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One year after the George Floyd uprisings that prompted a nationwide reevaluation of what role police actually play in upholding public safety, cities are backtracking on moves to redirect funds from municipal police budgets. In response to the uprisings, civil rights activists, community organizations, and protesters demanded that officials defund police budgets, which often account for significant portions of city spending and eclipse funding for local programs, schools, and libraries.
Now, some local governments are restoring police budgets that had been recently cut, and some departments are receiving additional funding on the claim that a nationwide increase in crime demands an increased police presence. In Austin, after vowing to cut funding by $100 million, the city council increased the police budget to a record $442 million. The New York Times recently wrote on the issue that departments felt pressure to increase police funding, in some cases offering signing bonuses, in response to the number of officers who resigned their positions.
But if the call for defunding police budgets has led to actual incremental budgetary changes in few cities, what public safety measures has the call for “defund” helped bring to life?
One of the biggest victories coming out of the George Floyd uprisings in 2020 was California’s passage of the C.R.I.S.E.S. Act.
“I would say that the George Floyd uprisings made possible [the] resourcing of the projects that we, and I know others, have been working on in Oakland, Sacramento, and beyond,” said James Burch, the policy director of the Oakland-based coalition, the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP).
Cat Brooks, the founder of APTP, drafted the legislation with Los Angeles assembly member Sydney Kamlager. The C.R.I.S.E.S. Act establishes a grant pilot program that allocates $10 million in funding for community-based organizations that are engaged in local crisis response. That type of investment in community-based crisis response is rare, Burch says.
“We think of it as a huge victory because … one of the things we hear often when we say that we need alternatives to police is, who’s gonna show up? Tell me a solution,” Burch said. This puts community organizations in the difficult position of demonstrating the positive impact of “woefully under-resourced” organizations that need to make more happen with less. Burch says the funding will “demonstrate how we keep us safe.”
The funding will support California programs already in the works, like a mental health crisis response team run by APTP called Mental Health First Oakland (MH First Oakland). As Prism reported in March, MH First is a hotline Oakland community members can call for assistance with psychiatric emergencies, substance abuse, and domestic and intimate partner violence.
Non-police alternatives are also motivated by the elevation of data long-known by those most harmed by police. For instance, research shows that nearly half of the deaths caused by on-duty police have some sort of disability, with some estimates finding that those with mental illness are 16 times more likely than those without mental illness to be killed by police. The Vera Institute of Justice found that nationwide, the vast majority of 911 calls to police reported non-violent and non-property crime related activities that didn’t require police presence, and it’s these calls that so often lead to police killings and other forms of violence. Some cities have been taking this data into account when implementing new public safety programs.
In New York City, the office of mental health-related initiatives began a pilot program that will dispatch non-police to mental health calls. Portland is currently operating a street response team to respond to mental health crises and those experiencing homelessness. Denver launched STAR, or the Support Team Assisted Response Program, in June of 2020. It’s a non-police mental health initiative that overlapped with the timing of the George Floyd uprisings and calls for defund police. Both Denver and Portland’s programs are based off of Eugene, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program, which provides non-police crisis intervention in the city 24/7.
STAR, the Denver program, was a product of the Denver Justice Project, which held community input meetings in the months prior to learn what residents most wanted to see from non-police public health services. Roshan Bliss, the former co-chair of the Denver Justice Project, connects the media coverage and city support for the program to the George Floyd uprisings and calls for defunding the police.
“Because of the timing … [and] the way it was talked about … [it] kind of just blew up,” Bliss said. The timing is also what allowed for other organizations outside of Denver to connect with STAR in order to figure out how to implement programs of their own.
The challenge comes, both Bliss and Burch say, when local governments and police departments attempt to co-opt the work of grassroots organizers and community members. Burch says an example of this is with co-responder models, where police departments are still responsible for dispatching separate non-police mental health professionals to emergency situations or require police to accompany volunteers on those calls.
“It is incumbent upon us to make sure that as that happens, we prevent that process from creating systems that bring us further away from abolition,” Burch said. “We need to fund those public safety programs … and we can’t fund them right now because all of the money is in the police department.”
Ray Levy-Uyeda is a Bay Area-based freelance writer who covers justice and activism. Find them on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.