Tom Butt
  E-Mail Forum – 2021  
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  The Tide is Turning Against Defunding the Police in a Flawed Budget Process
June 9, 2021

The flawed process of crafting a City budget continues to lurch along, haunted by the divisive Reimagine Public Safety movement, unexplained senior management staff confusion, ongoing but unresolved negotiations with public employee unions and endless questions by RPA City Council members who don’t understand basic public finance principles and city staff who don’t know the answers.

This all started back in early May when the city manager failed to produce a budget to meet the May 4 deadline prescribed by RMC 2.61.010. What was provided was not a not a budget; it was a revenue projection and a compilation of funding requests that exceed projected revenues by $12,596,848. The May 4 Agenda Report stated “Staff understands that some departments are still making late requests which may increase the starting deficit,” and “staff will further analyze revenues and expenses, including requests over baseline to determine how we might close this initial estimated gap.” That is something that should have already been done by May 4.

The May 4 Agenda Report was authored by Laura Snideman, City Manager, LaShonda White, Deputy City Manager for Internal Services, Belinda Brown, Finance Director and Antonio Banuelos, Accounting Manager. Since then, Finance Director Belinda Brown has disappeared, LaShonda White appears to have been demoted and (former?) Human Services Director Anil Comelo appears to have been promoted to deputy city manager and point person for the budget.

With only two weeks and one more meeting before the City Council will be asked to adopt a budget, the most controversial issue, Reimagine Public Safety, remains unresolved.

After some 65 public speakers and lengthy speeches by most City Council members, the City Council adopted the following motion early in the morning of June 2 by a 5-2 vote, with Bates and Butt dissenting:

A motion was made by Councilmember McLaughlin directing staff to continue working with the Reimagining Public Safety Community Task Force and return to the council with a more detailed implementation plan; a detailed budget that provided ongoing funding for the Community Crisis Response Team (even if it was a placeholder) and ongoing funding for SOS (the ground plan for helping the unhoused); and how the Richmond Police Department could fund those programs (whether it was freezing some vacant positions or some programs or contracts not moving forward).  Councilmember McLaughlin’s restated shortened motion, seconded by Councilmember Jimenez, directing staff to work with the Reimagining Public Safety Community Task Force; and return to the council with an implementation plan and a detailed budget that included the Community Crisis Response Team and SOS to see how the Richmond Police Department could fund the programs ongoing passed by the following vote:  Ayes: Councilmembers Jimenez, Martinez, McLaughlin, Willis, and Vice Mayor Johnson III.  Noes:  Councilmember Bates and Mayor Butt.  Abstained:  None.  Absent:  None.

This was pursuant to an agenda item crafted by City Manager Laura Snideman that attempted to respond to the Reimagine Public Safety Task Force recommendation to defund the police department by $10.3 million and transfer the funding to Youthworks, ONS, Homelessness and mental health crisis response. The city manager’s proposal included the following:

  • Increase YouthWORKS funding by $1.98 million.
  • Increase ONS funding by $1.6 million.
  • Add a $1 million placeholder for Community Crisis Response pending preparation of an implementation plan.
  • Homelessness and Unhoused Intervention, add $1 million.
  • A reduction of the police department budget of $2.3 million.

None of these line items was discussed at the June 7 City Council meeting. Instead, the city manager is targeting the meeting of June 15 to resolve them. There were also a number of confusing and sometimes inaccurate statements made in the June 7 Agenda Report for the budget.

  • The Agenda Report stated, “The recommended General Fund budget is balanced,” but it also stated, “The City continues to experience a structural budget deficit.” In response to my request for clarification, Anil Comelo responded that both statements are correct! He confirmed that the budget presented was both balanced and structurally unbalanced.
  • The Agenda Report stated that the proposed budget, “Preserves city services at the current level,” which is clearly not the case with the police budget.
  • The Agenda Report stated, “Staff proposes utilizing this balance for the following purposes …$4.2M to maintain the City’s 14.3% reserve level as reported to council at the mid-year budget review (Council policy is 15%) … The Agenda Report also stated, “Added $2.5 million to be set aside to reach the Reserve Policy rate of 15%.” Anil Comelo confirmed that that reserve budget was 14.3%, not 15%.

Regarding the police budget, Chief French confirmed on June 7 that the budget included eliminating 12 police officer positions that were previously budgeted but unfilled due to recruitment challenges. The costs of these positions is about $3 million. Comelo’s assertion about preserving services is grossly misleading at best and just a plain lie at worst. Following is what Chief French wrote about the impact of the police budget reduction:

  • Ability to shift resources quickly will be (and has been) hampered. Why?  Our focus has been on providing basic patrol and investigative needs.  Patrol staffing has been our primary focus due to the fact that community needs begin with a patrol response.  Adequately staffing the patrol teams absorbs the bulk of our personnel resources.  Patrol officers are assigned to fixed schedules.  Therefore, when emerging needs arise (e.g.: recent gang-related violence), addressing those needs falls onto the one remaining team who are able to re-focus their efforts at a moment’s notice (e.g.: CVRT).  This team has been depleted and currently consists of only one supervisor and 4 detectives.  This staffing does not allow for 7 day a week coverage, therefore, we have to utilize officers on overtime to be able to cover additional hours when we experience spikes in crimes.  In past years, we had two street teams that maintained seven day per week coverage, and were able to be re-shifted to such crime trends and district/beat/neighborhood needs.  These are the types of resources that have been lost as our sworn staffing levels have been reduced over the past few years. One additional constraint of being able to quickly move resources involves the MOU.  We cannot, absent an emergency situation, change an officer’s shift without adequate notice (60 days).
  • Ability to focus on long-term investigations will be (and has been) hampered. Why?  Our current investigative staff is about half of what they used to be.  Our current staffing allows for very minimal time in addressing cold-cases.  Our homicide team is currently stretched thin just to be able to handle the workload.  Focusing on older cases is a service we cannot provide with the current resources.  Additionally, we used to have detectives focused on crimes such as identity theft/computer crimes.  In most cases, these investigations are very labor and time-intensive.  With our current staffing, these crimes (unless there are strong leads) cannot be given the attention they are due.  Our domestic violence and sexual assault cases have not diminished in numbers but the number of detectives assigned to those cases has diminished.  These are multi-disciplinary investigations, in many cases, that require a significant amount of time and resources from our investigative staff. Robberies continue to plague the Richmond community, yet we only have enough detectives to primarily handle in-custody robbery cases, leaving very little time to investigate cases with existing leads. Our intelligence unit cannot properly focus on gathering intelligence at this time due to the need to have them focused on combatting retaliatory shootings.  In the past, we had detectives assigned specifically to this function in order to gain intelligence to thwart and deter future acts of violence and other criminal issues (potentially this could have included human trafficking, fireworks and side-show activity).  Moreover, our ability to focus on human trafficking has been diminished due to the fact that the detective focused on these efforts is also relied upon by the DSVU team to assist in their cases.  To add to this, even when human trafficking operations are conducted, the resources are taken from existing detective resources and require overtime officers to provide the needed enforcement teams to safely execute such operations.
  • Ability to focus on “Quality of Life” issues will be (and has been) hampered.  Our previous staffing levels allowed for additional units to focus on quality of life issues.  These issues include human trafficking/prostitution, drug house abatement, open air narcotic sales, homelessness issues, and other complaints that take time to resolve.  As our staffing was reduced, we had no choice but to eliminate these additional units (BRAVO, Street Teams).  This has left the beat officers responsible for dealing with the quality of life projects.  However, the beat officers often do not have the time to devote to such projects.  We have continually utilized overtime to deal with quality of life issues that require more time, effort and coordination to address.  Additional staffing would allow for us to re-establish units to address these ongoing issues and cut down on overtime costs.   

As decision time on the budget draws near, it appears the tide is turning on the Defund the Police fad, which continues to be favored by the hard core anti-police RPA City Council members, a majority of the Reimagine Public Safety task Force members selected by those same RPA council members, and a shrinking group of anti-police Richmond residents.

  • In contrast to the June 2 City Council, meeting where public speakers were dominated by defund the police advocates, nearly all the public speakers at the June 7 City Council meeting opposed cuts to the police budget.
  • Several social media polls over the last several weeks have indicated overwhelming opposition to police budget reductions.
  • Every neighborhood council that has weighed in on the issue opposes reduction of police services.
  • The Community Police Review Commission opposes reduction of the police budget.
  • Although the NAACP provided a letter expressing neutrality on the issue, supplemental verbal comments indicate opposition.

At end of the day, the City Council majority voted to accept the proposed budget and work out the remaining Reimagine Public Safety issues at the June 15 City Council meeting. Again, Butt and Bates dissented.