Salt Lake City Council approves police budget, which includes modest cut

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Police line up to enforce a mandatory curfew in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 1, 2020, following violence and unrest over the weekend due to the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

The Salt Lake City Council held its budget vote Tuesday night, allocating funds for everything from libraries to transportation to public works. But the most discussed line item remained the police department.

Calls to cut $30 million from the department’s budget, if not defund it entirely, have steadily grown since the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day. Council members endured hours of public comment, lasting late into the night, as residents complained of police harassment and systemic racism.

The City Council landed on a police funding solution that fell far short of citizen demands.

In a unanimous vote, members approved putting $2.8 million into a holding account for now, if not slashing it from the department entirely. The council will form a City Commission on Racial Equity and Policing to provide input on the department’s future while those funds are on pause.

The city will move $2.5 million for social workers out of the police budget as well, although those employees will still be housed in the police department.

The City Council says this is a total reduction of $5.3 million to the police fund from Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s proposed budget released in May, although police could still get some or all of the holding account money with the council’s approval.

In the next month, the council will have a third party dissect the department’s budget to determine whether further cuts can be made without unintended consequences to public safety.

The city’s new fiscal year begins July 1.

At the start of Tuesday’s formal meeting, council chairman Chris Wharton recognized the proposal fell far short of the community’s cries for deeper cuts. But, he added, the budget approval process was only the beginning of the city’s re-evaluation of the police force.

“This represents a unique moment in history to deconstruct the problems in our systems and fix them,” Wharton said. “The council is here to create change rooted in equity. It does not stop with the budget adoption tonight. We will build a better city.”

The council’s budget boosted some public safety related funds for the coming fiscal year, although they were directed to nondepartmental funds. The city will pay nearly $1.3 million to supply every police officer with a body camera and outfit police cars with technology that automatically activates the cameras when an officer leaves the vehicle. That’s up from an existing body camera budget of $512,578.

The council is also adding $267,800 in nondepartmental funds for enhanced officer training, on top of the existing $55,000 budget for de-escalation training.

Those changes came even as city officials look to pare down spending amid a pandemic and the subsequent economic turmoil. The city largely has a hiring freeze, although it has set aside funds for more social workers this year.

While some commenters offered support for the council’s budget changes and for the capital city’s police, the general public sentiment was one of disappointment. In the final hours before the budget vote, residents urged council members to do more.

“Mayor, you said you’ve heard our messages. Well, you may have heard them but you’re not listening,” said Emma Roberts, referring to a tweet Mendenhall sent the day before. “These silly reforms are not addressing the root of the issue.”

The $30 million cut most often requested in public comment would take the police budget to 2013 levels. It would also mean laying off about 200 police department employees, according to police and city staff, since personnel accounts for more than 90% of department costs.

To resident Mel Martinez, a reduction in the police force sounded “great.”

“I would love to fire 200 police officers and give that money to police alternatives, like we’ve been requesting for weeks now,” Martinez said.

Public comments had requested that millions in police funding be redirected to public transportation, housing and other social services.

“I am here to demand drastic cut to current police department budget. Time and again police have showed an appalling abuse of their power,” said Kevin Kurse. “We cannot continue to put an enormous amount of resources into policing.”

Following the vote, the council urged residents to be patient with most members noting this budget was only the first step in police department reforms.

“Did we solve all of the police department problems? No. Did we accomplish everything I wanted to accomplish on this topic? No,” said member Ana Valdemoros. “But the journey is far from over.”

“I don’t make promises that I can’t keep,” said member Amy Fowler. “I can promise you that this council, that I personally … will continue this work. We’re not going to end the conversation and wipe our hands of this.”