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Pastor Dorisalene Hughes called for an end to police brutality during a demonstration in Berkeley on June 13, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos
The Berkeley City Council shifted more than $9 million out of the police department budget Tuesday night to help pay for a range of reforms called for by community members and city officials alike in recent weeks.
And that may be just the beginning.
Council members and the city’s police chief, Andrew Greenwood, have pledged to do whatever it takes to reimagine what public safety looks like in Berkeley by refocusing officers on serious crimes rather than the calls related to mental health crises and homelessness for which they have come to be responsible. The city has promised to launch a robust community process later this year to seek input from residents about what that could look like.
On Tuesday night, council members had been charged with adopting the city budget for the new fiscal year, which began Wednesday. Eight members of the City Council voted in favor of the balanced budget put forward by Mayor Jesse Arreguín in collaboration with city staff. Councilmember Cheryl Davila had voted yes to that proposal during a budget meeting Monday but abstained Tuesday night during the final vote.
Davila has put forward her own proposal to slash the Berkeley Police Department’s $70 million budget by at least 50% in line with the massive public outcry locally and across the nation that began with the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May.
Her item is set to come before council July 14 along with several others about policing, including a proposal for an analysis of BPD’s calls for service that is part of Councilmember Ben Bartlett’s George Floyd Community Safety Act; funding for the community engagement process around public safety, as recommended by Councilmember Susan Wengraf; and a proposal from Councilmember Rigel Robinson’s office to move traffic and parking enforcement out of the police department.
Those items will be heard together as a group that night, with a single public comment session followed by council discussion and possible action.
Local residents who spoke Tuesday night over several hours of public comment urged city officials, in a unified voice, to delay their budget vote until July 14 so they could ratify the Davila proposal instead. They all said Berkeley is not moving far enough quickly enough.
“The solution is not more reforms,” one woman told city officials. “The solution is to severely defund.”
She and others said abolition was their ultimate goal, in part because modern policing has its roots in slave patrols and other racist practices. Policing unfairly targets communities of color and is out-of-step with Berkeley values. Many speakers urged officials to be “on the right side of history” and pursue more radical change.
“Nine million in reductions to the police is simply not enough,” a man named Will Skinner told officials. He said the mayor’s budget was “laughable” and promised that any official who voted in favor of it would be “removed from office in November.”
Arreguín’s budget was crafted to address an expected gap of $40 million in general fund revenues and expenses that came about as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The budget took into account priority projects from council members and staff as well as across-the-board spending deferrals from all city departments.
Earlier this year, the city manager asked each department to come up with a list of reductions, totalling 15% of their general fund budgets, from vacant positions and projects that could wait. The city has characterized these reductions as deferrals rather than cuts, as it will continue to assess the financial situation on an ongoing basis.
The city manager charged each department with coming up with general fund deferrals that did not involve layoffs. The bulk of the general fund budget, about 70%, is tied to personnel costs. For the police department, that number comes in even higher, at 90%.
So, without sacking anyone, certain departments — including the police and fire departments, the Police Review Commission and the clerk’s office — were unable to find 15% of their budgets to trim. The Arreguín budget reduced police spending from the general fund by about 13%.
At one point late in the meeting, Councilmember Bartlett asked whether the mayor would consider increasing the proposed reduction to the police budget to 25%. Arreguín said that, while he agreed in concept with many of Bartlett’s remarks about the need to transform policing, he could not make such a drastic change on the fly because it would result in layoffs.
The mayor said earlier in the night that his goal with Tuesday’s budget proposal was to maintain a “baseline level of services” from police.
Under the Arreguín budget, the city now plans to spend $250,000 to help create an African American Holistic Resource Center; $200,000 on the community process to reimagine public safety; $160,000 on the audit of police calls to determine how many of them could be handled by trained clinicians or professionals other than police; and nearly $100,000 on other programs related to help for Black families and a relatively new Berkeley law that stops landlords from doing criminal background checks.
Previously, the bulk of that money had been allocated to police operations. Multiple council members described the new budget as a “downpayment” that will begin to overhaul a system in need of significant reform. They promised the 100-plus members of the public who attended Tuesday’s meeting virtually that much bigger changes are coming.
In her remarks, Councilmember Kate Harrison said officials will be looking closely at police overtime to assess whether it’s being used appropriately and said she has been pushing for better use-of-force data, which is now slated to be presented to the City Council in July.
Harrison went on, however, to call community criticisms of the mayor’s budget “misbegotten.” She said the budget actually “puts money squarely at the heart of the issues” that matter most, including programs focused on addressing racial equity, homelessness, housing retention, fire safety and more.
When it was her turn to speak, Councilmember Sophie Hahn said she is committed to coming up with a budget for next year that will deliver “transformative change.”
“This budget is just a pause button and tomorrow, despite how tired we all are, is when the work begins,” Hahn said. “This is the year to rethink safety and security and rethink everything we do as a city.”
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