Salt Lake City Council will consider protesters’ calls to ‘defund the police’

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Demonstrators with Black Lives Matter marched from the Utah Capitol down State Street, stopping at every intersection for five minutes in honor of George Floyd, June 8, 2020.

Salt Lake City Councilman Darin Mano estimated Monday that he was receiving “one or two emails a minute” from constituents calling on him to support at least $30 million worth of cuts to the city’s police department budget.

“Up until a few weeks ago, any time someone commented on the police budget it was asking for more officers and more patrol,” he said in an interview. "Most of the comments we’re receiving right now are to defund the police.”

Calls for the state’s largest city to reallocate a portion of its proposed $84 million police budget to social services, like affordable housing and mental health, come amid a national conversation about police reform and as the council works to approve its 2020-2021 budget by the end of this month.

Several council members, including Mano, say they’re open to the conversation about how to “defund” the city’s police department to address some of the underlying societal issues that require a police presence in the first place. But they say such a change would need to happen incrementally.

Since the council has just three weeks to finalize its new budget, Council Chairman Chris Wharton said Monday that the seven-member body is unlikely to divert many resources away from the department this year.

“There’s always an interest in trying to find new alternatives that can diminish violence and can make communities feel safer and make them feel empowered,” he said. “But a lot of these programs that are being talked about or the discussion that’s happening now in Minneapolis, we don’t exactly know what that looks like. I wouldn’t say there is a lot of data on a lot of these models, and so that makes it hard.”

Proposals to defund, downsize or even abolish police departments across the country have picked up steam in recent weeks amid conversations about officer brutality and use of deadly force that some research has shown disproportionately impacts people of color.

In Minneapolis, City Councilman Jeremiah Ellison has promised to “dramatically rethink” the city’s public safety and emergency responses. He and eight other council members have said they plan to “dismantle” the city’s police department following public outcry over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Protests decrying police violence in the wake of that incident continued in Salt Lake City on Monday, as around 200 people braved the rain with signs calling for change.

Proposals for massive restructuring of police departments haven’t been limited to Minneapolis. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Sunday that the city would move funding from the police department to social services and youth initiatives. And Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has vowed to cut as much as $150 million planned as part of an increase in the department’s budget.

Calls for similar action reached Salt Lake City last week, when hundreds of people showed up to the council’s virtual meeting to ask officials to redirect police department funding to transportation, affordable housing and other community services. Some even wanted to see the department abolished, though that’s not allowed under state law.

In a statement on Friday, the council as a whole pledged to look at both short- and long-term efforts to improve policing in the capital city, including encouraging reform at the state level.

The council plans to have a more complete conversation on Tuesday that will review the police department budget, look at requiring additional police training, review body camera use and examine changes to the city’s police Civilian Review Board, the statement noted.

Council members said they will examine the training that is provided by Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), and by the Salt Lake City Police Department for new officers. And they plan to get community, academic and professional advice to decide what type of training is needed as well as at plans to continue funding social workers in the police department and potentially expanding their role.

Salt Lake City staff have also been asked to look at how portions of the police budget could be reallocated, Councilwoman Amy Fowler said.

Ahead of the council’s meeting Tuesday, Salt Lake City Police Association President Steve Winters called for elected officials to “slow down” and recognize the impact an “astronomical” 30% cut like the one some residents are calling for would have on the community.

“That would definitely require a reduction in force, layoffs and things of that nature, so they would have to reduce a great number of officers on the streets,” he said Monday. “The reality is we have so many calls, we can barely keep up with it as it is. Who’s going to keep up with those calls?”

Winters, who represents members of the city’s police union, said he would be open to city efforts to put more money into social services that would address alcoholism, drug addiction, homelessness and mental health issues, and which would in turn reduce the number of roles police officers have been asked to fill since the last recession.

“Before 2008, before the economy dropped, there was a great number of those programs; they just haven’t reinstated them,” he said. “If they want to reinstate those and have less for our budget — if we don’t have reoffenders because they’re treated and better and we’re not going after the same people all the time — that’s appropriate. But that’s a long shot.”

Instead, he’s urging the council to “slow down” and fund those items while keeping the police budget in place, then see what the demand for police services is once those programs are off the ground.

Salt Lake City’s police budget has climbed every year since 2013, according to city documents, and this year’s proposal seeks to maintain that trend. Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s current budget recommendation proposes a 2.7% increase to the police budget general fund for a total of $84 million in police department expenditures.

The proposed increase this year is largely for changes in “personal services,” which include pension and insurance changes and merit changes for represented employees. Otherwise, the budget remains largely flat, according to the city.

The request for increased funding comes at a time when cities across the state are scrambling to adjust their budgets after a rapid decline in sales tax revenue as a result of the coronavirus. In Salt Lake City, the administration estimates $1.3 billion in expenditures for the 2021 fiscal year, down by more than one-third from the 2020 budget, and an 8.9% drop in sales tax revenue.

Fowler said budget season is “never easy." But since most departments have proposed relatively flat budgets, this may be a good time to focus on how to divert resources from the police budget, the councilwoman said.

And while efforts to do so could face an uphill battle ahead of the budget’s final passage later this month, she said Monday that moving funding to social services is her “No. 1 priority.”

“A lot of people who find themselves in the criminal justice system have substance abuse issues and may or may not have mental health issues,” noted Fowler, a criminal defense attorney and public defender, in an interview. “We need to reallocate resources to help those people so they don’t find themselves in an interaction with a police officer so that instead we’re really looking at the underlying issue there.”

Fowler also wants to reevaluate city code to get rid of the “dumb stuff” — unnecessary regulations that she said often affect people of color more than they do white people. And she wants to ensure the city’s Police Civilian Review Board has “enough teeth.”

“All of these things we’re talking about are related in different ways and we kind of have to address all of them, everything,” she said, to effectively tackle systemic racism.