For the second year in a row, the Long Beach City Council has rebuffed calls from some community groups to divest from the Long Beach Police Department and instead invest those funds into community programs, with some council members calling the demands reactionary and irresponsible.
While last year’s budget resulted in a nearly $10 million cut to the department, directives from city management to make those reductions preceded the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis Police Department Officer, which was followed by nationwide protests that included defunding police departments as one of their main themes.
The LBPD budget is projected to grow by about $16 million from the total approved by the council last year, but city budget officials said that it will not increase staffing levels.
The $285 million proposed budget for the LBPD takes up nearly half of the city’s general fund, which also pays for everything from library services to the water that the parks department uses to keep trees and grass alive.
Still, council members resisted calls from community groups and residents who spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, urging them to cut into the police budget in order to fund things like affordable housing, better interpretation services at City Hall, and more funding for youth and senior programs.
“From what I heard tonight, it would not be smart or responsible for the council to consider cutting the budget for public safety right now,” said Councilman Al Austin, who also chairs the council’s Budget Oversight Committee.
Austin was referring to data that LBPD leadership presented to the council Tuesday night as part of a lead-up to formal adoption of the city’s budget, which could happen as soon as early September.
LBPD Chief Robert Luna said that the department had seen a dramatic increase in both shootings (33% since January) and firearm arrests (71%) since the beginning of the year.
Luna lamented how difficult the past year has been to be a police officer and pushed back against the idea that the department is neither held accountable nor trying to increase diversity. He said it’s hard to recruit people of color because of the negative light the department is cast in.
“If you look at every government agency, I don’t know what other department holds themselves more accountable than your police department,” Luna said.
But community groups like Long Beach Forward, the Long Beach Immigrants Rights Coalition, Black Lives Matter Long Beach and Long Beach Residents Empowered have been tenacious in calling for reductions to the large chunk of funding the police department receives annually.
Each year, they present an annual People’s Budget, which outlines their demands for how city money should be spent. This year’s People’s Budget called for a $65 million reduction to the department. They wanted that money shifted to housing, language access, older adult and community programs.
Public speakers also asked for it to be diverted to areas like the city’s Health Department to fund mental health services and other community programs that they said are proven to prevent crime and increase the quality of life.
“People are walking around the streets often times clearly in some state of mental distress,” said Camila Holmes, a resident of Central Long Beach. “We need resources for them. We need the health department to be fully funded.”
The city’s Health and Human Services Department, which also presented its budget to the council Tuesday, gets just 1% of its funding from the general fund.
While it has added hundreds of positions during the pandemic, that’s been due to tens of millions in federal and state aid. The department’s director, Kelly Colopy, said that “fragmented funding has made it difficult to maintain even the most successful programs past the initial grant funding.”
Kenny Allen, another public speaker, said the council had misheard the demands of residents if they thought they wanted more police diversity or better-trained police. They want fewer police, Allen said.
“The problem is the police, themselves,” Allen said. “We’re not asking for more equitable policing. We’re asking for our money back. Sixty-five million.”
When the city’s proposed budget was unveiled last month, several of the programs the People’s Budget organizations wanted more funding for actually received less money because the city is receiving less funding from the federal government than it had originally anticipated.
The $18 million in reductions were spread across several recovery programs with city management even proposing the city put $6.5 million less back into its reserves, with about $5 million of that money being rolled into additional police crime-prevention programs.
The council signaled Tuesday night that the police budget could see even more funding in the coming weeks as it works to fund the department’s helicopter unit. Last year’s budget called for six police positions to be converted to two civilian pilot positions, but the department has not implemented those changes.
By continuing to employ officers rather than civilians, that part of the department was more than $600,000 over budget this year. However, several council members said they could not support putting civilians in that role and would work to shift funding to cover the difference.
“It’s like asking an Uber or Lyft driver to drive you around,” said Councilwoman Cindy Allen, a former LBPD officer. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Next week, the City Council will hear a budget presentation for the city’s fire and economic development departments. The council is currently scheduled to take its first vote to approve the proposed budget at its Aug. 24 meeting.