Some say defund the police.
Others say reimagine policing.
Will semantics get in the way of change?
“I still don’t know exactly what defund the police means,” Rochester City Council President Loretta Scott said June 16, after council voted on an amended city budget that further reduced spending on the Rochester Police Department.
“If you ask three people, you’ll get three different answers,” she said. “I understand reimagining. I can relate to that as a concept. For me, it’s easier to proceed in that vein.”
City Council passed the amended budget, 8-1, with Mary Lupien voting no.
The $529.6 million spending plan already reduced the RPD allotment by nearly $3.7 million, or 3.7%. City Council amended the budget to shift an additional $129,000 from overtime for special events and move it to the Department of Recreation and Youth Services. It also cut 50% of the incoming recruit class and will use $750,000 to create a contingency fund.
The money for the contingency fund is expected to help fund a task force that may bring clarity to the defund/reimagine discussion. The choice of words also could turn something that seems negative into a positive result.
“I certainly support the concept of reimagining policing,” Scott said. “There’s something to be said for that, taking an in-depth look. We can always do better than what we’re doing.”
Even with the additional cuts, the reduction is far less than the 50% sought by Black Lives Matter and other advocates for police reform.
As for more changes to RPD, Scott said, “We do have at least the ability to take the time to thoroughly look at this thing. We’re not going to jump at it after three weeks of concerns being raised. It deserves the kind of attention and thoroughness that we need to put into it to re-imagine policing.”
The police department receives $95.8 million, about 18% of the total city budget, Mayor Lovely Warren said. The city’s contribution to schools and its funding for recreation, youth services and libraries totals $143.9 million.
Advocates for defunding police have said that money should go to education, social services, jobs and entrepreneurship and mental and physical health care.
The debate over how to spend the city’s money – the taxpayer’s money – is likely to get more intense.
“Council has been saying look at this moment that we have in history,” Finance Committee Chairman Malik Evans said after the vote. “It goes beyond policing, that it … goes across all the areas of our community. We talk about the oppression, the brutality, the second-class citizenship that African Americans have felt for 400 years in this country. You have to look at this as a whole. That’s important for us to remember as a community.”
Not coincidentally, City Council also voted on a $927.5 million budget for the Rochester City School District. Council rejected the budget, 1-7-1, but it was symbolic. According the city charter, if council does not approve the budget, the submitted version takes effects for the upcoming fiscal year.
The vote sent a message that after years of approving the district budget, City Council is asserting its fiscal stewardship. Over the past few months, a pattern of budget issues has emerged. At least one council member acknowledged not voting for the budget that was put forth by a superintendent and a budget director who announced they were leaving the district.
Mayor’s message on the budget
Warren addressed that holistic approach during her approximately 10-minute speech before council voted on the city budget. “ … We need to do more than simply police our community,” she said. She added the need for quality day care, addiction services
“Let me be clear, these are not services and solutions the city can provide its residents alone. It will take our all of us, including our county, state, not-for-profit agencies and businesses to truly deliver change. …
“We need to look at these problems from a new perspective. In our community, the not-for-profit sector is a billion-dollar industry. If you have an issue in Rochester, we have a program that will allegedly fix it. Part of the reason we are talking about systems redesign in the not-for-profit sphere is because this billion-dollar industry is failing our community. These organizations need to reflect our community and their leadership needs to be as diverse as those they serve. This is a change we need.”
Warren said that protecting seniors, families and children is her “most sacred duty” as mayor. “Ensuring safety is at the foundation of everything else we are trying to achieve. Without it, we can’t create more vibrant neighborhoods …We can’t create more jobs and more locally-owned businesses … And, kids that aren’t safe and don’t feel safe, can’t learn.
“Yes, we need a police department that protects and serves, and reflects the diversity, in our community.”
She said the Rochester Police Department has instituted reforms before the current calls for change. The department bans chokeholds, requires alternatives before using force, demands officers intervene when colleagues break policies and enforces discipline including termination.
“Both the Chief and I were born and raised in this community, educated in its schools and returned to be of service,” Warren said. “And, in case you haven’t noticed we are both Black. … We are not immune to the systematic and institutional racism, or the barriers that people of color have faced and continue to face. We are both committed to ensuring that changes to this system come through a process that will not just treat symptoms, but actually cure the disease.
“I shared the anger and frustration at the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the countless others that have been murdered. But, I also share with you that our city, Rochester, is an example of how government can and must respond. Not through screaming or platitudes, but through, as the great Shirley Chisholm said, implementing ideas that create real change.”
The chief’s response to budget proposal
The RPD has 728 sworn officers, which include patrol and command staff.
Chief La’Ron Singletary expressed concern that cuts would affect officers’ ability to respond to calls, to spend enough time on each call. He said that at the current rate of retirement, the department will have 54 vacancies but will be able to fill only 19 because of the amended proposal.
Singletary said a shortage of patrol officers could affect the types of calls they answer, such as motor vehicle crashes with no injuries or nonviolent property crimes.
He also listed nonviolent behavioral issues at schools or mental health crises, which are the types of calls that advocates for reform question the need for police presence. In some mental health calls, a mental health professional and police officer respond together.
Singletary said he supports reform. He said he had received many calls from people concerned about what defunding would mean. He said he was concerned that more cuts would have a negative effect on Black and Brown communities.
Council members speak
Council members spent more than hour before the vote, which was part of the scheduled June meeting, listening to public comments. While the overwhelming number called for deep cuts, Scott said that for the first time council heard pleas to not defund RPD.
Councilmember Mitch Gruber said the vote was the beginning, not the end of redirecting funds from RPD for community programs.
Jackie Ortiz suggested the task force be called a transformation team. “I do feel it better reflects our intentions,” she said.
Lupien, who voted against the budget, said it was time to acknowledge “this moment in history” and the work of organizations such as Free the People ROC to motivate residents. She called for cutting the RPD budget in half.