• Darien Lamen

BLM Calls for 50 Percent Cut to RPD Budget and "Paradigm Shift" in Public Safety

by DARIEN LAMEN


UPDATE: Rochester City Council said during a press conference Monday they will introduce and vote on several changes to the 2020-21 budget Tuesday, including: reallocating $130,000 from police overtime to the Department of Recreation and Youth Services (2019-2020 police overtime budget was $7 million); reducing the size of the incoming Rochester Police Class from 38 by half and allocating $750,000 saved to a Task Force (to be created) that will discuss how to "re-imagine policing" and reform city's contract with the Locust Club


Councilmember Mary Lupien did not participate in Monday's press conference. On Saturday, Lupien issued a statement affirming her support for Black Lives Matter organizers' demand that city officials cut the Rochester Police Department budget ($95 million) by half and reinvest it in the community.


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PHOTO: Darien Lamen

(WXIR-Rochester) If there was ever any question about whether #DefundThePolice really meant "defund the police," this weekend local Black Lives Matter organizers cleared up the confusion.


"One of our main demands is defunding the police. A lot of people are asking, what does that mean, what does that look like?" organizer Stanley Martin said Saturday during the most recent Black Lives Matter protest in Martin Luther King Jr. Park.


"We’re asking you to join us in shifting the paradigm to focus on not criminalizing Black and Brown people, and instead pouring resources into our community," Martin explained. "So what that looks like is asking for 50% of the police department budget to be put back into communities."


Calls to defund and dismantle police departments have been gaining traction nationwide, following the widespread urban uprisings that took place in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police.


But so far in Rochester, City Councilmembers have been largely silent on the matter. During a budget hearing with RPD leadership last Tuesday, City Council tiptoed around the national conversation.


The lone exception has been Councilmember Mary Lupien. On Saturday night, she announced her support for the demand to cut the police budget in half, and said she will host an online town hall on the subject Monday.


With the vote on the city budget just days away, it remains to be seen whether City Council will be able to come together around additional cuts to police spending. If they are planning some kind of last minute change to the mayor’s proposed budget, they’re playing it close to the chest.



Budget Priorities


Mayor Lovely Warren's proposed city budget for 2020-21 allocates about $95 million to the RPD (although BLM organizers say the city spends over $140 million on policing once employee benefits are factored in).

During a City Council hearing on the proposed RPD budget Tuesday, the most pointed questions came from Councilmember Mitch Gruber, who advocated for “significant cuts” to police overtime, and from Councilmember Willie Lightfoot, who questioned the RPD’s use of military gear and weapons that “seem to be feared by the community as escalating the situation as opposed to de-escalating the situation.”


Mayor Warren has made it clear that she does not support the demand to defund the police. But she's being careful not to appear as though she's giving the RPD any special treatment. She's noted on several separate occasions in the last week that the Rochester Police Department is already facing a $3 million cut in the coming year.


But nearly all city departments are facing cuts as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown, and city spending on the RPD is still greater than on any other city department. In fact, the RPD budget is larger than the Fire, Library, Recreation and Youth Services, and Neighborhood and Business Development budgets combined. 


The city’s outsize spending on policing predates Mayor Warren’s tenure. Over the last 20 years, city spending on the RPD has grown by 80% even as spending overall has increased by only 56%. By contrast, spending on the Library and Recreation and Youth Services Departments, as well as the Rochester City School District, has largely remained flat.


During a recent budget hearing on the proposed Department of Recreation and Youth Services budget, Mayor Warren defended her budget priorities, saying, “The record is very very clear about where our focus is because our funding for children is on par with our funding for our public safety." Warren argued that the $119 million in tax money the city levies on behalf of the Rochester City School District should be counted in that former category.


Leaving aside the fact that city funding for the RCSD has not increased in two decades, the notion of "balance" to which Warren appeals--one in which policing and programming are deemed equally valuable--is at odds with the worldview the Black Lives Matter movement has articulated.



Reformist Reforms vs. Non-Reformist Reforms


During a press conference Wednesday, Mayor Lovely Warren pushed back on the idea of defunding the police while depicting herself as a champion of police reform.


“I can tell you that as many people as you’ve talked to [who are for it], I’ve spoken to who say, don’t defund the police. So our goal is that we work in partnership and that we try to uplift the entire community," Warren said, adding, "There are many people who want the relationship between the police and the community to improve and I’ve already shown you the steps that we’ve taken since 2014 to improve them.”


Among those steps are body-worn cameras, a ban on chokeholds, and programs like Clergy On Patrol.


Warren took office the same year that Police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Like most cities, Rochester saw large Black Lives Matter protests throughout the summer of 2014. Under Warren's watch, protesters were subject to police violence and mass arrests. Then, in December, the mayor announced her support for a new police body-worn camera program. The program was rolled out in 2016-17, with an initial city investment of $2 million. 


More recently, Warren has made reorganizing the RPD around a neighborhood-patrol model a central part of her public safety agenda. The plan includes construction of 3 new neighborhood police precincts, which the city expects to cost $33 million.


Across the country, these kinds of police reforms were formulated in response to the demands, and in relation to the militancy of the first wave of BLM protests. 


But as Joshua Dubler, a scholar of religion, mass incarceration, and abolition at the University of Rochester, says, this time around things seem qualitatively different.


“I’m incredibly encouraged by what seems to me to be a shift from a reformist framework to an abolitionist framework," Dubler says. "If you think of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2014, those who were willing to make demands, it was absolutely within a reformist frame: body cameras for police, better community policing, more police of color, and so on."

"The demand to defund the police is a very different sort of demand, a demand that exists on a horizon toward abolition," Dubler says.

Dubler says he finds Mariame Kaba's distinction between "reformist reforms" and "non-reformist reforms" especially clarifying on this point. For Kaba, “reformist reforms” end up buttressing the institutions of police and prisons by funneling more resources into making them more "effective." “Non-reformist reforms” meanwhile point to other horizons of possibility.


"If we believe that systems of policing and imprisonment harm, then the solution is not to make those systems more effective, it is to reduce those systems. It is to shrink them. And that is half of the abolitionist project. The other half is to build an alternative set of institutions that, rather than using violence to deal with the symptoms of social ills, try to create structures of care that will enable all of us to flourish," Dubler says.


Over the last fifty years, the United States has dramatically reduced social services while investing more in policing and prisons. The result has been the criminalization of poverty and the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people.


With the COVID-19 pandemic, Dubler believes an even wider cross-section of the United States has come to experience the kind of "mass abandonment" with which Black America is already painfully familiar.


"What we see in the last 10 years, if you think of Katrina, and Puerto Rico after the hurricane, and now COVID is that, an ever-greater portion of the population is being written off as surplus, who can be abandoned, who will not be cared for, who will not be receiving health care and education, with Black people being paradigmatic," says Dubler.


In that sense, the scale and intensity of these latest Black Lives Matter protests cannot be separated from the crisis of COVID-19, which is as much an economic, housing, and social crisis as it is a health crisis.



Reframing "Public Safety"


One of the central tasks that the Black Lives Matter movement has taken up in this latest iteration of the freedom struggle is that of reframing and reclaiming the meaning of “public safety.”


During Saturday's rally in Rochester, organizer Stanley Martin told the crowd, "We're asking you to join us to reimagine a world where public safety does not include police, and instead it includes healthcare, mental health workers, education."

For many of Rochester's Black residents, police are experienced more as a threat to public safety than as its bedrock.


For Kevin Paul Sumler, a 67-year-old man who observed Saturday’s rally from the edge of the park, public safety means something entirely different.


“What does public safety mean to me? Well first of all, police can’t help me," Sumler says.


"But my neighbor down the street can. I would put more faith in my neighbor than I would in the police, with all the nonsense that went on here two weeks ago,” Sumler says, in reference to the police response to the first Black Lives Matter protest on May 30th, in which RPD officers in riot gear shot pepper bullets at protesters.

PHOTO: Sean Smith

It’s a sentiment echoed by Sean Smith, who attended that first protest in May with her family. The same night, just before midnight, her home security cameras captured images of a pickup truck driving back and forth in front of her house, and of the driver getting out and throwing a chunk of concrete through her front window.


"My daughter called 9-1-1 because we believed somebody had shot into the house. And afterward we called back to tell them that we were ok, there was no immediate threat," Smith says.


"[The dispatcher] said that they had the call in for a shooting and that she wasn’t even going to [get] dispatch to call for over an hour. So till this day I have not reported it."


Instead, Smith took to social media immediately to "report" the incident. She urged her friends to be on the lookout. She reached out to loved ones for support.


The attack on Smith’s house took place while a curfew imposed by Mayor Lovely Warren was in effect. Smith believes someone she knows took advantage of the situation in an attempt to intimidate her for her increasingly outspoken posts on social media calling out racism.


Smith says she didn’t feel comfortable turning to the police for help, especially after seeing news report after news report in which RPD officials vowed to find the “looters and rioters” from that afternoon’s BLM protest.


"I didn’t feel comfortable bothering [the police] with my public safety issues. It seemed like more of an issue for my friends. Those are the people that are openly supporting me," Smith says. "All I keep hearing is [RPD officials] saying you’re out looking to catch rioters and looters, so to me it seems like you’ve got no time for me. I don’t feel cared about at all."


And after learning about the RPD's clearance rates from former-public defender Danielle Ponder during a teach-in at this Saturday's BLM protest, Smith says she's even less inclined to report the incident.


In 2018-19, the last full year for which actual data is available, RPD cleared about 28% of all reported crimes. RPD’s clearance rates for rape, burglary, and larceny were lower than the national average for that year, according to data from the FBI Unified Crime Reporting Program.

During Saturday's teach-in, Ponder noted that one of the concerns opponents of defunding the police most frequently cite (whether in good faith or bad) is the need to respond to violent crime.


However, the data included in the proposed city budget shows that roughly 80% of reported crimes in 2018-19 were part II “property crimes” like burglary, larceny, and motor vehicle theft.  Of those, the RPD cleared only 14%.


What's more, the vast majority of calls the Rochester Police Department responds to are not the ones people conjure up in their minds. Only 15% of the nearly 319,000 calls for service the RPD received in 2018-19 were categorized as “critical,” that is, in-progress calls with a threat or potential for violence. 



City Council's Move


Rochester City Council is scheduled to vote on the Mayor's proposed budget--and any amendments to it--this Tuesday June 16th.


If Council were to agree on cuts to the RPD budget, it would be the second time in as many years that they have effectively overridden Mayor Warren on an issue she has claimed as one of her signature issues in office.


Last year, Council sidelined the Mayor’s efforts to introduce her own proposal for a police accountability board--one that critics said largely resembled the toothless civilian advisory board that already exists. Instead, Council decided to forge ahead on legislation for a PAB with disciplinary and subpoena powers that they crafted in collaboration with community groups.


Whether they decide to rock the boat again now remains to be seen.


But whatever happens Tuesday, the city budget is just one front in a renewed freedom struggle.


"Any abolitionist will tell you it is not enough to abolish the police," Joshua Dubler says. "Policing and prisons are a bandaid in this culture that respond, or fail to respond, to a host of social ills."


Those ills include real estate speculation and homelessness; for-profit healthcare and a global pandemic; trauma, mental illness, and addiction; poverty wages and economic exploitation; to name just a few.


In drawing out the connections between the movement to #CancelRent and #DefundThePolice, this latest iteration of the Black freedom struggle is charting a course toward the society we all need, one in which housing, healthcare, resources, joy, and crucially, freedom from state violence, are all indispensable elements of public safety.


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Darien Lamen is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can be reached at wxirnews@gmail.com. This article also includes reporting by Jason Taylor.

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