What Public Safety Is and What Public Safety Is Not

Editor's Note:

Public defender and native son of San Jose share his vision of what public safety truly means, and what oppressive systems need to be removed for it to exist.

I'm Sajid Khan. I’m a son of San Jose. I was born over at the old Alexian Brothers Hospital on Jackson & McKee.  I went to San Jose High School just about 20 blocks from here (at San Jose City Hall). I live and raise my two sons here in San Jose.   

I became a lawyer and came back here to San Jose to represent the indigent criminally accused in this community as a public defender for the last 12 years.  

I've seen the system fail to protect our community over and over and here’s what I can tell you about public safety. 

Public safety isn’t kicking kids out of schools, separating them from their families, subjecting them to police trained probation officers to monitor and supervise them, locking them up in juvenile halls and further traumatizing them. 

Public safety is quality childcare and guidance for hardworking parents, is investing in all our schools, not just the ones in Cupertino and Palo Alto and certain parts of San Jose.

Public safety is expanding school counseling programs so those exhibiting symptoms of turmoil receive treatment and services, is establishing trauma sensitive school models where we train teachers and staff to identify and appropriately respond to manifestations of childhood suffering. 

Public safety is for schools to hold and hug kids, not expel them.

Public safety is not police officers in our schools that criminalize, intimidate, surveil and arrest our young people.

Public safety is social workers, therapists and life coaches in our schools that heal, support and inspire our youth.

Public safety is responding to crime committed by youth with social workers and therapists and means of healing, not with cages and punishment. 

Public safety is to treat kids like kids and never prosecuting kids as adults and committing them to adult prison terms and caging them in adult prisons.

Public safety is to respond to violent crimes committed by young people with care and concern in youth specific facilities and programs, to recognize that their crimes are often the results of unhealed and unaddressed traumas not of their choosing and circumstances beyond their control like drug addicted parents, broken homes, absent fathers, unspeakable poverty, bullet ridden neighborhoods, blood stained streets, abuse, neglect, bullying, mental illness, and underdeveloped, adolescent brains. 

Public safety isn’t gang policing where SJPD officers dedicate their lives not to help kids but instead to to run roughshod through targeted, impoverished neighborhoods chasing, corralling, cuffing, interrogating and photographing young boys and teenagers for “gang” intelligence collection, “evidence” used by DAs as part of gang enhancement prosecutions and impositions of heavy handed prison sentences if those boys and teens end up committing crimes.

Public safety isn’t gang prosecutions and prison sentences.

Public safety isn’t placing Latino and Black youth in gang databases merely because of where they live, who their family members are, what colors they might been seen wearing, because they have a childhood nickname or because they are seen congregating on a street corner with friends, and then branding them as gang members, as monsters, saddling them with gang enhancements and long prison sentences.  

Public safety is recognizing that poor kids of color suffering from unhealed traumas, sprouting in violence ridden neighborhoods, stuck in broken homes, missing parents, are forced to choose red or blue for safety, for belonging, for housing and food. 

Public safety is recognizing that these “gangs” and their members are merely manifestations of traumas and systemic failures that plague communities of color.

Public safety is investment in these communities, is dedicating resources and working to mend the brokenness of our young people, to remedy the roots of what can sprout into gang violence, to heal the hurt before it can inflict more pain.

Public safety isn't the SJPD killing 18 people in our city in the last 5 years without any discipline or accountability.

Public safety isn’t officers harassing and violating communities of color with stop & frisks and pretextual car stops that often involved the infliction of excessive, dehumanizing force and violence upon people where officers beat, choke, punch, baton, tase, sic dogs upon, shoot at our fellow people before throwing them into the belly of our mass incarceration machine.

Public safety is holding police officers accountable when they violate the constitution, when they inflict violence on our communities.  

Public safety is defunding the police so that we can use that money to restore the social services that, in the long term, prevent the crimes that necessitate police involvement. 

Public safety is having the resources to create new kinds of first-responders- therapists, social workers, conflict resolution counselors- for situations that don’t require the gun, Taser, and nightstick.

Public safety isn’t the hiring of police officers who are aggressive, confrontational, combative, warriors with guns.

Public safety is the hiring of the compassionate, service oriented, kind, empathetic, problem solving, calm, detail oriented, composed people who serve and protect as peace officers, not law enforcement officers, people who serve as guardians, peacekeepers and protectors for the communities we love and live within.

Public safety isn’t tagging fellow human beings with felony convictions that rob them of their right to and capacity for redemption, that casts them into society’s underbelly.

Public safety isn’t labeling people as felons, offenders, strikers, convicts, gangsters, criminals and crooks, preventing them from true reentry and reintegration into society. 

Public safety is forgiveness, rehabilitation, giving people chances, not defining them by the worst thing they’ve ever done. 

Public safety isn’t mandatory minimums, life, LWOP (life without the possibility of parole) sentences where we send predominantly men of color to prison for life and lengthy sentences, separating them from their families and their families from them. 

Public safety is honoring the humanity of even those who do the worst things, remembering their stories & contexts, healing their traumas.  

Public safety is rethinking the metric that incarceration equals justice. 

Public safety is crafting narrowly tailored sentences and treatment plans that may or may not include incarceration, that hold people who commit crimes accountable through community service and restitution but also honor their humanity and capacity for redemption, that helps heal the roots of their misbehaviors through the use of supervision, wraparound services, residential treatment facilities, halfway houses or counseling centers, concurrently promoting public safety and justice for victims. 

Public safety is not caging people in our decrepit, remote, trauma laden prisons, separating them from their families, subjecting them to violence and scars.

Public safety is reimagining whether we need to incarcerate at all, and if we do, how and where we incarcerate by honoring the humanity of everyone held, ensuring their access to nature, their families, services, treatment, not holding them any longer than absolutely necessary.  

Public safety isn’t punishment, vengeance, despair, condemnation and cages.  

Public safety is accountability, healing, hope, humanity, redemption and mercy.  

Public safety is a recognition and an acknowledgement that Black Lives Matter.