Decatur’s leaders face questions about how much the city spends on its Police Department
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Decatur, GA — While drafting the budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the City Commission was focused on carrying the city through the COVID-19 pandemic while keeping it financially intact.
However, in late May and early June, as protests against police brutality arose across all 50 states, including national calls to “defund the police,” and racist incidents in Decatur, the community’s conversation has shifted to how and why we spend money on the police department.
When activists call for cities to “defund” the police, they’re asking cities to redirect the money spent on policing towards other initiatives that can help the community, like mental health care, affordable housing, and other social programs.
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Decatur has allocated $50,000 to anti-racist education and programming within the city. During a June 8 City Commission meeting about the budget, three community members expressed concern about the amount of funding allocated for the police, with one resident stating that the $50,000 in funds allocated for anti-racist training and education is “not a strong enough response to addressing racial injustice,” while another resident stated that the Decatur community should work to “defund, demilitarize, and disempower the police.”
The budget for the 20-21 fiscal year is more conservative due to the pandemic, but it allocates more money for the police than any previous year. Decatur’s police budget has been steadily increasing each year, and has risen by almost $1 million since 2015. The Decatur Police Department is responsible for the highest amount of departmental expenditures in the city.
Some of the city’s efforts towards social programs that would benefit the community still operate through the police department. For example, an eight-hour class entitled “Introduction to Behavioral Health and Addictive Diseases” (IBHAD) was hosted by the police department three times last year. It was intended not only for law enforcement officials, but also for other first responders, staff and volunteers of local clergy and ministry groups, employees and security guards at Dekalb County libraries, City of Decatur employees, social workers, and residents who were interested in attending.
The class was designed to help first responders interact with individuals, such as members of the homeless population, who are experiencing symptoms of mental illness such as hallucinations and psychosis and to effectively respond through principles of de-escalation. According to Decatur Police Capt. Jennifer Ross, the eight-hour condensed version of the class was preferable because “week-long courses that cost thousands of dollars were not feasible for staff and volunteers working at churches, non-profits and service organizations.”
The police department plans to establish two new programs, the Clergy Police Academy and Youth Mentorship Program, in the coming year, and plans to continue existing programs like the Junior Police Academy, Citizen’s Police Academy, CAPS (Citizens Assisting Public Safety) program, RAD (Rape Aggression Defense) courses, and Revved Up Kids, a program designed to “equip children against predators.”
The police department also handles programming surrounding “business community outreach, senior outreach, crime prevention, cultural awareness, Alzheimer’s training, teen driving alcohol education, [and] human trafficking.”
School crossing guards are also included in the police department’s funding.
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The Decatur Police Department has become more diverse since 2018. In 2020, 25% of Decatur police officers are female, 46% are people of color, and 42% of officers in leadership positions are people of color. Across the country, 15% of police officers are female and 23% are people of color, according to a 2018 study.
According to a Citizen Satisfaction Survey recorded every two years, 94% of survey participants rated the quality of Decatur Police Services as “excellent/good,” and 98% reported feeling “very” or “somewhat” safe in their neighborhood.
In a budget message dated May 18th, 2020, City Manager Andrea Arnold lists police alongside the fire department and medical first responders as an asset to public health within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city budget is currently guided by the 2010 strategic plan, which was designed to outline the city’s plan for a decade. The city’s upcoming planning efforts include creating a 2020 strategic plan, which will then guide the city through the coming decade.
This year’s budget places emphasis on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year reflects the immediate impacts of COVID-19 as well as ongoing impacts and even anticipates a second wave of the virus based on guidance the Commission has received from public health experts, according to City Manager Andrea Arnold.
“What’s been developed is a very conservative budget,” Arnold said during the June 8 meeting about the city’s budget. “It does not stop or reduce any of our core services like public safety, police and fire, sanitation, public works — those remain intact, but you don’t see a whole lot of capital projects which are usually the most expensive. Those will be deferred until future years.”
When designing the budget proposal, the main focus was on salaries and salary-related expenses such as health benefits in order to keep city employees afloat during the pandemic.
There were no raises or other pay adjustments for employees. Arnold noted during the public budget event that this is the first time in her tenure in the city, at least 22 years, that there have not been any pay adjustments in recognition of employees. Those deemed as “essential workers” will not receive additional pay.
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“The city also recognizes that due to the uncertainty of the duration, severity, and overall impact of the pandemic, it would not be financially responsible to offer additional pay to employees that have been deemed ‘essential’ during the pandemic and who have reported to work on a regular schedule,” Arnold wrote in the budget message. “Ideally, federal funding would be available for such expenses during a public health emergency, but so far communities under 500,000 do not qualify for such funding.”
One of the goals in the budget proposal is related to the Affordable Housing Task Force.
“In February 2020 the Affordable Housing Task Force (AHTF) presented ‘A Report on the Findings and Recommendations for Decatur’s Future Affordability and Inclusivity.’ It may be assumed that housing affordability has been further exacerbated across the nation by the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak,” Arnold wrote. “At the same time, the pandemic is having a negative impact on the City’s revenues available for policy priorities. Nonetheless, the proposed budget addresses many of the recommendations from the AHTF report.”
The budget also recommends a new position of a two-year Affordable Housing fellow “that will be dedicated to researching recommendations from the report, developing proposals, and, in some cases, implementing such proposals.”
“Finally, a transfer of $100,000 is being recommended to the housing trust fund, which could be used for a project like an emergency rental assistance program,” Arnold said. “This program has been recommended by the AHTF and such a program is timely due to job losses and income reductions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.”
During the June 8 public hearing on the budget, Arnold recognized this budget as one of the most challenging budgets ever developed due to financial restraints of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Several community members who spoke at the budget hearing raised concerns about whether the City Commission would support a climate action plan in the budget, continuing a pattern from last week’s meeting.
City Commissioners said they are listening to the community’s concerns about the upcoming budget.
“We certainly have heard your comments and appreciate those who have participated in the meeting tonight,” said Mayor Patti Garrett.
Mayor Pro Tem Tony Powers said the city is taking these concerns seriously.
“Know that we do not take our job lightly,” Powers said. “We know that this is going to impact generations to come and we look for every opportunity to make not only our city a better place, but also this world a better place. We look for many places to allocate funds to not only the racial training but also dealing with our climate change.”
The budget proposal is set to be approved on June 15th and would go into effect on July 1st.