The Power of Words
By Alex Distefano
Was San Bernardino City Attorney Jim Penman wrong or right to tell citizens to arm themselves?
At a time when the city of San Bernardino is already going through the difficulties of bankruptcy proceedings, increasing crime, rising unemployment, foreclosures and massive cutbacks to city services, residents have been given something else to worry about: alleged fear mongering courtesy of City Attorney Jim Penman, with a side of political infighting thrown in for good measure.
And police are none too happy about it.
Penman—a force in San Bernardino city politics for decades—recently made some arguably inflammatory comments at a town hall-style meeting.
Residents had gathered at the Arrowhead Country Club to discuss crime issues with city and police officials. According to published reports (such as The Press-Enterprise’s Cassie MacDuff), Penman at one point took control of the microphone and told the gathered crowd of about 200 that the bankrupt city would not be able to protect them, and that residents should go home, “lock their doors, and load their guns.”
And while MacDuff called Penman’s statement a “recipe for survivor-mentality vigilantism and accidental shootings,” the city attorney’s comments were enough to go viral in the blogosphere, mainstream media, conservative and liberal talk radio—and even international press as the issues of vigilantism, gun rights and dwindling city resources bubbled to the surface.
Apparently, officers in San Bernardino didn’t exactly throw a party when they learned that Penman suggested cops can’t do enough to protect the citizenry.
“What Mr. Penman said was basically that residents are on their own,” Steve Turner, president of the San Bernardino Police Officers Association, tells the Weekly. “The officers want the community to know they are not on their own. We are still here and are working hard to protect the city; although the resources are diminished we are using what we have to make our city as safe as possible.”
Police Chief Rob Handy even told The Press-Enterprise that the city of 200,000-plus could get by with about 260 officers.
But Penman defends his comments, though he sought to clarify things and say his statements were not an endorsement of direct vigilantism. He claims he was merely telling a truth that might be hard to swallow. (Some context: Both Penman and other city officials are exploring the concept of outsourcing the police department to the county.)
Penman also said that he made those strongly-worded remarks in front of an audience of older people and some veterans—and wouldn’t have said such things had meeting attendees been families with young children. For these residents, Penman suggests they keep all firearms and bullets locked and away from children at all times, and purchase trigger locks. He also endorsed proper firearms training . . . such as the kind you can get from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.
Turner was critical of Penman’s words—regardless of intention.
“The morale of our officers is down but we still work hard to protect the city, he says. “We all took an oath, and got sworn in to provide public safety for the community. We’re still going to do that the best we can.”
Not everyone thinks Penman’s comments were out-of-line.
Online commentator “Mike Bonacio” said, “Hey, my progressive friends, I agree with Penman. Anyone who lives in this slime city without being properly armed is a fool.” “BJ Clinton” said, “Does anyone truly believe a police force of 260, or even 2,600, can actively ‘protect’ everyone in a city of over 200,000 people? Most times, they’ll only arrive in time to hang police tape and stuff body bags. That’s not hyperbole, but merely a statement of fact.”
But “Maurice Kane” said, “Warning people to be careful is one matter but inflaming and alarming them during a period of trepidation and crisis is demagogic and unbefitting an elected official and member of the Bar.”
To put things in context, this isn’t the first time Penman has said things that pissed people off. Some have said he has a history of making volatile, divisive statements and engaging in toxic politics.
Former Public Works Director Nadeem Majaj left his post after he was the target of allegedly trumped-up accusations by Penman . . . coincidentally right after Majaj canceled a suspicious $2.5 million city contract with one of Penman’s big campaign contributors. Former Police Chief Keith Kilmer has said it was the city attorney’s alleged interference and intimidation that prompted his early retirement last year. When the prospect of bankruptcy was looming earlier this y ear, Penman was right there to claim that some of San Bernardino’s financial documents had been “falsified”—a claim he never followed up with proof or corroboration.