Within days of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis Police Officer, as well as the preceding death of Breona Taylor and other Black and brown Americans who were victims of unjustified force by local law enforcement officers, the racial justice protest movement began all across the country.
As crowds marched and protested, at times bursting into vandalism and mob violence, numerous elected and appointed officials across the nation also tried to get ahead of those crowds. Running to the front of a mob, attempting to make it look more like a parade, can often result in knee-jerk and broad pendulum swing public policy decision-making.
Yes, bad cops and police brutality do exist. More peace officer training in de-escalation and alternatives to the use of force is warranted and a prudent measure. But so would be addressing lingering issues like low law enforcement pay and the education entry-level requirement in many jurisdictions being only a high school diploma. More social workers and health care professionals working in tandem with peace officers, particularly on 911 calls with clear issues of mental health present, is also a good idea, yet that will also require more training for 911 operators and dispatchers.
But from New York City to Portland, Oregon, and points in between, decisions were made to “reimagine policing,” which most frequently meant reduced funding for public safety and policing agencies, potentially to later redirect those tax dollars towards public health and other existing racial equity concerns such as more affordable housing.
Meanwhile, as the pandemic year raged on and multiple cities cut millions from police department budgets (New York City reduced police spending by $1 billion for the coming fiscal year), crime rates surged. Demoralized and remaining police officers watched their ranks thin by resignation and retirement, typically creating positions that remain unfilled, tasked to do more with less. They were left feeling a weakening resolve among those elected and appointed officials who stand behind them... while violent crime, in particular, began to reach new heights and numbers of arrests and cases charged plummeted nationwide.
The first group most impacted by a drawback in public safety is those in communities most typically impacted and beaten down by crime, principally minority communities of Black and brown. After cutting $1 billion from public safety budgets in New York City a year ago, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is now reinstating $92 million in funding for a new police precinct that he had scrapped last summer. The new Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, who led efforts to cut $22 million in police funding as a member of the City Council in 2020, has just proposed a $27 million increase in police budgets for 2021-2022. The mayor of Los Angeles is proposing $50 million in new funding, following $150 million in cuts last year. The mayor and council of Oakland, Calif., restored $3 million out of $29 million in cuts and are proposing an additional $24 million in new spending.
In my own home county of DeKalb, County CEO Michael Thurmond is proposing to utilize nearly $70 million (out of $147 million in COVID-19 relief funding) to improve and strengthen public safety.
“There’ll be other things that we do, but you have to prioritize your strategies. Public safety is our top priority in this plan.” said Thurmond.
It is worth noting that DeKalb County did not earlier propose police funding cuts. The new funding will provide raises and retention bonuses for an estimated 2,300 public safety personnel, including police officers, firemen and women, and those working in the 911 dispatch center, juvenile justice and probation. Expenditures in the package also include two new crisis nurses to respond alongside police officers on relevant cases and upgrades to a variety of technology and camera surveillance systems in the courts and across the county. DeKalb’s CEO, county commission presiding officer (and commission majority) and sheriff are each Black. The new chief of police, recently hired from Miami’s Police Department, is Puerto Rican and the first woman to lead the department.
Though local government leaders are hearing cries from all corners to do a more effective job of fighting and reducing crime, it remains to be seen if this new awakening is just reverse knee-jerk public policy, or if you can be “woke” without making your police department “broke” at the same time. There are few issues and concerns that come in ahead of fear of crime and desire for safe streets, schools and communities. How these issues get handled will be both instructive and pivotal in Georgia’s 2021 municipal and 2022 county officer elections.