ST. LOUIS — Several prominent progressive St. Louis advocacy groups, including some aligned with Mayor Tishaura Jones, launched a campaign this month urging the city to significantly cut St. Louis police funding.
At a public hearing Friday of the St. Louis Board of Estimate and Apportionment, the Defund SLMPD campaign organized more than 20 speakers to push for a list of police cuts to the city’s proposed $1.15 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
The board, made up of Jones, Comptroller Darlene Green and Aldermanic President Lewis Reed, will approve a proposed budget by May 1 and it then will head to the Board of Aldermen for hearings.
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The Defund campaign was launched April 13 by some of the city’s most active progressive groups: ArchCity Defenders, Action St. Louis, the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, and Forward Through Ferguson.
Campaign members on Friday pushed the board to divert some funding from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department to other initiatives, including affordable housing and social programs, in keeping with national defund police campaigns that came into prominence last summer after the death of George Floyd.
In the proposed city spending plan, the police department budget is about $171 million, excluding grants and pension costs. That accounts for about 15% of total city spending.
The Defund campaign is targeting a list of specific cuts, starting with asking city leaders to end budgeting for police officer positions that have been chronically vacant.
As of March 29, the department was 153 officers short of its budgeted staffing, and for years has been understaffed by at least dozens of officers.
But while St. Louis police chiefs have advocated for more flexible requirements and higher pay to fill the positions, Defund SLMPD organizers argued Friday that the funding should be diverted from the department.
The campaign also targets overtime spending, noting that the department has paid $10.26 million in both civilian and officer overtime so far in the current fiscal year, but was budgeted for only about $8 million.
“This is money that could be put into human services and resources that address the root source of crime,” Alicia Hernandez, a leader in the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, told the board Friday. “We’re currently in a movement nationwide and in St. Louis to reenvision public safety by reinvesting our money and resources into things that actually make people safe.”
The Defund campaign also is targeting three other department programs: The SWAT unit; the Real Time Crime Center, where officers monitor the department’s surveillance technology across the city; and ShotSpotter, a gun detection software program that alerts officers when a gun may have been fired in an area.
“We do have a violent crime problem in St. Louis, but the solutions to those problems are not to continue to pour tens of millions of dollars into the police department,” Inez Bordeaux, manager of community collaborations with ArchCity Defenders, told the board Friday. “The solutions to those problems are not to continue to surveil black and brown communities. The solutions to those problems are money, resources, people who actually care about people living in our most underserved and neglected neighborhoods.”
Comptroller Darlene Green indicated she was receptive to at least one part of the campaign.
Green said she would recommend the board “look at substantial reductions when it comes to police positions that have gone vacant for several years,” and said she supported adding funds to areas such as affordable housing after advocates objected to recent cuts of $1.5 million to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
“This is our time, this is the place and so I don’t want us to miss the moment to make clear that this is how we’re going to do it,” she said. “Reducing those police positions that have gone vacant for several years, that is something that can help inspire the increases I’m speaking of so we can move this community and neighborhoods throughout the city forward."
“Agreed," Jones replied. "I look forward to working with you on those amendments.”
Another significant change in the proposed budget, though it was not a focus in the hearing Friday, is the elimination of funding to one of the city’s two jails, the Medium Security Institution, also known as the workhouse, at Jones’ request.
Police union pushback
A St. Louis police department spokesman declined to comment on the defund initiative, but the union representing a majority of the department’s officers, the St. Louis Police Officers Association, argued Friday that such cuts could be a risk to public safety and worsen the city’s crime problems.
“These cuts would be shortsighted and dangerous for the citizens of St. Louis,” said the union’s lobbyist, Jane Dueker. “When you call 911, you might have to wait because there won’t be enough officers on the street to respond to the number of calls in the city.”
Dueker said funding for the vacant positions in the department has been used to pay for the higher-than-budgeted use of overtime.
“With so many vacancies, the overtime is used to fill cars and make up for all the openings,” she said. “You cut both, and it’s going to be a disaster.”
Dueker also argues cutting ShotSpotter, the SWAT unit and the Real Time Crime Center would be a mistake after 2020 marked the city’s highest homicide rate on record, with more than 260 killings.
“SWAT responds when there is the most dangerous of situations,” Dueker said. “And cutting the Real Time Crime Center and ShotSpotter would decrease the ability to fight crime.”
Connections to the mayor
A spokesman for Jones did not immediately reply to a request for comment on proposals from Defund SLMPD, but her record indicates some groups involved will have sway in her administration.
For example, Jones named the executive directors of two of the involved organizations, Forward Through Ferguson and ArchCity Defenders, to her stimulus advisory board Friday, a 25-member panel that will guide the mayor on how best to use $517 million the city expects to receive in federal COVID-19 aid.
Jones also hired a former ArchCity Defenders fellow, Nahuel Fefer, as her director of policy and development and included Kayla Reed, executive director of another group involved in Defund SLMPD, Action STL, on her transition team.
Jones campaigned on the need to reallocate a portion of police budgets to programs such as substance abuse and mental health services, job training programs and education support and alluded to needed cuts to the department in her inauguration speech.
“Why do we live in a city whose police department is supposedly understaffed but is larger than almost any other city our size?” she said in her first speech as mayor Tuesday in City Hall.