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Phoenix Wants To Shift Crisis Response Away From Police—While Also Increasing The Police Budget

The trial budget includes a proposal to expand a crisis response program under the fire department, but also includes a $3.7 million increase to the Phoenix Police Department’s $745 million budget.

Police after a Trump rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on August 22, 2017.(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

In the past year, members of the Phoenix Police Department have threatened to shoot the mayor, said they want to “gas” and “stomp” Black Lives Matter protesters, and come under fire for a commemorative coin with neo-Nazi symbolism made in 2017 that celebrates shooting a protester in the groin. Now, the city wants to give them another $3.7 million to add 75 more civilian positions to the department.

On Tuesday, the City Council met to discuss a few of the items in this year’s trial budget, including the $3.7 million increase to the police department’s budget and a measure to expand the fire department’s civilian crisis response program. Under the proposal, the city would add about 130 employees and invest an additional $15 million in the fire department’s Community Assistance Program over the next three years. 

While several behavioral health professionals and community members supported the move to expand non-police crisis response during Tuesday’s meeting, some said the proposal fell short and criticized the move to once again increase the police budget. The city said the additional police department positions would help “to improve accountability, transparency and relationships with the community,” but activists countered that giving the police department additional funding and staff to do that is unnecessary. 

“After everything that’s happened this year with police, all the sexual violence, the anti-Black violence, and the white supremacy that’s been exposed, how can we be proud to increase the police budget by millions of dollars?” said Ben Laughlin, policy coordinator for Poder in Action. “It’s really messed up that y’all are trying to twist the demands to end police violence and use it instead to grow the police department.”

The police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year fueled calls to scale back America’s reliance on policing. Across the country, cities are beginning to reconsider requiring armed officers to also play the parts of homeless services worker, mental health and substance use counselor, school safety agent, and traffic enforcer. In June, Denver launched a pilot program to divert some 911 calls to health professionals. In the first six months of the program, over 700 calls have been diverted from the police department. None required police intervention, and no one was arrested.

Cities like Oakland, California, Albuquerque, New Mexico and St. Petersburg, Florida are all exploring ways to divert some emergency calls to non-police first responders in order to improve outcomes for people in crisis. It’s something the city of Eugene, Oregon has been doing for decades with a program called Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets or CAHOOTS. In 2019, 24,000 calls were diverted to the CAHOOTS program, which sends out a medic and a crisis worker instead of an armed police officer. That means about 20 percent of all 911 calls in the city were diverted away from police. Only 150 of those calls required police assistance, a CAHOOTS employee told NPR.

Phoenix currently has a small crisis intervention program that operates under the fire department. The city wants to expand the number of crisis response units from 5 to 10, and add 9 new behavioral health units that will work with a third party behavioral health provider to help connect people to long-term case management. 

At the meeting on Tuesday, city officials said they hope that expanding the crisis response program will improve health outcomes for people struggling with behavioral and mental health conditions by providing them with ongoing case management and counseling services. The expansion will also allow police officers to spend more time responding to other types of calls for service.

In 2020, Phoenix police received over 660,000 calls for service, according to data made public by the city. Over 60,000 of those calls were welfare checks. Another 6,545 involved mentally ill people who needed to be transported. The data lists tens of thousands of nonviolent, noncriminal calls that other responders could tend to instead of police.

“This seems like a great start, but there are several items that need to be addressed,” said Samuel Merten, a member of the Neighborhood Organized Crisis Assistance Program (NOCAP), a community group working to bring civilian crisis response to Phoenix. “I’d like to stress the importance of community involvement and engagement from the ground up for this type of program.”

At the City Council meeting, Merten and other NOCAP members said that the proposed crisis response budget is too low and should be increased to $20 million. They also emphasized that the program should eventually be made independent from the fire department. 

Merten and others also stressed that crisis responders should not report drug use by those in crisis to the police, nor should they report undocumented individuals to the police or perform background checks on people they are supposed to be assisting.

Each year since Mayor Kate Gallego took office in 2019, community members have demanded the city not increase the police department’s budget. Each year, the city has given Phoenix police millions more. During that time, Phoenix police have shot about 79 people since 2018, killing 55 of them.

In recent years, the department’s clearance rate for violent crimes like rape and homicide has dropped. In 2019, the most recent year for which full data is available, 1,139 rapes were reported in Phoenix, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only 123 of those were cleared, or closed through arrest or “exceptional means,” which could include cases where police allege the victim no longer wished to proceed.

During Gallego’s tenure, members of the Phoenix Police Department have been caught sharing racist and Islamophobic content on Facebook, threatened to shoot an unarmed Black man in the head in front of his pregnant fiance and children, and repeatedly targeted protesters for participating in Black Lives Matter marches, even going so far as to create a fictional gang called “ACAB” and lie in probable cause statements.

“Their rape clearance is a nationally laughable 11 percent and for a decade y’all have proved that increased police funding does not equal increased clearance rates or decreased crime,” said Amy Meglio, a volunteer coordinator with Grassroots Law Project and a member of NOCAP. Meglio said there’s no reason for the police budget to increase if the crisis response program is properly funded. “Because these programs free up money from the police, this funding should be taken from the already overfunded police budget.”