As 'Defund the Police' Takes Hold, Tucson Leaders Approve $165 Million for Police

July 20, 2020
Taking funding from police is not necessary to prioritize community wellness and decriminalization, some city leaders say. The Tucson Police Department’s total proposed budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 is more than $194 million.

City leaders are facing mounting pressure to defund the Tucson Police Department as part of a nationwide effort to reinvent local law enforcement.

The Tucson City Council approved a $1.7 billion spending cap for next year that includes more than $165 million for police, the largest expenditure in the general fund.

The council is set to adopt a final budget Tuesday.

The movement to defund police started taking hold nationally after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis on May 25, sparking protests across the country.

The basic notion of the defund movement is to reallocate funds from police and prisons to services that invest in communities, like education, employment, housing and justice reform.

In Tucson, community members started calling in to City Council meetings June 9, asking council members to shift money away from the Police Department.

Those calls, along with anti-police-brutality protests, got more vocal after Tucson police belatedly released video and documents in the death of Carlos Adrian Ingram Lopez, a 27-year-old who was handcuffed early April 21 when he died.

Spending on police significant

Taking funding from police is not necessary to prioritize community wellness and decriminalization, some city leaders say.

The Tucson Police Department’s total proposed budget for fiscal year 2020-2021 is more than $194 million.

Of that, $165,324,120 would come from the city’s general fund, with the rest of the funding coming mostly from grants. About $2 million of the general fund budgeted for police is part of the department’s restricted fund, meaning it can only be used for specific purposes.

That leaves more than $163 million in unrestricted funds going to the department, or almost $300 in city funding per resident.

Most of the unrestricted general fund money allocated for the police — about 94% — is for personnel costs.

The $163 million is a more than $5.5 million increase from the previous fiscal year, and makes up almost 19% of the city’s proposed unrestricted budget for 2021. That increase will pay for higher employee-related expenses, including pensions, worker’s compensation and health care for department employees, said Eric Kazmierczak, a department assistant chief who oversees administrative services.

Tucson’s police budget has grown significantly over the last 40 years, according to a recent New York Times report based on an analysis of a database from the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy Fiscally Standardized Cities, which provides information on local government finances.

In 1977, Tucson’s Police Department accounted for 7.4% of the city’s budget. By 2017, it accounted for 16.3%, the most recent year for which the Lincoln Institute provides data.

To put that in perspective, the police department in Albuquerque, with a population of about 20,000 more people than Tucson, gets 11% of the city’s budget. El Paso, with about 143,000 more people than Tucson, spends 5% of its budget on its police department, the New York Times analysis shows.

TPD open to better resourcing

Kazmierczak points to park safety officers — community service officers who patrol parks — and to the department having 19 officers assigned to a team that specializes in handling calls related to mental health as two examples of how the department is open to thinking outside of the traditional law-enforcement box.

“I think this department has demonstrated a willingness and an eagerness in fact to engage in thinking about how to provide those services most effectively,” he said of services more focused on community service than enforcement. “And perhaps that’s not through sworn police officers, perhaps that is through clinicians.”

In a discussion Thursday with the Arizona Daily Star’s editorial board, Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus said he has always supported better resourcing for community providers the department works with that address housing, mental-health and substance-abuse issues.

But he questions whether taking funds from the Police Department is the answer.

The department at one point had 1,100 officers compared with the almost 800 it has now, Magnus said. He said people have sometimes criticized the department’s long response times, something that would worsen with fewer officers.

“It is really up to the community. If they want a lower number of officers and they believe that they can get the services they expect with that reduced number, then that is ultimately a choice for the community through our electeds,” Magnus said.

Zaira Livier, founder of the People’s Defense Initiative, an organization that focuses on implementing progressive and inclusive policies, said people backing the defund movement want less police officers in Tucson as long as the funds are reinvested in programs that would reduce the need for them.

Magnus said the remaining budget not used for personnel costs goes toward basic equipment and training. Next year’s proposed police budget includes $5.5 million for the training division, about 3% of police funds.

Kazmierczak said that amount doesn’t capture all of the department’s training. An additional $275,000 is budgeted for officers’ individual training costs and often salaries count toward hours officers spend training other officers, he said.

'Something has gone off the rails'

During a council meeting July 7, several Tucsonans called in with the same message for city leaders: “Defund the Police Department” and invest in housing, transportation and the community.

Many of them said the issue is systemic and reform doesn’t work.

“Defund” is a movement, not a fleeting moment, Tiera Rainey, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Tucson, told the mayor and council members.

“When one-third of the city budget goes towards policing, you almost admit that something has gone off the rails,” she said. “But people have been begging you for weeks to resource our communities. They have said that police don’t solve problems, they often exacerbate and escalate violence, no matter how many trainings and cameras you give them.”

Black Lives Matter Tucson has encouraged the community to use the city’s participatory budget tool, where residents can provide input on how the city should spend unrestricted funds. Along with promoting the tool, they’re showing Tucsonans what some of the Police Department’s budget could be used for instead.

The $1.8 million that TPD spends on aviation support could provide $2,000 in emergency rent assistance for more than 900 families, the group said on Facebook. Or that money could be used to pay for 40 mental-health therapists, the organization said.

The city’s overall budget includes $125 million for housing and community development, but most of that money is grant funding.

“We believe that you should take the money, the money that comes from the people, and spend it on the people, not on arresting the people, not on harassing the people, not on policing the people,” Najima Rainey, who also works with Black Lives Matter Tucson, told the City Council during the same meeting.

“I don’t want any more money invested in policing me so that I have to be terrified about my safety and the safety of my family,” she added.

Livier said the community has been fooled into believing the Tucson Police Department is different from other police departments.

The veil of that progressive police force was lifted when the department released details of Ingram Lopez’s death last month, she said.

The movement against police violence is becoming more diverse, Livier said.

“I think all of us have always known that police violence affects us all,” she said.

When calling in to the July 7 council meeting, many community members brought up Ingram Lopez’s death to point out that progressive policies don’t work.

Ingram Lopez’s family said it believes policy needs to change and police shouldn’t always be the first to respond to an emergency call, said Eduardo Coronado, the family’s lawyer.

Ingram Lopez’s case is a perfect example because what he needed was medical help or mental-health help, Coronado said.

While Ingram Lopez’s case is personal to the family, they also understand the national interest in the case and how it got tied into the anti-police-brutality movement, Coronado said.

“Who wants to be part of a movement like that when it requires a (family) member to pass away?” he said.

Mayor: Effective change takes time

Mayor Regina Romero said she doesn’t believe in “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” She said she does believe in changing systems that have defunded and criminalized issues like drug dependency, mental-health problems, homelessness and poverty.

“So when I hear ‘defund the police,’ I hear a statement that says, ‘Why are we just funding this and defunding other necessary preventative services that will deal with safety and wellness in a different way,’” she said.

The mayor said she and the City Council are already finding ways to focus on preventative services. The mayor and council recently approved the framework for a community safety pilot program in which city leaders will look at all safety resources in the city and seek community input to build a program that focuses on safety.

The mayor has also asked the city manager to find funding within the 2021 budget to pay for eight new social workers under that new program, along with a new housing first director and $500,000 for a racial equity assessment.

Councilmember Steve Kozachik, meanwhile, said TPD is understaffed and underfunded, and the conversation about providing more social services should not require cutting the police budget.

He said Magnus has always been willing to have conversations about how to provide more social-service support to communities.

The Ingram Lopez situation was an example of what happens when officers don’t carry out their training properly but it’s “not emblematic of a rogue policing agency,” Kozachik said.

“That doesn’t mean there’s no room for improvement because there is,” he said. “But you can’t paint the entire department with that brush.”

Council member Lane Santa Cruz said the defund movement is the beginning of the community asking its representatives to re-imagine the future of policing and community safety.

Modern policing has, in part, been traced back to slave patrols in the South, whose job was to catch runaway slaves.

“The argument from the community is that, you know, police do exactly what they were designed to do,” she said. “So the challenge is how do we re-imagine what safety looks like, or what are the safety needs, and start there rather than continuing an institution that was intended to capture enslaved people and keep them as property.”

Romero said the community has to come together and continue to have conversations about how to move forward. Systemic change takes time, she said.

“I believe in an effective, methodical, long-term change, and that takes time and effort,” Romero said. “And I would hope that the community that is showing up to public hearings right now continues to stay active with us and is willing to roll up their sleeves and actually make effective change happen.”


©2020 The Arizona Daily Star (Tucson, Ariz.)

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