Richmond, CA

Bay Area city will decide if $10.3 million go to the police or social services

Josue Torres
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In a month, the size and organization of the East Bay police department might change as Richmond embarks on a risky experiment that other towns have tried in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in May 2020. 

It would imply the layoff of up to 35 police officers in Richmond, as well as a transfer of $10.3 million from the department’s $67.2 million budget to social services.

Activists and the majority of the City Council are ecstatic. The mayor and police chief are both concerned, and locals seem to be split. Some advocate for tougher policing. 

Others advocate for investments in job creation, housing, and anti-violence initiatives to address the underlying causes of crime.

Both sides are well aware of the stakes. Marisol Cantú, a third-generation local and member of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Community Task Force, which was founded in June in the aftermath of Floyd’s death, is one of them.

Its 21 appointed members met for ten months to develop a new budget plan, with the goal of first improving community relations with a smaller police force.

Cantú thinks that shifting around 15% of the Police Department’s budget would impact Richmond “in such a tremendous way that it’s almost unfathomable, because it goes back to the philosophy of who is safe in the city.”

The diverted money would provide $3.4 million for Richmond’s homeless population and $2.5 million for the Office of Neighborhood Safety, boosting the office’s yearly budget to $4.5 million. 

The YouthWorks Summer Youth Employment Program’s funding would increase from $375,000 to $2.3 million each year. In addition, $2.4 million will be spent in a community crisis response program for calls about mental health crises, which are presently handled by police.

Police Chief Bisa French, on the other hand, thinks the cutbacks would cripple her force, and Mayor Tom Butt sees the idea as extreme

Laura Snideman, City Manager, will submit an alternate option on Tuesday: $5.58 million for social services, with $2.3 million coming from police.

The mayor, searching for the appropriate metaphor to characterize a fragmented city, said that citizens live in two worlds with opposite viewpoints on the policing topic.

“On one, police are bad. And the fewer we have, the better,” Butt said. “On the other — which is mine — our Police Department is not perfect. But it’s better than a lot. And there’s always room for improvement.”

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He is concerned that police will no longer have enough staff to handle the majority of complaints, such as noise, shoplifting, traffic violations, porch pirates, copper wire, and catalytic converter thefts, and will instead have to devote all of their resources to serious crimes such as homicides, robberies, and assaults.

Some task force members find no problem with the adjustment, believing that the department’s main emphasis should be on violence and that individuals other than police should deal with quality-of-life concerns.

“There’s been a couple of murders over the past couple of weeks in the city of Richmond, and I think they should just be spending time investigating,” Armond Lee said. 

He is the task force’s youngest member, at 24 years old. He is a UCLA student and self-described police abolitionist who admits it may take years to remove conventional law enforcement.

Chief French, the state’s first Black woman in command of a municipal police force, has found herself in a difficult situation. 

She supports changes but is concerned that if the city reduces its workforce, her department will suffer.

Nobody wants the chief to fail, said Randy Joseph, a task force member. He also serves as the head of the Community Police Review Commission, an oversight group that investigates complaints and analyzes department practices.

In an ideal world, public safety should not be entrusted to a single agency or leader, according to Joseph.

French said that she is permitted to have 157 officers, but that 11 jobs are now unfilled, and she is hesitant to fill them since new recruits may be laid off.

She applauds portions of the Reimagining plan, claiming that the focus on youth employment and violence prevention would “will eventually lead to a safer community”

Nonetheless, the chief warned that, because of seniority restrictions in the union contract, the first officers to lose their positions would be younger persons of color, whom she and her predecessor, Chris Magnus, fought to recruit.

As council members prepare to vote on a budget in June, the argument has heated up. 

A few task group members disagree that the projected cutbacks are too drastic. They include Ben Therriault, president of the police union, who is running for Contra Costa County sheriff in 2022. 

He recently joined a coalition of retailers and community organizations that are circulating petitions and launching social media commercials in the hopes of preserving police funding.

“The original intent of the task force — making law enforcement better — was hijacked, and it turned into a defund task force,” Therriault said. “It’s unfortunate,” he added. “Because the ideas and concepts were good.”

Linda Whitmore, another member, said she was opposed to laying off so many cops but would support a more gradual approach. 

San Francisco is one city that has adopted this tactic, with authorities siphoning $120 million from the police, sheriff, and district attorney over a two-year period by removing empty posts, reducing overtime, and downsizing the fleet of police vehicles. 

San Francisco will use the funds to support initiatives that benefit the city’s Black population, such as guaranteed income and assistance for small companies.

Oakland is still debating whether to cut police money in the 2018 budget, but politicians are experimenting with alternative options. 

Earlier this year, its City Council authorized a proposal to dispatch crisis responders from the Fire Department to mental health emergencies.

When French took over as CEO last year, she vowed to assist more women and people of color advance in their careers. COVID, on the other hand, slashed Richmond’s budget, leading the Police Department to lose $10.3 million from the previous year and requiring the chief to freeze 31 sworn and civilian posts.

She anticipates further layoffs as the Reimagining strategy moves forward: investigations. The traffic division. The neighborhood violence reduction team works to prevent human trafficking and retaliatory killings. The regulatory division in charge of taxis and more.

Therriault claimed he is battling to keep calm.

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