Protesters demanded defunding the police, Mayor, City Council said: no

Protesters, mobilized by the law enforcement killings of Black people, have been calling for American cities to defund police departments for weeks.

They got their wish, in varying degrees, in Minneapolis, Boston, Los Angeles and New York.

They did not in Louisville.

Last Thursday, Metro Council approved an operating budget that increased police funding from the year before, from $189.8 million to $190.5 million. The city’s funding plan, council members reasoned, still responds to some protester demands for reform by directing money in the capital budget to behavioral health co-responders to work alongside police. The council also provides money to the criminal justice commission for a civilian oversight board and/or office of inspector general to investigate police misconduct, as well as tens of millions of dollars meant to solve racial inequities by increasing affordable housing and building a grocery store in an “underserved” area.

That was not enough for Chanelle Helm, core organizer of Black Lives Matter Louisville, who wanted to strip the Louisville Metro Police Department budget of $100 million to be redistributed to social services and community public safety efforts. Black Lives Matter Louisville is part of an Invest/Divest Louisville campaign created by grassroots organizations that Helm said will continue to advocate for defunding the police, even up to the next budget cycle.

“We owe that to our ancestors,” she said. “It’s been 400-plus years of this bullshit. Anything less is really just complacency.”

Over 50 individuals and community organizations, the majority of them from the Black community, also asked for the city to siphon money from the police budget to distribute to social investments, as well as a $50 million Black community fund.

Metro council fulfilled neither request.

Councilman Bill Hollander, chair of Metro Council’s budget committee, said the majority of the council’s members didn’t want to cut the Louisville Metro Police Department’s budget. But, he said, the council is on the path to altering LMPD’s responsibilities.

“I think there are a number of people who use the term defund and really mean to take away all the money or abolish the police force, which is an impractical solution,” he said, “but [they] think that you should have other models in which behavioral health specialists would be involved in dealing with many of the things that we now ask the police force to be involved with. And I hope that what we did, with the funds that we were able to redirect and suggest that will be redirected, will help study and implement that kind of model.”

WHAT ‘DEFUND THE POLICE’ MEANS IN LOUISVILLE

When Shauntrice Martin, founder of Feed the West, was sexually assaulted in college, the police were no help, she said, instructing her to “figure it out” with the person who had hurt her.

And, not only are Louisville police not helpful, but Martin said that they actively harm Black people like herself. “People say that there are good cops and bad cops,” said Martin. “The idea of a cop is bad. So even if you’re a nice person and you donate your time, go to church, whatever else — the idea of policing in this country is bad. So there is only so much good you can be when the system itself is predicated upon terrorizing Black people.”

That’s why Martin is part of Louisville’s push to defund the police. Her organization, which provides food for West Louisville residents who lack access, is part of a collective that started a web page, investdivest.org, calling for the city to divest from Louisville’s police and invest in social services.

It’s the same campaign that Helm’s Black Lives Matter Louisville helped start, along with the Root Cause Research Center, the Louisville Community Grocery, Play Cousins Collective and the Louisville Association of Black Social Workers and several other Black community leaders, according to Shawnte West, a social worker who is also involved. The website is a way for all Louisville citizens to get involved in the movement, featuring calls to action and contact information and scripts for getting the attention of city officials and of other “primary targets,” such as Microsoft, which organizers want to take a stand on police reform.

The website calls for Louisville police to eventually be fully defunded, but organizations such as Black Lives Matter Louisville and the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky that have used Invest/Divest’s materials asked first for an initial $100 million divestment in 2020.

That money, the website said, could go to community safety systems instead of police, such as conflict resolution facilitators, mental health first responders and bystander intervention. And, it could flow to social services for economic development, housing, environmental justice and “community autonomy/self determination” including grocery stores and local food systems, universal basic income and in-home elder care.

“People always say, ‘well what about crime?’” said Helm. “If people’s needs were met, people wouldn’t have to commit crime.”

On June 19, six days before Metro Council voted on their 2020-21 budget, Louisville leaders sent a 20-page petition to Mayor Greg Fischer’s office, laying out their own demands for police reform and reinvestment in Black communities.

Signed by the leaders of Louisville nonprofits, members of historically Black fraternities and sororities and religious leaders, the petition called for an “immediate reduction and reallocation of LMPD’s current budget” and “a move toward divesting in police and investment in the appropriate first responders,” such as nurses, psychologists and social workers. The petition also requested the creation of a $50 million Black Community Fund to support small businesses, affordable housing, education and mental health treatment.

Councilman Brandon Coan was the only council member who presented a plan to defund the police. His idea, outlined in his weekly newsletter and called “a modest proposal” was to cut LMPD’s budget by 15%, or $26.8 million, over three years. The money, he suggested, could come from cutting the next three police recruit classes, divesting from military-style police equipment and weapons and reallocating the cost savings for canceling Kentucky Derby events. And, it could go to increasing community health and social service staffing, doubling the Office for Safe & Healthy Neighborhoods budget, reinstating the city’s Small Business Development Team and devoting $1 million to reinvesting in Black communities.

At last Thursday’s meeting, Coan said he was disappointed by the lack of “serious discussion” about reducing the police budget, but he added that the council’s chosen changes were “meaningful.”

“It’s not enough, but it’s a start,” said Coan, who is not running for re-election this year.

WHAT THE COUNCIL APPROVED

Instead of defunding the police, Metro Council did the opposite, increasing its contributions to LMPD by $750,200 in its operating budget.

That jump was for salary bumps and pensions, said Hollander, which were already baked into the budget as part of the city’s contract with LMPD’s police union, River City FOP.

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Hollander said that, based on conversations he’s had with constituents and similar discussion his fellow council members have had, he doesn’t believe that the majority of Louisville residents want to eliminate the police department entirely.

But, the council is changing how it spends some of its police funding. It will now funnel $1.2 million in state forfeiture funds to behavioral health first responders who can tag along with police to help people they may find in need of treatment, housing and other services. The money will also go to use of force, de-escalation and implicit bias training, as well as hiring initiatives for police officers who live in the communities they work in and reflect the racial composition of those areas. The council is encouraging the mayor and LMPD to devote $1.6 million in federal forfeiture funds to the same reforms. Typically, forfeiture funds are spent on police equipment and contractors, Hollander said.

Around $763,500 will go to a future civilian review board or office of inspector general that will investigate police misconduct and possibly recommend more police reforms for LMPD.

There was some outcry online when the Louisville Democratic Socialists of America pointed out that LMPD’s budget is increasing by around the same amount that the Louisville Free Public Library budget is decreasing. The LFPL budget lost $775,900 this year.

Hollander said this is because the council decided to fund the library based on how much it cost to run from 2019 to 2020 pre-COVID-19. Hollander also expects the library to run a surplus this year of around $1 million, which will go to the new budget — meaning that the library system will ultimately have more money this coming year to work with than last.

As for investment in social services, the council made an effort to set aside around $55 million for “disadvantaged and disinvested neighborhoods,” including $3.5 million for a grocery store, $1 million for “disconnected youth” and more than $9 million to tackle abandoned properties and to pave the way for Black homeownership, including direct purchase and lease-to-purchase opportunities, funding for home repairs, illegal dumping clean-up and two additional code enforcement officers for disadvantaged neighborhoods.

The money also includes $21.2 million from the federal CARES Act for rent assistance for coronavirus-related evictions and another $21.2 million for assistance for small businesses impacted by the pandemic.

“There’s a great deal to do,” said Hollander, “but this is literally tens of millions of dollars that’s invested in disadvantaged and disinvested neighborhoods.”

Hollander said he wants to continue to evaluate ways to contribute to neighborhoods in need.

“We are going to be listening to people who live in disadvantaged neighborhoods,” he said. “And we’re going to be paying attention to the path forward for Louisville. And we hope that we can make more investments, perhaps by mid year if our revenue continues to improve.”

Louisville’s capital and operating budgets passed 24-1.

Council member Barbara Shanklin, whose District, 2, includes the Newburg neighborhood, refused to vote for them, saying that they did not do enough to fund her district. She cited a lack of sidewalk funding and activities for children as examples.

WHAT LOUISVILLE’S DEFUNDERS THINK

While Louisville Metro Council may have rejected the idea of defunding the police, other U.S. cities have not.

Boston is transferring $3 million from police overtime pay to public health. Los Angeles plans to hack off more than $133 million from its police department, and Mayor Bill De Blasio of New York City has proposed cutting $1 billion from its $6 billion police budget.

And in Minneapolis, where four former police officers are charged with killing George Floyd, its city council unanimously decided to nix the police department entirely. It is replacing police with a department of community safety and violence prevention that it says will approach public safety from a holistic, public health perspective.

Louisville’s reaction to the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Floyd and other Black people killed by police, has been revealing for Josh Poe, a co-principal investigator at the Root Cause Research Center.

“I think it’s just a great example of how disconnected Metro Council is from the needs of the community,” he said, “and how tone deaf they are to everything that’s happened in the last three weeks… What it says is the police can legally murder Black people and that they will be rewarded for it over and over again by liberal politicians”

Hollander, he said, isn’t qualified to say that the majority of Louisville doesn’t support defunding the police. His constituents aren’t “terrorized and murdered” by the police, Poe added later via text message.

West appreciates some of what the council did, including Shanklin’s stand on the budget. But, she’s ultimately disappointed with their decision.

“Where are these supporters demanding that we not defund Neighborhood Places or libraries?” West said in a Facebook message. “We defund those type of programs all the time. If their concern was really about the community it would show in the budget.”

Martin said, “I think that putting money into The West End is always a good thing.” But, she doesn’t think the budget sets aside enough for a grocery store, nor does she believe that it will solve Louisville’s affordable housing crisis.

Poe said that the Louisville Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which the council has bragged about funding, doesn’t do enough to help homeowners who make 30% of the city’s median income or under.

Martin is prepared to keep advocating and demonstrating in support of defunding the police for the next year.

“We will take that $100 million in different ways, but it needs to be given,” said Martin. “It is owed to Black people, specifically, but also to Louisville in general. We can be a better Louisville if we defund police.” 

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