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Spotlight: A City Council Says No To More Police

Durham City Council members at the mayor's 2019 State of the City Address
Flickr/City of Durham

Spotlight: A City Council Says No To More Police

Last week, in a 4-3 vote on the 2019-20 budget, the City Council in Durham, North Carolina, voted against funding 18 new police officers. It voted instead to raise the wage for part-time city workers to just over $15 an hour. With that, the city joined jurisdictions around the country that are critically evaluating requests for increased funding for law enforcement and finding that they cannot be justified—both on grounds of community safety and in the dollars they take away from other vital expenditures.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, last year, Mayor Melvin Carter rejected a request for 50 new police officers. In a statement explaining his decision, he wrote: “The philosophy that more police officers, tougher prosecutors and bigger jails equal a safer city has failed. Our driving goal shouldn’t be to hire as many officers as possible but to reduce the number of times we have to call police in the first place. The City currently spends three times more on police and fire services than on recreation centers and libraries. As long as we focus more on responding to emergencies than on preventing them in the first place, we’ll never have enough police officers.”

In February, commissioners in Harris County, Texas, voted against funding 102 new prosecutors, as requested by District Attorney Kim Ogg. (Keri Blakinger reports for The Appeal and the Houston Chronicle today that Ogg’s office may have also misstated caseloads in her office when making the case for additional funding.)

The original request in Durham, from the police chief, had been for 72 additional police officers, which would have cost the city close to $2 million a year. That request was eventually revised to 18 officers at a cost of $1.2 million.  But in a city where crime has been on a downward trajectory for many years, the police department’s argument for increased staffing ultimately proved unpersuasive.

Jillian Johnson, mayor pro tempore, was the council member who led the push for higher wages for city workers rather than increased police spending. Johnson explained the interplay between spending more on police versus other expenditures.

The effort to raise the wage for part-time workers had actually been a long-deferred priority, ever since the city raised the minimum wage for full-time workers to $15 an hour three years ago. “We realized it wasn’t just students, teenagers working as lifeguards,” Johnson told the Daily Appeal. “We realized there were a lot of people, especially in the parks and recreation department, who were making as little as $9 an hour. These were folks who were working in multiple parks and recreation departments in the area, trying to cobble together a full-time job. They were adults with families who needed to make more than $9 an hour.”

Johnson also explained why she and three other City Council members thought additional police officers were not warranted. “We have already a police department that’s larger than average for cities our size,” she said. “We have response times that are meeting or very close to meeting our goals. Our clearance rates are generally higher than national benchmarks. All the indicators were that they were performing and didn’t need additional resources.”

The City Council vote is part of a larger effort in Durham to address local drivers of mass incarceration, and Johnson celebrated that wider movement. “We’ve invested significant resources over the past couple of years into re-entry programs and to diversion programs for folks who are charged with misdemeanors who we’d rather avoid getting into the system at all,” she said. “Our county is working really hard on bail reform. And we just elected a new DA who has been really great about thinking about the role of district attorneys in mass incarceration and what we can do to reverse that. The entire community has been thinking critically to try to stem this tide in Durham over the last couple of years. All of us being part of that conversation is what led us to this decision.” (In April, the Appeal: Political Report looked at a Durham initiative to reinstate driver’s licenses suspended for failure to pay fees or fines and its relationship to local efforts to improve public transit.)

“We’re not interested in increasing policing without some strong evidence that it’s what will make us safer as a community and that evidence doesn’t exist,” Johnson said.

A 2017 report, “Freedom to Thrive: Reimagining Safety & Security in Our Communities,” looked at the enormous outlay on policing and incarceration across the U.S., contrasting it with the systemic underinvestment in community resources and supports in marginalized communities. The report celebrates the work of invest-divest campaigns which advocate for “investments in supportive services and divestment from punitive institutions” and it points to the importance of processes like participatory budgeting which gives communities a voice in local funding decisions.

Kumar Rao of the Center for Popular Democracy was one of the authors of the report. “As a nation we’re spending over $100 billion a year on policing and the vast bulk at that is actually at the local level,” he told the Daily Appeal. “In cities, the single largest allocation of resources is going to the police department. … No place has unlimited resources and there are tradeoffs involved in that kind of expenditure on policing. It means less investment in the things that keep communities safe.”

In Durham, Johnson gave an example of an investment that would bring resources to under-resourced communities, and that residents will have a say in: a $95 million affordable housing bond that voters will vote on this November. The money would be used to build and preserve affordable housing, and would create jobs that would be open to current housing authority residents, who face an adult unemployment rate of 65 percent.

The investment in affordable housing, Johnson said, is an example of “the kinds of investment we need to make in these neighborhoods that are most impacted by violence.”

“Communities that are safest don’t have the most police, they have the most resources.”

This Spotlight originally appeared in The Daily Appeal newsletter. Subscribe here.