I'm optimistic about the good that is going to come from the nationwide protests against George Floyd's murder by a police officer, since it is long past time that the United States faced up to the injustices people of color have endured at the hands of police for many decades, centuries, really.
But there's another aspect to how our nation looks upon police: we throw a huge amount of money into police department budgets, often with little oversight or analysis into whether this spending is really needed.
In most cities, Salem included, police and fire consume a third to a half or more of a city's general fund budget. (I looked through the City of Salem's most recent budget, but it was so poorly laid out, I gave up on trying to find what percentage of the general fund went to the police department.)
UPDATE: Ace researcher Jim Scheppke, a retired librarian, dug up a summary of the proposed next City of Salem budget that I couldn't find. Here it is, along with some observations Scheppke shared with me. I was correct that police and fire can consume more than half a city's general fund budget. For Salem it is a proposed whopping 59%.
This is from the City Manager’s proposed budget for FY 20-21 which has been approved with no changes by the Citizen Budget Committee. As you can see the SPD gets 33.4% and the SFD gets 25.4% and the other departments get the leftovers. It has been this way for a long time. We have two Cadillac City departments and the rest (with the exception of Public Works — not GF) are Pintos! It’s what happens when you have “public safety is all that really matters" Republicans in charge for 14 years (2003-2017). We haven’t really recovered from that yet.
On MSNBC's All In With Chris Hayes show today, he had a Minneapolis city council member, Steve Fletcher, as a guest to talk about that city's police department.
Fletcher said that the police union has an outsized influence, which isn't unusual. Historically citizens have looked favorably upon police, and unions can summon a lot of community support when attempts are made to rein in either abuses by police officers or police department budgets.
Here in Salem we're fortunate that the police department appears to be well-managed with few examples of officers acting badly. However, this doesn't mean that the police budget should get just a cursory look. A Marketplace story says:
“In many cities, the only budget item that is not facing massive cuts is the police budgets,” said Andrea Ritchie, who researches the criminal-justice system at Barnard College. “We’re literally in the middle of the biggest economic crisis and the highest levels of unemployment of our generation. We’re in a pandemic without universal affordable health care.”
I'm no expert on police department budgets.
But I was deeply involved in efforts to make sure that a new police department headquarters in Salem was correctly sized and reasonably priced. It turned out that neither was initially the case, so Salem voters wisely rejected the first attempt at passing a bond measure for a new headquarters building.
The lesson I learned from this is that just like every government agency, those in charge of a police department believe that they need more money and other resources than is justified given other needs in a community.
So it's the job of local elected officials and the public at large to closely examine police budget requests. So far there's little evidence that this has been happening in Salem to the degree that it should be. Hopefully this will change now that the City of Salem is facing a large budget shortfall caused by the COVID-19 crisis and accompanying economic downturn.
Here's some graphics that local activist Jim Scheppke shared recently on Facebook in connection with a post by the Salem Breakfast on Bikes blogger about the new police station and a search for the next police chief. That post included this passage:
More generally, we likely have more sworn officers than we actually need for the amount of serious crime we have, and it might be possible to reconfigure the police force so it better corresponds to the actual mix of calls to which they respond. Adjusting the composition of personnel could also reduce cost and impact to our city budget.
In response to people questioning whether the police department budget should be reduced, Scheppke shared this information. The first captions are his. I've added my own comments in italics.
Interesting that crimes have dropped while the percentage increase in sworn officers has been markedly below the population increase. Goes to show that there is a tenuous relationship (maybe none at all) between a police department budget and crimes.
Of course, some will argue that police officers do more than deal with violent and property crimes. That's true. But a big question is, why can't lower-cost people do those other things?