Police officials and those calling to defund their departments can agree on at least one thing: Today’s law enforcement officers are burdened with a myriad of tasks.
Addressing mental health, responding to domestic violence, and managing medical emergencies are all part of the job.
Where the disagreement is stark, however, is in whether officers should continue to play such an expanded role moving forward, or if cities like Spokane should reallocate law enforcement resources into social programs and other efforts instead of uniformed police.
If the Spokane Police Department is defunded, the consequences would depend on the severity of the cuts. But the first reductions would likely be made to its most popular, community-oriented programs, said Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, because its first priority would always be responding to 911 calls.
That could mean fewer neighborhood resources officers to respond to complaints about a nuisance property or illicit activity at a nearby park. It might mean scaling back its precincts, which place police resources directly into communities instead of a single, central location.
“When it comes to how deep the cuts go, there’s things right now we’re doing that definitely serve the community at a level other (communities) would love to have,” Meidl said. “If we have to cut a lot of these services we’re going to take a huge step backwards in our community.”
Demonstrators and activists throughout the country, including in Spokane, have asked governments to drastically rethink their public safety models in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis last month. Although the specifics vary, most call for a redirection of police funding toward proactive social services, aimed at alleviating socioeconomic and other factors that lead to crime.
Those calls have met varying levels of resistance from police departments and government officials. They’ve been most visibly successful in Minneapolis, where a veto-proof majority of City Council members pledged to dismantle the city’s police department. But leaders elsewhere have pledged to restructure, in some way, their spending on law enforcement.
Occupy Spokane and the Spokane-based group Eastern Washington Progressives have advocated locally to defund the police, highlighting the push at last Sunday’s rally in Riverfront Park.
Majid Sharifi, an associate professor of international affairs at Eastern Washington, joined protesters last Sunday. In an interview with The Spokesman-Review, he argued that the scope of policing across the country, including in Spokane, has far exceeded that of other democracies around the world.
And when you have a hammer, he said, everything becomes a nail.
“We have increased the budget of policing, and police have become the one-stop shop for every solution in the community. This is the wrong direction,” Sharifi said.
Meidl acknowledges that officers are asked to be “counselors, mediators, law enforcement, coaches and parents.”
He balks at the suggestion that certain calls, such as those related to mental health, could be better handled without police present and warned against making cuts that would put other stakeholders, such as mental health professionals, at risk.
“There’s definitely things where on paper it sounds really good and it makes sense, and there is probably room in there to take things off the plates of law enforcement officers,” Meidl said. “But one of the things you want to do is talk to other stakeholders.”
He pointed to the department’s partnership with mental health professionals from Frontier Behavioral Health and said officers still have a role to play in responding to mental health crises. The same can be said of the department’s domestic violence initiatives and partnerships with victim advocates, Meidl said.
“It provides a level of safety for them knowing we’re there, while still allowing them to take the lead,” Meidl said.
The city expects to spend $63.7 million of its general fund on the police department in 2020. For the average property owner, that means $277 of their $1,085 city property tax bill is allocated to the police department – more than any other single city department.
Overall, the city is budgeted to spend about $1.1 billion in 2020.
Ultimately, any substantial reduction to the police department budget would mean a reduction in the number of Spokane Police officers and programs.
As recently as last year, Spokane voters have supported paying higher taxes to buttress public safety staffing.
Wages, salaries and overtime account for about $58.1 million of the department’s $63.7 million general fund budget, according to department spokeswoman Julie Humphreys.
Through May 31, the department had spent $1.1 million on overtime this year, a number that is expected to surge due to the number of officers assigned to work recent protests.
Due to the coronavirus, the department is already tightening its fiscal belt.
There are currently 10 officer vacancies in the department’s general budget, which have been left open to help offset the city’s revenue losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Humphreys.
Another three civilian positions funded through the public safety levy approved by 64% of voters in 2019 will be held open.
The $63.7 million budget does not include the funding from the public safety levy approved by voters in 2019 that funded 17 officers and three civilians, in addition to the 30 firefighters that had previously been funded through a grant.
There are three other pots of money the department leans on, totaling about $5 million – civil forfeitures and auctions, grants and capital expenditures.
Grants are used to support services like the department’s behavioral health unit, which pairs mental health professionals from Frontier Behavioral Health with patrol officers. The department also has a roughly $2.5 million capital budget that pays for patrol vehicles and equipment like body cameras and laptops.
Although a chorus of marchers have made defunding the police a centerpiece of their weekly marches against police brutality and racial injustice, it has yet to become a political reality for the Spokane Police Department.
But Kate Burke, a member of the Spokane City Council, signed a pledge to review police budgets with Seattle City Council President Lorena Gonzalez and King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay this week.
“We have the data, we know shared prosperity is the best crime prevention,” she said in a statement this week. “In the coming days I will be working with community groups to draft legislation that redirects funding, promotes accountability, builds public safety alternatives, demilitarizes our community and re-evaluates what behaviors or acts of survival are classified as ‘crime.’ ”
Her colleagues have been less ambitious to reduce police spending but have expressed an openness to rethinking it.
Sharifi said the goal is not to dehumanize police and estimated that 90% are “everything we want them to be.
“The system is broken, reform has failed, the scope of policing has expanded more and more, and we have a very, very ineffective justice system that looks at punitive rather than restorative justice in every aspect,” Sharifi said.
Police should be available to respond to violent crimes, Sharifi acknowledged. But unarmed civilians with specialized training in areas like behavioral health can respond to nonviolent issues.
“Of course when there is a robbery we need armed police,” Sharifi said. “But do we need armed police for, example, when people have broken taillights?”
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