Decision time for ‘Defund the Police’

Editor’s note: Sacramento City Council and county Board of Supervisors hear proposals to shift funding

This is the most important week so far for the “Defund the Police” movement in Sacramento. But it didn’t get very far.

On Tuesday, the Sacramento City Council heard a recommendation from its Measure U Community Advisory Committee to reallocate $15 million in sales tax money from the Police and Fire departments and let residents determine how to spend it through “participatory budgeting.”

That shift of money didn’t appear to get any traction. Instead, the council will soon consider a proposal from Mayor Darrell Steinberg to launch participatory budgeting by finding $5 million in savings from vacant positions.

And Wednesday and Thursday, the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors heard the proposed final 2020-21 budget—and The People’s Budget Sacramento urged the board to defund the Sheriff’s Office and redirect tens of millions of dollars toward human services.

Thursday, supervisors endorsed more mental health crisis teams and body-worn cameras for the Sheriff’s Office while approving the budget, but didn’t make or vote on any significant defunding proposals. They are to give final approval to the budget resolutions on Sept. 22.

The unions representing police officers, firefighters and sheriff’s deputies are pushing back aggressively, warning that the public will be less safe if funding is cut.

The People’s Budget Sacramento and Measure U committee leaders have been among the loudest voices in the local “Defund the Police” effort.

“The status quo doesn’t cut it,” committee Chairperson Flojaune Cofer told council members Tuesday.

She and other supporters say the participatory budgeting process will lead to fairer spending and more social equity. The committee wants $5 million added to participatory budgeting each year until the total is at least half of the second half-cent of Measure U, or about $25 million. And it wants the city to spend $25,000 on a poll to be done by Oct. 31 so residents’ priorities can be considered during the city’s mid-year budget adjustment.

The council, however, did not commit to any of that. While several council members said they agree with the concept, they wanted more information on how it would work.

Mayor Darrell Steinberg takes part in a George Floyd protest on June 6.
(Photo from city of Sacramento)

Steinberg, however, said he “enthusiastically” supports the idea because it would respond to calls for change, create more trust with the community and give a bigger voice to residents.

“Here is an opportunity and we ought to test it,” he told council members. If it works, he said, there can be a fuller plan included in the 2021-22 budget.

But Steinberg did not support redirecting the Measure U money away from police and fire to fund it.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, the police officer and firefighter unions sent a joint letter to the mayor and council warning that $15 million in reduced Measure U funding would “devastate our city’s public safety and destroy the progress” since budget cuts during the Great Recession resulted in layoffs, fewer investigations, slower response times and closures of fire companies.

“Criminals became emboldened and committed crimes without consequences,” the letter says. “Our citizens became the victims of these crimes. We failed as a city to keep our community safe.”

Council members should meet the needs of the entire city, “not just the demands of a small, but very vocal group of people,” write Timothy Davis, president of the Sacramento Police Officers Association, and Chris Andrew, president of Sacramento Area Fire Fighters Local 522.

They also point out that their unions helped city leaders persuade voters to extend and double the Measure U sales tax in 2018. They say that any “defunding of the Police and Fire Department will betray the voters who partnered with the City and agreed to increase their taxes with the goal of a safer city.”

Several public commenters agreed and mentioned the property damage during some of the police reform protests. One commenter said she represented a new group called Sacramento Valley Backs the Blue and said: “It has become clear that the reason groups are pushing ‘Defunding of the Police’ is NOT for racial equality, because it would not be accomplished by that action. They want to Abolish the American System of Law and Order.”

More commenters, however, supported taking money from police and fire and investing in community services, including mental health, affordable housing, public health and education.

The police department share of the 2020-21 budget increased by about $10 million to $157 million. The portion funded by Measure U jumped from $35.2 million to $41.7 million—about half the total Measure U spending because revenues have plummeted during the COVID-19 shutdown.

In June, the Measure U advisory committee unsuccessfully pushed to reallocate the entire $41.7 million from the police department to economic development, housing and homelessness, saying that the city had broken promises to increase funding for disadvantaged neighborhoods.

“Defund the Police” supporters have demanded an immediate 50% cut in the Police Department budget and a phase-out of the remainder over four years so the money can be spent instead on housing, health care, violence prevention and other community programs.

The mayor and council have created a new Office of Community Response that will supervise social workers who respond to non-criminal 911 calls, including those involving the homeless and mentally ill. Eventually, money could be redirected from the Police Department to fund the office, depending on how many 911 calls get diverted.

“We are here to invest in the community and defund the Sacramento Sheriff.”

Kula Koenig is a leader of The People’s Budget Sacramento and Sacramento chapter president of Black Women Organized for Political Action

At the county, leaders of The People’s Budget Sacramento are calling for significant cuts in the sheriff’s budget.

“We are here to invest in the community and defund the Sacramento Sheriff,” Kula Koenig, who is also Sacramento chapter president of Black Women Organized for Political Action, said during a Wednesday morning press conference.

They want $104 million in federal COVID-19 relief money already allocated to the Sheriff’s Office given instead to health, housing and small business support. They also want the sheriff to absorb all $17.8 million in 2020-21 spending cuts, and at least one-third of the county’s general fund budget devoted to human services, compared to about 14% in 2019-20.

The budget recommended by County CEO Nav Gill, however, includes more spending for the Sheriff’s Office, mostly for salaries and liability costs, but also $2.1 million to start equipping deputies with body-worn cameras.

County Supervisor Susan Peters told constituents Sept. 4 that she opposes the “defund” push. “For those of us who live in unincorporated suburban Sacramento County, the Sheriff’s Department functions as our local police force so that’s why I support adequate funding for law enforcement to ensure the safety of our families, businesses, and property,” she said in a newsletter.

And the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association is fighting back, calling for people to “defend not defund” the office and putting out fliers, which show a masked man breaking into a home, warning that public safety is at risk.

Wednesday night, Sheriff Scott Jones showed supervisors headlines from cities that have moved forward on defunding to claim that violent crime has surged in those places, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. He said that a consent decree prevents spending cuts at the jail so any decreases would have to come from homeless outreach teams, problem-oriented policing teams, youth services or patrol. And he sought to paint activists as anti-law enforcement radicals and Antifa/anarchists.

Jones did say, however, that he’s willing to consider shifting his deputies away from answering some 911 calls involving people with mental illness or experiencing homelessness. Of about 462,000 service calls a year, he said, about 36,500 involve homeless people and 7,300 people with mental illness.

“I’m not an empire builder,” he told supervisors. “I’m not trying to hold on to everything at all costs.”

But City Councilwoman-elect Katie Valenzuela, a People’s Budget leader, accused the deputies and Jones of “blatant fear-mongering” and misrepresenting the movement’s goals. No one, she said, wants to reduce emergency response.

She and People’s Budget partners say Gill’s proposed budget is “business as usual” and neglects people’s needs to survive the pandemic. They say that a community survey with 2,500 respondents they presented to supervisors on Sept. 1 shows how out of step he is with people’s priorities—more more investment in affordable housing and homeless services, in community-based mental health services and in public health.

And they say that the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t deserve 37% of the county’s general fund budget when it isn’t making arrests in violent crimes and when it is costing the county so much in lawsuit settlements for excessive force and jail conditions.

“We should not be fighting for leftover crumbs,” said Crystal Sanchez, president of the Sacramento Homeless Union, who called Gill’s proposed budget “not only immoral, but criminal.”

She spoke in the press conference Wednesday morning that also included leaders of ACCE, Anti-Police Terror Project, Decarcerate Sacramento, Mental Health First and Resources for Independent Living, who all said there are far more urgent needs of real people than the more money for the Sheriff’s Office.

People’s Budget supporters also spoke during the public hearing that stretched to midnight Wednesday, with 120 callers, in addition to about 1,000 advance comments. But many callers and commenters also objected to any defunding, including those who said they were nearly victims of crime.

Asked what they would consider success before the county, Valenzuela and Koenig replied that it would be supervisors changing the budget to provide enough funding for health and human services—and keeping their promises to represent the people.

“This,” Koenig said, “is not radical what we’re asking for.”

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1 Comment on "Decision time for ‘Defund the Police’"

  1. The insanity of defunding the policed is unparalleled. Never has the mentally ill left been more on display. And who will pay the biggest price for defunding the cops? Law abiding blacks in inner cities.

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