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How ‘Defunding The Police’ Is Translating Into Policy In Richmond

Protesters
From a June 13 march, protester holding a sign calling for demilitarizing the police. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Over the past weeks, thousands of protesters of different races, ages and backgrounds have taken to the streets of Richmond to protest police brutality.

An often repeated chant is the call to “Defund the police.” That demand has led to a nationwide conversation about the role of policing in communities, and has even drawn the attention of two Richmond City Council members.

Council members Stephanie Lynch and Michael Jones issued statements earlier this month supporting the movement.

“I am calling for a deep dive into the Richmond Police Department’s budget with the intention of defunding the police,” Jones wrote. 

But what exactly would defunding the police look like in Richmond?

Some advocates for defunding the police would like to see the institution abolished entirely. Others like Jones are quick to point out that, for them, “defunding does not mean dissolving.” Instead, they are asking the public to reimagine public safety with a reduced role for armed police officers. Advocates also say reinvesting the money into communities of color must go hand-in-hand with disinvestment in traditional policing. 

Kalia Harris has been a prominent organizer in the recent protests in Richmond. While she supports abolishing prison and police, she said protesters right now are asking the public to put their eyes on the budget.

“The first step is getting rid of the militarization that we’re seeing every night in Richmond,” Harris said. “We want to target the funding for this war gear and militarization, and start putting that toward schools and public housing.”

In Richmond, plans are underway to create a process for the public and elected officials to review the Richmond Police Department budget and make suggestions on how those dollars could be diverted to other social services. Mayor Levar Stoney is backing that process.

Jones said it’s important that the community - not police or government officials - be in charge of re-imagining policing, and making suggestions for reinvestment.

“If we’re going to move forward and rebuild the trust, we can’t call the shots,” he said. “We’re the ones that lost the trust, because we haven’t listened.”

Jones said the recent protests in Richmond have further broken the trust between the community and police, as videos of Richmond Police officers firing tear gas at peaceful protesters circulate widely.

 

Richmond’s Police Budget Continues To Grow, Despite Crime Remaining Flat

In 2019, Richmond allocated more than $96 million toward policing. The Richmond Police Department’s general fund budget has grown by more than $17.5 million in the last decade. According to Virginia State Police’s annual crime report, incidents of serious crimes against people and property (defined as “Group A offenses”) have remained mostly flat. Richmond’s homicide rate has also held steady during this time period, with spikes in 2016 and 2017.

Richmond also spends more money on its police department as a percentage of its total general fund budget than Chesterfield and Henrico Counties. The money Richmond spends on policing makes up roughly 13 percent of all general fund expenditures, the largest budget item outside of schools.

Before the coronavirus pandemic hit and budget cuts were made, Mayor Stoney proposed increasing the police budget by more than $3 million in 2021.

Asked about the increasing size of the Richmond Police Department budget over the last decade, Jones said: “You want to see where a government’s focus is, look and see how they budget.”

The Richmond Police Department declined to answer questions for this story.

Councilwoman Lynch has also offered some local policy proposals that she says aligns with protesters' demands to “defund the police.”

In an open letter released June 10, Lynch said she wants immediate action to create a civilian review board for police misconduct with subpoena power. She also said she would co-sponsor local legislation to ensure mental health professionals are part of the response to people in crisis.

“We need a transformative rebalancing of the institutions in our public safety and criminal justice system,” Lynch wrote. “There is decades-worth of research that proves society’s answer to ‘reducing crime’ has done nothing more than traumatize communities, perpetuate health disparities, increase recidivism rates, create an oppressed population of low-income workers, and disenfranchise Black lives.”

Lynch also called for creating a plan to transition police officers out of schools and replace them with trained counselors and social workers. 

Mayor Levar Stoney has also signaled a commitment to reimagining public safety and taking a closer look at the police budget. During a press conference where he announced the forced resignation of Police Chief William Smith, Stoney said he would work with City Council to create a 20-member task force on public safety. The group will be asked to produce a report with actionable steps within 90 days of its first meeting.

“I’m committed to reimagining public safety, and I’m committed to take a holistic approach that takes into account, accountability, transparency, funding, policies, practices and, above all, community engagement,” Stoney said. 

Stoney also said he is committed to creating a civilian review board.

All of these proposals would likely come with a price tag. For activists, that represents an opportunity to defund the police.

Community organizer Chelsea Higgs Wise said funding for establishing the review board and one-to-one replacement of school resource officers with social workers could come directly from the police budget. 

“For so long politicians have instilled fear for us asking for the things that we need in our community by saying, ‘Well, we’ll have to raise taxes,’” Higgs Wise said. “That’s not actually our reality. We can reallocate money from an inflated public safety budget and invest that into our school system.”

Advocates Also Take Aim At State Policing Budget

State-level advocacy groups are also demanding disinvestment in policing. The ACLU of Virginia was recently joined by 26 other organizations in calling for cuts to the state police budget. With the state General Assembly planning to hold a special budget session later this summer, advocates for defunding the police see an opening. 

Claire Gastañaga, the executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said if cuts are necessary due to the coronavirus pandemic and resulting recession, they’re urging lawmakers to put state funding for police on the chopping block. 

“The governor is going to have to make some hard choices about what to recommend,” Gastañaga said. “What we’re saying is: Start with the $400 million [state] law enforcement budget.”

The ACLU and other statewide advocacy groups have also sent Virginia’s top legislators a number of reform proposals, including creating alternatives to prosecution for “low-level, non-serious” offenses. 

Police Back Reform, Not Defunding

Whether the “defund the police” movement leads to policy changes will depend first on the responsiveness of politicians, but also on the response of police departments.

The Virginia Chiefs of Police Association recently produced a report for Governor Ralph Northam outlining their policy proposals. In it, the association backs reforms that would make it easier to decertify officers who grossly violate ethics standards, and get rid of police unions. But many of their proposals include more training, which would inevitably direct more tax dollars to police departments. 

When asked about the movement to defund the police, association head Dana Schrad indicated police might be willing to give up what they see as non-policing responsibilities.

“If the schools want to hire their own security officers, or just rely on school officials to protect the schools, then fine,” Schrad said. “When we shift those responsibilities to other public servants, funding will be diverted to them, and the burden is lifted from law enforcement agencies.”

Schrad said, at this point, the Virginia Chiefs of Police Association believes it’s unclear what calls for defunding the police really means. 

Communities outside of Virginia are also reimagining the role of policing. In Minneapolis - the heart of recent protests - a majority of city council members said they supported dismantling the police department and developing a new model of public safety. 

School boards and city councils across the country are also reevaluating their partnerships with police departments. Local bodies in Minneapolis, Portland and Denver voted to terminate contracts with police. 

VPM Intern Alex Broening contributed fact-checking to this story.