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Monday, September 21, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Spokane officials weigh in on calls to join other cities, defund police department

Calls to defund the police echoed throughout cities across the nation this weekend, including in Spokane.

But will city leaders pick up the refrain?

In interviews with The Spokesman-Review on Monday, many officials endorsed a community-centered approach to policing and reforms that could include reallocating police funding, but stopped short of advocating the department be disbanded as leaders in Minneapolis pledged to do on Sunday.

“I don’t see (Spokane City) Council members dismantling our police department. I see them working very hard towards reforming it,” said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs.

In Minneapolis, a veto-proof majority of council members cited the ineffectiveness of reform efforts. The commitment was in response to continued protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death while in custody of Minneapolis Police officers on May 25.

The mayors of Los Angeles and New York City also announced that they would adjust police funding in the wake of widespread outcry over police brutality.

The goal in Spokane should not be disbanding or crippling the department but getting at the heart of what police need to do to better serve the community, said Kurtis Robinson, president of Spokane’s chapter of the NAACP.

“We have to take a real honest look at what’s happened up to date, and is that something we want to continue?” Robinson said. “We’re not calling for reformation, we’re not calling for reconstruction, we’re calling for transformation, and that’s the next place we need to get to – where we have a law enforcement community that isn’t so prone to immediate violence and use of force.”

The conversation about police funding doesn’t have to be an “either/or,” said city spokesman Brian Coddington. He pointed to programs implemented by Spokane Police to improve community relations like the Youth & Police Initiative, a program for at-risk youth overseen by police officers. The department also has buttressed its neighborhood resource officer program, he said.

“That kind of thing really allows for a police department and a community to do some pretty innovative things and get some momentum behind some advancements that are far beyond what you might think of as traditional police activities,” Coddington said.

Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration also is collaborating with the City Council on how to invest in areas like housing, homelessness, workforce and economic development, Coddington added – all aimed at improving the socioeconomic status of Spokane families.

Woodward is hosting the first in a series of “community conversations” on KHQ at 6 p.m. Tuesday, in which she will discuss policing.

The concept of spending less on policing and more on social programs has gained steam nationwide in recent weeks, but it was only little more than a year ago that Spokane voters overwhelmingly supported a new $5.8 million-a-year tax to fund the hiring of 20 new police officers and retention of 30 city firefighters.

Spokane budgeted $60.5 million for its police department in 2019 out of a total budget of about $1 billion, but much of that $1 billion isn’t directly supported through property tax bills. Of the $1,085 the city receives from a median homeowner’s property tax bill, $277 is directed toward the police department, according to the cost-of-government tool on the city’s website.

Public safety, which includes the fire department, is second only to public works as a division of the city’s spending.

In 2017, local and state governments spent $115 billion on policing, according to the Urban Institute.

Beggs does not support disbanding the police department but said the City Council can look at ways to fund human services from unfilled positions within the police department. He wants to add four to six mental health specialists to an existing team that pairs them with Spokane Police Officers.

“It’s basically reallocating money for empty patrol officers that aren’t being used by the department and putting them into human services working with police,” Beggs said.

Councilman Michael Cathcart made police oversight a centerpiece of his successful campaign last year. But he ardently opposes defunding the police, noting the city’s high crime rates.

The city needs 50 more officers on the street, Cathcart said, and to implement a community policing model that emphasizes friendly policing that would improve relations with residents. The department also should improve its recruitment of African American and other minority officers, he said.

“There are absolutely reforms that we should study and look at and enact, but to defund or disband the police is not an option,” Cathcart said.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said the community needs to have a conversation to define public safety, and said it has allowed the community policing model to “wither on the vine.”

“I do believe there should be more money in the community. There are programs I think would make this city stronger, and I know it would improve community relations,” Wilkerson said.

Councilwoman Kate Burke posted on her Facebook page Monday that the current policing model is “unsustainable and intolerable.”

“I will be working with community groups to propose solutions that redirect funding, promote accountability, build alternative community safety models, demilitarize our community, and reevaluate what behaviors or acts of survival are classified as a crime,” Burke wrote.

The center of the debate over the public safety levy vote last year was not about police accountability. Instead, it was the city’s fiscal conservatives, including former Mayor David Condon and former Councilman Mike Fagan, who flagged concerns about spending.

The levy included “crime-reduction programming” in addition to spending on officers and firefighters, noted Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who chairs the Public Safety and Community Health Committee. Last year the council appropriated $250,000 from the public safety levy funds in the 2020 city budget to study and implement a community pretrial supervision program in the municipal court.

Beggs, an architect of the program, believes community pretrial supervision will save money, increase the number of people who show up to their court dates, and ultimately reduce crime rates.

Kinnear said a true conversation about reform can not occur without including the court system and the jail. Otherwise, Kinnear said, “we’ll cut off one of our dragon’s heads – but the dragon still has two heads.”

She noted the police department has had trouble filling positions and said that might present an opportunity to invest in mental health professionals. She pointed to the waiting list at local substance abuse treatment programs.

“We can do better than that,” Kinnear said.

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