of San Francisco Democrats headlining “the year of the woman” in politics.

California’s rapid growth yielded an unprecedented 52 members in the House, giving the state huge power in Congress. Much of that growth was powered by Latinos, who then made up about a quarter of the population and would soon become the state’s largest ethnicity.

That same year, Pat Buchanan delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention that launched a cultural and religious war for “the soul of America,” citing California as a final, dystopian example of what could go wrong. Buchanan described a state where a judge condemned the town of Hayfork to “a sentence of death” to protect the spotted owl while a “mob” burned, ransacked and looted Los Angeles during that spring’s riots, terrifying old men and women, whose only hope was the National Guard.

More than 30 years later, even Buchanan’s broadside looks tame. The former insurgent presidential candidate was harsh but portrayed at least some Californians as victims and heroes. All were still Americans.

Today, by contrast, nearly half of Republicans nationwide, 48%, said California is “not really American” in a Leger poll conducted for the Los Angeles Times and released in February.

“Now, I think it’s part of the politicization of this country,” former Gov. Gray Davis said in an interview. “So if you’re a conservative, you’re not permitted to like California.”


The seeds of that division were planted in the mid-20th century when the state became a focal point for young people who challenged the rest of the country’s values.

“Some of it, from a conservative standpoint, was sort of positive: surf’s up, the Beach Boys and Reagan,” Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker, said in an interview.

“And then of course, there was Berkeley,” he said, as if spitting a curse word.

Unrest over Vietnam and civil rights, free love and gay liberation erupted around the Bay Area, fueled in part by Easterners who came seeking a break from society. San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury became a destination that accepted all of it, including open drug use. Hollywood made antiwar movies and Marlon Brando turned his 1973 Oscar into a protest over Native American rights.

It seemed like another universe to Midwesterners such as Mike Royko, the late Chicago Tribune columnist who gave the nickname “Gov. Moonbeam” to Brown, then dating the singer Linda Ronstadt during his first stint as governor from 1975 through 1983.

“It was really a judgment about California as a place that was like counterculture, hot tub, granola, weed,” said Jim Newton, a former L.A. Times reporter and editor who wrote a biography of Brown and is now working on one about Jerry Garcia.

The reasons behind the evolution from “Moonbeam” to “not really American” are debatable, but the decline of the state’s image on the right can be traced to several factors:

California’s oceans, sunshine, awe-inspiring national parks and world-ranked economy that includes Silicon Valley and Hollywood make it easy to resent in a time of grievance politics.

The state’s large disparity in incomes coupled with the country’s biggest homeless crisis give critics ample images of desperate people camping on the streets.

Its embrace of immigrants and changing ideas about gender and sexuality played on core fears on the right of a changing country.

Union power and progressive policies on the environment are at odds with the Trump-era policy agenda.

Statewide elections are increasingly out of reach for Republicans, reducing the downside of amped-up rhetoric.

In 1984, the Democratic Party’s decision to hold its national convention in San Francisco became contentious as the AIDS epidemic ramped up fear and prejudice against the city’s large gay population. Gingrich recalled being interviewed, while standing in Union Square, about the contrast with the Republican convention in Dallas, a Bible Belt city, when “a 6’2” transvestite hands me an invitation to an exorcism of Jerry Falwell,” an influential conservative evangelical leader.

To Gingrich, it was a self-evident troll of a city that he believed had become too accepting of alternative lifestyles and a party that would alienate the rest of the country.

Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who chaired the host committee, heard anxiety from fellow Democrats too, but held firm, assuring critics that no one could contract HIV/AIDS simply by visiting the city, and making the broader argument that the Bay Area’s inclusiveness was a point of pride.

“And yes, we will have our exuberance … the people speaking on the street, but we are a Democratic city,” she recalled. “We just have to make sure that we don’t get hijacked by Republicans, upsetting our events, as well as anarchists.”


The state was not wholly dismissed by conservatives, even if some of its cities were taking hits. Reagan, the Republican former governor, won California easily in both of his presidential elections and wrote in the final passage of his presidential diary how eager he was to return for “the start of our new life” in Bel-Air as he left the White House in 1989.

Reagan “loved, loved, loved California,” said Craig Shirley, author of four Reagan biographies. He “loved the ranch … loved Hollywood and all that.”

Two conservative Republicans, George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, won governors’ races in the 1980s and 1990s. Wilson campaigned against the state’s taxes and regulations and didn’t mind if word spread beyond California’s borders.

“Tragically, it wasn’t Reagan’s California” by then, Wilson said in an interview. “It was not safe … and from a purely business standpoint, it was the last place because it cost so damn much.”

Wilson recalled a 1994 road trip he made with Democratic leaders to attract executives from Dallas, Minneapolis and Chicago.

One industrialist in Chicago thanked Wilson for breakfast and then laid into the business climate, Wilson said. “I wouldn’t come to California if you begged me,” Wilson recounted the man telling him.

Wilson was delighted by the negative reviews, which he used to validate his political case against Democrats.

“It’s what I expected and hoped to hear,” he said.

Wilson’s support in 1994 for Proposition 187, a ballot measure that denied many public services to immigrants living in the country illegally, foreshadowed the national debates over immigration that still rage. It also created a backlash that gave Democrats a near impenetrable advantage in statewide elections and still rankles Wilson, 90.

“Every effort was made to make it play that role by the Democratic Party. And I will tell you that racism is a very ugly charge,” Wilson said. “If it’s warranted, that’s one thing. If it isn’t, that is just inexcusable.”

That same ballot measure prompted Sen. Alex Padilla, a Los Angeles Democrat, to give up his career as an engineer, fresh out of MIT, to enter politics. In an interview, he called Proposition 187 “a wake-up” call for thousands of immigrants, including his parents, legal residents who became citizens and gained the right to vote.

Padilla began registering voters in 1996. “They’re asking the question, ‘Should I register as a Democrat or Republican?’ ” he recalled. “And you can talk about the platform, but the way it was really easy to describe was, ‘Well, Pete Wilson’s a Republican; Bill Clinton is a Democrat.”

The resulting influx of Latino Democrats moved the electorate and the people they elected in a leftward direction.

The growing population and influence of Latino voters also influenced outside opinions, in Padilla’s opinion.

“Above the surface it’s pointing to California’s policy leadership,” he said of the anti-California critiques from the right. “But I do think subliminally it is pointing to diversity.”

Views of the state continued to diverge, but its population and economic clout grew, posing a bipartisan problem in Washington.

“Everybody thought we were the golden place,” said Boxer, who served in the House and Senate from 1983 to 2017. “They didn’t want to step up when we had problems.”

The motto of the other 49 states became known as ABC: Anywhere But California. That dismissal of the state may have hit its nadir in 1986 when a $50-million federal center for earthquake research was given to Buffalo, N.Y., which hadn’t had an earthquake since 1929, instead of Berkeley, along the Hayward fault.

“We used to say to all our colleagues, ‘You come here to raise money, whether you’re Republicans or Democrats,’ ” Boxer recalled. “ ‘You come here, you raise money and you bash us.’ ”

In more recent decades, however, the fight has shifted from disputes over state taxes and federal spending to the culture war.

The change began in the 2000s, as the GOP increasingly reflected the values of its large conservative, evangelical Christian faction, then accelerated during the Trump years as California repeatedly challenged conservative federal policies in court. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican who led the state from 2003 through 2011, offered only a mild reprieve.

Newsom, after becoming governor in 2019, embraced the fight, placing provocative ads in red states as he promoted laws granting sanctuary for women obtaining abortions and transgender youths seeking gender-affirming care. California granted Medicaid access to people who came to the country illegally while setting an even more aggressive environmental agenda.

“We’re the opposite of MAGA,” Boxer said.

The state also became increasingly hard to afford, creating a wider gap between the new class of Silicon Valley tech barons and the huge, largely Black and Latino working class.

Newton, the Brown biographer, argued that the difference between the early caricatures of the state and the new harder-edged critiques can be traced to Brown’s second stint as governor — from 2011 through 2019 — when he answered critics who said California could not be governed. His ability to tame the budget while creating left-leaning policies on immigration and the environment posed a serious threat to the ideology of the Trump era, he said: If California was successful, that meant the Make America Great Again rhetoric was wrong.

For the MAGA movement, today’s California is a diorama of a failed state, an obvious foil that can be deployed on campaign fliers in Minnesota and Georgia featuring Pelosi’s scowling face, Vice President Kamala Harris’ laugh or Newsom’s grin. One Fox host declared voters’ choices so reprehensible that he “stopped caring about Californians.”

“Consider the source,” Pelosi said. “They don’t believe in science. They don’t believe in governance. They don’t believe in a woman’s right to choose. They don’t believe in LGBTQ rights.”

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, in a last-ditch attempt to wrestle the 2024 presidential nomination from former President Trump, tried to recharge his campaign with descriptions of drug-addled homeless people defecating on San Francisco’s streets, before agreeing to a televised showdown with Newsom in which he declared the state “failed because of his leftist ideology.”

“Even though California was always considered a high-tax and high cost-of-living state, it was still the place to be,” said Frank Luntz, a pollster who helped Republicans craft language for several decades with polls and focus groups, and then used some of his earnings for a home in Los Angeles. “With the explosion of homelessness and crime and the deterioration of the quality of life, it has now become a symbol of what’s wrong with the left.”

The reputation has become so toxic on the right that even candidates in the state are running against California. Rep. Mike Garcia, a Santa Clarita Republican, recently blasted a campaign email with an article he wrote for Fox News titled, “How to prevent the Californication of America,” in which he argued that the rest of the country could “learn from California’s mistakes” in going soft on crime.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

What Texas can teach California about curbing homelessness

L.A. and San Francisco continue to struggle while big cities elsewhere make progress. But there’s hope.

Rent is surging nationwide. Homelessness rates rose an astonishing 15% on average in major cities last year. It seems like the rest of the United States is waking up to what California has been living for decades.

But underneath these headlines emerges a more hopeful story as some metropolitan areas make significant progress to render homelessness rare and brief. Raleigh, N.C., led major U.S. cities in reducing homelessness by 40% between 2022 and 2023. Texas cities also stand out: Last year, the Houston metropolitan area achieved the lowest rate of homelessness of any major U.S. city, with just 52 people per 100,000 residents experiencing homelessness (compared to 734 people per 100,000 in Los Angeles). Even Austin, which has a higher homelessness rate than other cities in the state, reduced homelessness by 25% in one year.

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Meanwhile, five of the top 10 major cities with the highest rates of homelessness nationally are in California: San Francisco, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland and Sacramento, in that order. In 2022, the homelessness rate in San Francisco was nearly 20 times higher than in Houston, and Los Angeles’ was almost 14 times higher. Over the longer term, homelessness in Los Angeles rose 56% between 2015 and 2022, while it declined in Houston by 32%.

So what is making the difference in Texas and elsewhere? Can progress reach big cities in California, the state that is home to 28% of the entire country’s homeless population?

First and foremost, other places are building more housing of all types. The Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin metro areas are all in the top 10 for housing production, while San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose are all in the back half of the pack. These metro areas are also working together on a regional approach to homelessness that differs from California’s largely fragmented response. For example, in Houston, one planning body — called a continuum of care — coordinates federal dollars and homelessness response across the metropolitan area. In California, every county and also some municipalities have separate continua of care.

The Golden State has treated the housing shortage with urgency and adopted reforms to the Regional Housing Needs Allocation planning process to increase housing supply, including affordable housing for qualifying households, dramatically by 2030. Such a plan is necessary. But it will of course take years to complete.

In the meantime, our leaders have a moral, political and economic mandate to reduce the harm that homelessness inflicts on individuals, families and communities. And there are more solutions California cities can adopt today to address homelessness. While some may dismiss temporary interventions such as safe camping, parking and shelter as mere window dressing compared to long-term solutions, the reality is that people experiencing homelessness struggle every day to find somewhere to rest.

First, localities should recognize that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Just 3.6% of Los Angeles County’s 2022-2023 homelessness spending was devoted to prevention such as emergency rental assistance, eviction defense and direct payments. But the recent availability of once-in-a-generation federal aid during the pandemic created a natural experiment that showed the potential of spending more on preventing people from becoming homeless in the first place.

Just to the north in Santa Clara County, for instance, homelessness grew by 31% between 2017 and 2019. Then, during the pandemic, the county reached an estimated 16,000 vulnerable households with prevention assistance, and homelessness grew by only 3% between 2019 and 2022.

California’s biggest metro areas can also improve their approach to the overlap between mental health and homelessness. Texas cities including Houston and Dallas have had success with the Housing First model that focuses on getting people into housing before tackling other issues they face, such as addiction. Bad-faith attacks against this strategy, in California and elsewhere, aren’t backed by real evidence.

We also need better ways to respond to people with behavioral health and substance abuse emergencies that do not automatically expose them to police while also respecting everyone’s right to be safe. Models from Denver and other cities provide a roadmap to do so. One study found that Denver’s use of emergency mental health professionals reduced crime and cost less than a traditional police response.

Los Angeles has already begun implementing an alternative crisis response model, but staffing challenges have hampered its effectiveness, indicating a need for workforce development. Those efforts can complement the county’s Office of Diversion and Reentry Housing program, which has had success disrupting the cycle of incarceration and homelessness (about a quarter of the county jail population is homeless).

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Residents of quiet S.F. neighborhood say they’re ‘traumatized’ by break-ins and rising crime

After a lifetime in San Francisco’s Richmond District, Sam Hom is considering moving out of the neighborhood due to a series of unnerving events last year. 

His surveillance camera caught someone trying to pick the lock of his home. Down the street, police shot a man who had stabbed his own mother and her dog. And finally, someone attacked the 66-year-old’s car while he and his wife were driving to the post office on Geary Boulevard. 

“My wife doesn’t feel safe going out without me these days,” said Hom, a captain with his neighborhood watch program. 

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The couple are far from alone in worrying that the city’s west side is changing for the worse. Over the past few years, residents of the Richmond District — a residential area bordered by Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach and the wooded groves of the Presidio — have hardened their homes and garages against potential intruders by installing surveillance cameras and using chicken wire and safety locks. They’ve also flooded community meetings on public safety and posted on social media about crime. A recent jump in burglaries, robberies and homicides and a spate of headline-grabbing incidents have put some residents and businesses even more on edge.

Crime will probably be a major issue in November’s supervisor race for District 1, which includes the Richmond District. 

San Francisco Police Department data largely supports residents’ sense that crime is escalating in the Richmond, though the neighborhood remains one of the city’s safest and reported violent crime is down in the neighborhood so far this year compared with the same period in 2023. The number of reported robberies in the Richmond police district rose 52% last year to 132 from 87 in 2022 — the most recorded in at least six years. The Richmond also saw four homicides in 2023, a noticeable spike given that police statistics show no more than one killing annually in the district since 2017.

Burglaries reported in the neighborhood in 2023 increased about 8% over the previous year to 480 from 443, even as tallies continued to come down from record highs recorded during the earliest months of the pandemic. 

Not all crimes rose, though. The number of reported assaults in the neighborhood fell from 84 in 2022 to 62 in 2023, a 26% drop, while motor vehicle thefts and larceny thefts stayed constant. 

As crime increased in several categories, Richmond residents, merchants and Supervisor Connie Chan insisted that their neighborhood lacked adequate police patrols and that city leaders have prioritized downtown at the expense of outlying areas.

Concerns intensified in June, when police shot and killed a man who had stabbed his mother and her dog after a family dispute — one of the incidents that worried Hom. Then in August, more than 200 dirt bikers swarmed the Richmond, popping wheelies and careening down sidewalks.

A few days after the dirt bike invasion, an assailant beat a beloved shopkeeper to death during a robbery, jolting the neighborhood. Dozens of people gathered to memorialize him and call on city leaders to boost staffing at the area police station.

The Richmond remained in the spotlight in October, when a convicted sex offender who had camped out near a neighborhood elementary school was arrested after trolling residents for months with signs advertising free fentanyl. And in December, a man hallucinating on psychedelic mushrooms fired gunshots at his neighbor’s home while threatening to kill his landlord. 

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

Why this S.F. burrito costs $22: ‘I hope every damn Mexican restaurant raises their prices’

Ricardo Lopez was long reluctant to raise the prices at his Mission District restaurant La Vaca Birria, where he serves succulent beef braised in a red broth packed into burritos and tacos. But as of late, he simply has no other choice to remain afloat. 

“I wish there was something else that I could do,” he said. 

Just like seemingly every other restaurant in the Bay Area, prices have been increasing at La Vaca Birria, and customers aren’t always accepting of the change. So in a recent Instagram post, Lopez addressed a customer complaint about high prices and broke down the reasons his popular grilled cheese birria burrito has gone from $11 a couple of years ago to its current price of $22.

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Simply put, the cost of ingredients and labor has gone up. The trend isn’t new: In the past few years, increasing costs have pushed the price of popular foods from pizza to fried chicken sandwiches ever higher, and burritos aren’t the exception.

Key ingredients for Lopez’s beef birria, like USDA Choice grade chuck, have gone up. When he began the business as a food truck about three years ago, it was $4 per pound; two years ago it was $4.50, and now it’s $6. Because the restaurant uses about 2,500 pounds of beef per month, the $2 increase costs $5,000 per month. Other ingredients he uses like onions have jumped in price from around $11 to $80 for a 50-pound sack. Soybean oil has climbed from $20 to $50 per container. Even mesquite charcoal, a key component for his smoky grilled meats, is more expensive.

“Nothing that I can think of has returned to pre-COVID pricing,” Lopez said. 

Labor has consistently been the restaurant’s largest expense. The S.F. minimum wage ordinance has pushed the rate up to $18.07 per hour. Lopez said some of his longtime staffers make above minimum wage, and he tries to keep raises generous. Items at La Vaca Birria are fairly labor intensive, Lopez said: staff cook the birria in the oven a day before it’s served, chill it overnight to remove fat from the broth, then braise it until it’s rich and tender.

The work has paid off. Chronicle associate restaurant critic Cesar Hernandez rated La Vaca Birria’s burrito the Mission’s best, over several long time favorites, praising the “punchy adobo that brought intense spice to anything it touched.”

The customer complaint Lopez responded to appeared to blame this press coverage for the change in price. “Two years ago it was $11…. Today it is $22,” a customer wrote on Google. “The Chronicle wrote an article about the burrito in November. Coincidence?”

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

San Francisco Macy’s to close in devastating blow to downtown

Macy’s will close its massive flagship store in Union Square, San Francisco officials said Tuesday, a major setback to the city’s premier shopping district and its larger downtown recovery efforts during an election year.

The store will remain open until the company finds a buyer for the property, Mayor London Breed said in a statement Tuesday morning. The Chronicle has learned that the store will remain open until at least 2025. 

“The process to undergo the sale of their building to a new owner with their own vision for this site will take time, and Macy’s will stay open for the foreseeable future and people will remain employed at the store,” Breed said. “Macy’s has expressed to me their commitment to remaining a part of Union Square and our City while they undergo this transition. The City will continue to work closely with Macy’s and any potential new owner to ensure this iconic location continues to serve San Francisco for decades to come.”

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Representatives of Macy’s would not confirm the news Tuesday morning. But the Chronicle has learned that the Macy’s at Northgate Mall in San Rafael will also close.

Concerns about the future of the store were rampant early Tuesday morning after Macy’s Inc. announced during an earnings call that it plans to shutter 150 “underproductive” stores across the country through 2026, including 50 by the end of the year. The move came in response to dropping sales and consumer demand shifting online. The company’s investor relations team declined to release the list of stores being closed.

The San Francisco Business Times was first to confirm the Union Square store’s closure.

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

S.F. mayor backs measure to stiffen retail theft penalties

SAN FRANCISCO — Democratic Mayors London Breed of San Francisco and Matt Mahan of San Jose have endorsed a tough-on-crime ballot measure to reform Proposition 47, a controversial initiative that reduced some drug and theft felonies to misdemeanors.

The measure — called the Homelessness, Drug Addiction, Retail Theft Reduction Act — would change the 2014 law by increasing penalties for fentanyl dealers and repeat organized retail theft rings, as well as providing mandatory treatment for drug users.

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“In San Francisco, we are making progress on property crimes, but the challenges we are facing related to fentanyl and organized retail theft require real change to our state laws,” Breed said. “I fully support this measure and know it will make a meaningful difference for cities across California.”

These endorsements come in the weeks after Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters during his January budget presentation that altering Proposition 47 would not curtail the wave of high-profile retail thefts in the state. The Newsom administration instead has proposed six ways lawmakers can expand criminal penalties for organized theft without bringing the issue back to voters. Newsom agreed that tougher enforcement is needed and has called for more arrests in these cases.

Newsom also recently assigned 120 California Highway Patrol officers to combat crime in Oakland.

Proposition 47, supported by Newsom and approved by voters, reclassified some felony drug and theft offenses as misdemeanors and raised from $400 to $950 the amount for which theft can be prosecuted as a felony. Newsom often points out that some of the nation’s most conservative states, including Texas, have a higher threshold for felony charges.

Breed’s announcement comes as she runs for reelection and faces low approval ratings.

In 2022, San Francisco had the highest rate of property theft among all California cities, according to data from the Public Policy Institute of California, a leading nonpartisan group that researches crime trends and policies. Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Mateo also experienced an increase. However, according to the mayor’s office, property crimes in the city were lower than any period in the last 10 years, except for 2020. This year, in the first three weeks of January, property crime is reportedly down 41%.

Mahan told The Times in a phone interview that he was less aware of the governor’s plans and instead was more focused on the results of this bipartisan effort.

“The Legislature will be limited as far as what they can do without the voters,” Mahan said.

He cautioned that if Proposition 47 isn’t reformed now, there might be future support to repeal it altogether, which he said “would be a mistake.” Mahan said he witnessed firsthand a smash-and-grab theft at a grocery store.

“That feeling of no accountability is harmful to our society,” he said.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Have two S.F. judges released dangerous criminals? Case records tell a more complex story

A group called Stop Crime Action says San Francisco Superior Court Judges Michael Begert and Patrick Thompson are soft on crime. The group says both judges have freed dangerous defendants while they were awaiting trial — but records of their cases appear to tell a somewhat different story.

Santiago Mejia/The Chronicle

The judges’ records are under scrutiny because both face election challenges in March. Most Superior Court judges are automatically elected to new six-year terms because they have no challengers, which was the case with Begert in 2018. 

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But while San Francisco’s rate of violent crime has been steadily declining, property crime rates, drug use and public fears are high, and their potency as a political issue was displayed in the 2022 recall of left-leaning District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

Stop Crime Action, founded by anti-crime activist Frank Noto with financial assistance from billionaire William Oberndorf, was active in Boudin’s recall and now is looking to change the composition of San Francisco’s courts. 

An affiliated group, Stop Crime SF, also led by Noto, recruited volunteers to watch judges’ handling of criminal cases. The group then issued “report cards” giving F grades to Begert and Thompson, quoting unnamed observers who called them arrogant, inept and biased. In the election campaign, Stop Crime Action is focusing on specific cases.

In one case, the group says, Begert, while presiding over San Francisco’s Drug Treatment Court, “repeatedly released a convicted sex offender,” Andrew Boddy, who was then accused of five additional crimes, after which Begert freed the defendant again.

Court records of the defendant provide a different picture. Begert described Boddy as “a highly traumatized, homeless, transgender woman with substance abuse and mental health challenges.” Boddy’s public defender said she uses feminine pronouns and the name Anna Boddy. Stop Crime Action identified Boddy by the male name listed in the court docket.

It’s true that Begert has released Boddy, but the judge says prosecutors never objected.

“Every time she returned to my court, it was with the agreement of the District Attorney’s Office,” Begert told the Chronicle.

As court records reflect, Boddy pleaded guilty to a burglary charge in January 2023 and, under a plea agreement with prosecutors, was returned to Drug Court for a medical referral. Begert said Boddy had some success in treatment but remained homeless and was “repeatedly assaulted on the streets.” When she was charged with another crime in May, he returned her case to criminal court.

Nevertheless, said Noto, Boddy had a record of sex crimes and violence before being initially released by Begert. “That is still 100% on Judge Begert regardless of what excuses he tries to make,” Noto said.

In another case, Stop Crime Action said Begert had referred a burglary defendant, Sebastian Mendez, to a treatment program, and released him from custody, even though he had dropped out of the program months earlier after a referral by another judge.

That is untrue, Begert said. He said he returned Mendez to criminal court after the defendant refused the recommended treatment, and that he remains in custody. Records kept by the sheriff’s office confirm that Mendez is in jail.

Such disputes are plentiful in the campaigns against Begert and Thompson, who is also being challenged for a new six-year term. 

In Thompson’s case, Noto’s organization has also accused the judge of returning dangerous defendants to the streets

In one case, Stop Crime Action said, the judge freed an accused and previously convicted drug dealer, Erik Ramos Diaz, without bail last year while awaiting trial, and Diaz fled after disconnecting his monitoring device. But Thompson said the District Attorney’s Office did not oppose the release, and he has issued a warrant for Diaz’s arrest. 

The judge provided a transcript of a hearing in his court last June in which he proposed to release Diaz and asked Deputy District Attorney Yuri Chornobil if he objected.

“Your Honor, no new charges have been filed,” Chornobil replied. “And given that, the People would be — would consent to release with the prior release conditions that Your Honor imposed.”

Similarly, Noto’s organization cited Thompson’s decision to release Darbin Hernon without bail after he was charged with drug crimes. Hernon failed to appear for a hearing two weeks later.

That’s true, Thompson said, but it fails to mention that Hernon’s prosecutors told him “on multiple occasions that they did not object to release” on any of the charges the judge had required him to face.

Thompson cited an email he received last July from Hernon’s public defender, Stephen Olmo, who said he had spoken to the prosecutor about releasing Hernon without bail. Olmo said the prosecutor told him he “will agree (because) Mr. Hernon has a U.S. Marshal’s hold on him — that means prosecution” by the federal government.

Noto also cited Thompson’s decision last July to release Joshua Vicente Lopez without bail after he was charged with drug dealing. Two months later, Noto said, police arrested Lopez again, allegedly with fentanyl and other drugs.

Thompson said the prosecutor, after asking to hold Lopez without bail, sought to delay his  hearing beyond the legal deadline. “Under state law, my only options were to dismiss the case or release the defendant,” the judge said. “The district attorney did not object to release. After he failed to appear, I issued a bench warrant for his arrest.”

Those were cases cited in the Stop Crime SF “report card” and in the campaign by Noto’s group against the two judges.

While Stop Crime Action is accusing both judges of coddling criminals, their election opponents have said little about the incumbents’ records.

“Let’s send a message to our court: We need our streets safe,” Begert’s challenger, Albert “Chip” Zecher, a business law attorney, said at a candidates’ debate in December. He did not criticize Begert or mention any of his cases.

Likewise, Deputy District Attorney Jean Myungjin Roland, Thompson’s opponent, did not refer to the judge’s record, but told the debate audience that “you can vote to keep the status quo, or you can vote for change for public safety.”

The Bar Association of San Francisco sought to question the two challengers about their qualifications and character. The association announced Jan. 29 that it had rated both Begert and Thompson, who had answered those questions, as “well-qualified” but could not evaluate Zecher or Roland because they had not responded. The Chronicle asked their campaigns about their lack of response but got no replies.

In short, the challengers are running quiet campaigns that promote their own credentials, while Stop Crime Action attacks the incumbents.

Begert, a former business lawyer and chairman of the Asian American Justice Center, was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010. He does not handle criminal cases but runs San Francisco’s Drug Court, other treatment-referral courts and the CARE Court — Community Assistance, Recovery and Empowerment — established by Gov. Gavin Newsom and state lawmakers in an effort to remove mentally ill people from the streets and place them in treatment.

Thompson was appointed by Newsom in 2022 after 30 years of law practice with private firms and is a former chairman of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which seeks to “dismantle systems of oppression and racism.” He conducts preliminary hearings, which determine whether a criminal defendant will go to trial or should be released.

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

California made it legal for DACA immigrants to work as police. Which departments are hiring them?

Dressed in a pristine dark blue uniform, Ernesto Moron raised his right hand and swore to defend the constitution of a state he wasn’t born in but that he has called home for more than two decades. 

Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters

That December afternoon, the 26-year-old Mexican-born man became the first officer hired by the UC Davis Police Department under a 1-year-old California law that repealed the U.S. citizenship requirement to become a peace officer in the state.

“I was always told to be afraid of police officers because I would get deported,” Moron recently told CalMatters. “Now I want to help this community and help other people that are in my same shoes.” 

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Before  the law took effect, California, like most states, had required its peace officers to be U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents who have applied for citizenship. 

The state law, SB 960, makes applicants with federal work authorization eligible to become officers. Supporters said the new law would make an effective recruiting tool at a time of persistent patrol officer shortages and declining staff levels. They said if immigrants were encouraged to apply, law enforcement agencies could gain more diverse, multilingual officers. 

Sen. Nancy Skinner, the Democrat from Oakland who sponsored the law, called the citizenship rule archaic in a statement and said the new law could “improve the current relationship between law enforcement and communities of color by increasing the visibility and representation of people from the neighborhood.” 

But an informal CalMatters poll of the largest local and state police departments in California suggests many have been slow to hire the newly eligible immigrants. Moron is one of about a dozen California law officers who got jobs through the law, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2023. 

“Our police officers are facing a workforce shortage, as other professions are,” Skinner said. “We need to have people that want to serve in these public safety roles. So we want to eliminate any unreasonable barriers for people from being able to serve.”

DACA and the struggle to hire

California cities are struggling to hire enough officers, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Public Policy Institute of California this month reported the number of patrol officers per 100,000 people is at its lowest point since at least 1991. Though the steepest declines occurred during the Great Recession from 2007 and 2009, staffing levels still have not recovered. 

In 2022 alone, the state commission that certifies newly trained officers issued 2,424 basic certifications, down 53% from 2020 when it awarded 4,530 certifications. 

UC Davis Police Chief Joe Farrow swore Moron in as a law enforcement officer, after months of advocating for him and others like him.

Farrow, before joining the university police in 2017, had served as commissioner of the California Highway Patrol for 10 years. Soon after starting at UC Davis, he spoke with students there about potential careers in law enforcement and realized many couldn’t be hired as officers because they were undocumented immigrants. 

Most were beneficiaries of a federal program known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which since 2012 has protected from deportation more than half a million undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. 

Farrow saw in Moron a hope for a future where police agencies recruit new officers from among immigrant communities, he said. 

“They are part of our community,” Farrow said. “They go to school here, they learn here, they teach here, so having undocumented police officers was the next step into completing the idea of representing our community.”

Eliminating barriers

Like Moron, Farrow was born overseas. The former commissioner of the largest state police agency in the country spent his first decade of life in Japan, before settling with his family in Pacific Grove, a coastal city in Monterey County. 

Years later, in 2020, Farrow met Moron at UC Davis, where Moron was working as a security manager. 

About half of UC Davis’ 48 sworn officers are former UC students, Farrow said, but it’s not uncommon for other employees to later be sworn in as officers, especially in small police forces. 

As a DACA recipient, Moron is legally authorized to work in the U.S. However he was ineligible to become a police officer in California.

“Ernesto has lived here over 20 years, so the question was: why would we prevent him from doing what he wants to do?” Farrow said. 

Though the Golden State is home to the country’s largest immigrant population, for years it barred them from many careers because professional licenses required Social Security numbers. 

Then new laws took effect in 2014 allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain professional licenses. Today they can be lawyers, doctors, nurses and other licensed professionals.

It took nearly a decade longer for California to join states like Colorado and Illinois, which allow DACA beneficiaries to put on a badge. 

“I found it highly ironic that you can be a U.S. military police officer without being a U.S. citizen. So you can serve in our armed forces and, in effect, be the law enforcement for our armed forces,” Skinner said. “And yet, California had a rule that you could not be a police officer.”

Early opposition

Though most state legislators ultimately approved the bill, there was early opposition. At an Assembly Public Safety hearing in June 2022, Skinner introduced Farrow and Moron to testify for the bill

“During my senior year I attended the UC Davis Police Academy and I distinguished myself in several disciplines,” Moron said as he sat next to Farrow. “Typically top candidates from the academy are evaluated for sworn police positions, and I believe UC Davis (police department) had every intention to hire me, but current law prohibits it. 

“I passed the same police background check that sworn officers must pass to get the position I am today. This bill will allow me and countless others the opportunity to fulfill my dream of serving the communities where I was raised.” 

Skinner stressed at the hearing that the bill would not allow undocumented immigrants who lack work authorization to be hired as peace officers. 

Nevertheless several lawmakers opposed the bill, including Assemblymember Tom Lackey, a Republican from Palmdale and a former California Highway Patrol background investigator.

“California law enforcement agencies have limited capabilities to determine the criminal background of foreign nationals, which the federal government does prior to granting citizenship that enables service as a peace officer in most agencies,” Lackey told CalMatters in a statement. 

“Additionally, someone who is not legally in the U.S. cannot legally possess a firearm, which is an essential tool for officers,” he said.

A firearms holdup?

The Sacramento Police Department, which had more than 60 sworn officer positions to fill as of December 2023, said it hasn’t hired anyone under the new law, in part because of firearm safety concerns. 

“There have been background issues and additional legal hoops that prevented them from being hired as peace officers. For example, there is a requirement to be a citizen to possess a firearm,” the Sacramento Police Department said in a statement.

But other law enforcement agencies disagree, saying DACA candidates are legally allowed to carry weapons for their job.

The Los Angeles Police Department recently announced a policy memorializing the right of DACA recipients to be employed as officers. It has hired 10 DACA recipients as officers in a force of 8,960 sworn officers. The department was funded for 9,300 positions, officials said.

“Los Angeles Police Department officers who are in the U.S. pursuant to DACA have the authority to possess a firearm for use in the performance of their official duties or other law enforcement purposes,” said Lizabeth Rhodes, senior legal and policy advisor to the chief of police, during a December Los Angeles Police Commission meeting

Rhodes added that while the federal Gun Control Act of 1968 established that “illegal aliens” were forbidden to possess firearms, the law contained exceptions, including cases where the firearm or ammunition is issued by a state or department. 

Capt. Robin Petillo, in LAPD’s recruitment and employment division, confirmed that the newly minted officers who are DACA recipients will possess department-issued firearms on and off duty. 

Safety concern

One of law enforcement’s main lobbying entities has cast doubt on the new law’s prospects. 

“While some departments have adjusted their policies to allow DACA recipients to possess their department-issued firearms while off duty, this is not the case with most departments and therefore poses a serious safety issue for noncitizen officers,” said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, representing organizations involving 80,000 public safety workers. 

Some of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies — San Francisco, Oakland, Bakersfield, Stockton, Riverside and Long Beach — said they have hired no officers under the new law, despite having dozens of unfilled positions. 

Riverside Police is “in the process of developing a policy addressing some of the concerns” raised in opposition to SB 960, said Officer Ryan Railsback. As of Jan. 4, the department had more than 60 sworn officer positions to fill. 

San Jose and San Diego police departments did not respond to CalMatters’ questions about DACA recipients, and the San Francisco police department, which officially endorsed SB 960 shortly after it went into effect, recently did not provide numbers of sworn officers and officer positions. 

The California Highway Patrol said it has not hired DACA recipients. As of Dec. 24, the state agency had 5,444 sworn officers and was authorized for 6,406 positions.

Competency and character

Farrow, at UC Davis, said he was not surprised that there is opposition from critics who raised concerns about vetting noncitizens.

“People associate it with what they see on TV,” Farrow said. “They associate this crowded border and people climbing over the wall to get into this country and the next day we hire them as a police officer. We would never do that.

“You don’t have to show proof of citizenship — that’s it. If you have a legal work permit by the federal government, then you’re subject to a complete background check,” he said, “the same as I went through to become a police officer.” 

In order to receive DACA status, petitioners must have been under the age of 31 as of June 2012 and have arrived in the U.S. before reaching their 16th birthday. They also must lack any serious criminal records. 

Though DACA recipients receive work authorization, they don’t have a path to permanent legal status or citizenship. Moron and hundreds of thousands of other DACA enrollees must renew their DACA status every two years.

But the program is enmeshed in a years-long legal battle over its future.

Last year, at the request of Republican led-states, a federal judge in Texas declared the DACA immigration program unlawful. While the judge didn’t order the termination of DACA, the program cannot receive new applicants. 

And if a DACA recipient loses their protected status, they’d likely lose eligibility to work as a police officer, said Marc Reina, an LAPD deputy chief, at a December police commission meeting.

Farrow said he decided to hire and get Moron trained as an officer because of his character and competency. 

“Competency is your training, your education, your background —military, non-military — your school,” Farrow said. “The character is who you are — are you honest, are you giving? I can train the competency but can’t train the character.”

Moron’s long-sought dream finally materialized when Farrow handed him a badge at that small swearing-in ceremony at the UC Davis police department. The kid who was told to be afraid of police because he could get deported gained the authority to protect the communities that took him in as a young immigrant.

Click here to read the full list at CalMatters