First of a two-part series.
As Charlottesville’s City Council prepares to vote on the budget for fiscal year 2022, community members and some councilors are raising concerns about the police budget.
During a March 1 meeting, Councilor Lloyd Snook referred to the police budget as an “$18 million black box,” and he said he hasn’t gotten much more transparency in the month since then.
“Seeing a budget that is a combination of line-item numbers is of very little value,” Snook said. “To know how much money is going to salaries doesn’t tell us anything about what those salaried people are doing.”
The police department’s proposed budget for the coming fiscal year so far is about $500,000 shy of the FY 2021 budget.
The reductions come from two unfunded positions, an unfunded crossing guard position and a $255,000 reduction for two mobile data units.
According to the budget, salary increases were given in FY 2021 and are not included for FY 2022. A 4.17% salary increase was given in FY 2020 and the total funding for the increase was shown in the FY 2021 budget as a lump sum under the Employee Compensation and Training section of the budget.
For FY 2022, the funding has been allocated to reflect the actual salaries for each department. A decrease of $178,000 is due to the suspension of funding for two vacant police officer positions. The total proposed police department budget is $18,909,968.
The overall proposed city budget has been raised by $1,523,004 from its original iteration to $192,212,843, an approximately $1 million increase from the FY 2021 budget. It includes a 2% salary bump for city employees. These amendments will be presented during a budget public hearing Monday.
The proposed police budget currently allocates $15,604,002 to salaries and benefits. The rest of the budget, $3,305,966, is allocated as “other expenditures.”
These are described in the budget as “increase for service contracts for camera systems (body-worn, in-car and interview rooms). The purchase, annual storage and maintenance costs for the body-worn cameras were all previously paid from existing CIP project funds. Beginning in FY 22, these costs will be funded as part of the department’s operating budget.”
Snook said that part of the reason he wanted to see additional transparency and more detailed presentations about the police budget is because councilors had received more than 2,500 emails this summer from community members asking for reductions to be made to the police budget in light of the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements following the death of George Floyd. Snook said he wanted to have more information so he could be prepared to discuss the budget with constituents.
“We have people who are asking us to cut the police budget by 40% or even 60%,” Snook said. “They’re bringing the questions to council, and we’re the wrong people to be defending the police budget. It’s a lot easier for the police chief to defend the budget.”
During a community budget forum March 18, Mayor Nikuyah Walker addressed concerns about the budget’s transparency.
“[Police Chief RaShall Brackney’s] budget has been pretty clear about where money is going,” Walker said. “I’m not in the business … of defending police. This has been a very challenging conversation, but I do not think that neither the community nor council members have been fair to this process about what she has been providing.”
She gave Brackney a chance to respond to the concerns.
“The Charlottesville Police Department prepares a budget that is extremely extensive,” Brackney said. “82% of our budget is personnel costs.”
Walker stated during a March 15 council meeting that Brackney had explained to her that as it currently stands, the police budget could only decrease if officers were fired.
“At this point, it hasn’t been shown that there is less of a need for [the number of police officers], and I hope we get there,” Walker said.
In a December press release, the police department announced the hiring of three officers and said the department is aiming to recruit 16 officers for the July 2021 academy class.
“[Brackney] has said that if we have to cut our budget, we would have to reconfigure the service delivery model,” Snook said. “The problem is we can’t just say we’re going to eliminate detectives or stop enforcing traffic laws.”
Brackney said that safety measures the community has asked the department to implement, such as body-worn cameras, are expenses the police department incurs.
“We have to work towards a coproduction of public safety, and we have to think about the resources that we’re going to need to do that,” she said.
Elizabeth Stark, co-chair of the Charlottesville chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said she is concerned about the lack of transparency within the budget.
“The initial budget documents from CPD had so little information that it was hard for anyone in the public to know where the city’s money was going,” Stark said. “I think City Council should have been more aggressive in requesting a detailed police budget and having greater transparency around the whole issue of the police budget.”
Stark pointed to the city school division’s 150-page budget document as an example of a transparent and detailed budget. The police budget takes up only three pages of the city manager’s 228-page proposed city budget.
“What I tell people who want more information about the police budget or want to cut the police budget is just exactly what Chief Brackney has said to me when I’ve raised the issue with her, which is tell me what it is you don’t want us to do anymore, and I’ll tell you what it’s going to save you,” Snook said. “Unless someone is willing to say, ‘I don’t want to have emergency response after midnight’ or, ‘I don’t want to enforce traffic laws’ … it doesn’t work.”
Snook said that in the future he would like to have a public forum and a work session involving the council, the police chief and community members to discuss the police budget.
“The police chief is the best defender of the police budget,” Snook said. “[She] can explain to people why the budget is the way it is … She is a very intelligent woman; she can defend her budget very well, far better than I can.”
Many community activists have voiced support for moving away from traditional policing measures in favor of other programs, such as mental health crisis response systems and other programs that work to prevent crime.
“We would like to see more movement on shifting priorities from policing to community support,” Stark said.
She said an example of a program that could receive some diverted police funding is the BUCK Squad (Brothers United to Cease the Killing), an organization that works to prevent gun violence and promote nonviolent conflict resolution.
“The BUCK Squad has shown how effective a community-based approach can be at curbing violence and promoting peace,” Stark said.
During the March 15 budget hearing, Ang Conn, a community organizer with Defund Charlottesville Police Department, said she was disappointed that the council did not take into consideration any of the group’s recommendations.
“We have to really start thinking about what safe and thriving communities look like, and that doesn’t involve a police presence. It involves the impacted community members and fully-funded resources,” Conn said.
Stark voiced frustration that many changes cannot be made until next year’s budget discussions.
“It’s very frustrating because even just looking back to June and July , it seemed that the councilors understood that the community was asking to shift resources away from policing and toward community support … and then council just seemingly stopped caring about the issue and stopped being as aggressive as we would have liked them to be,” Stark said. “It does feel frustrating and disappointing that they weren’t able to do more this year.”
Stark said the Charlottesville DSA and its abolition committee will continue to push for full funding of policing alternatives.
“Next year, we want to be more proactive and we know we need to start earlier and be more concrete and perhaps align with other groups within the city that are working on the same things,” Stark said.
Snook said if funds were diverted from the police for mental health crisis response, for example, the money still would be needed for that emergency response program in order to hire social workers, etc.
“It’s not a budget-cutting effort. It doesn’t save money that we can then divert to housing or some other project. It simply reshuffles the dollars a little bit,” Snook said.
Snook said that through a mental health task force that he, Brackney and Councilor Sena Magill serve on along with mental health experts and recipients of mental health services, they have been trying to figure out what a mental health crisis response program would look like in Charlottesville.
“We’re still a ways away from that yet,” Snook said.
Snook said he hoped the Virginia General Assembly Marcus Alert bill would provide more guidance for creating a mental health crisis response system.
The bill was named for Marcus-David Peters, a Black man who was shot and killed by Richmond police in 2018 while having a mental health crisis.
Snook said Charlottesville is also working to be in compliance with National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 by July 2022 by creating a suicide prevention hotline and response effort.
“We’ve got both federal pressures and state pressures to revise how we do this, and it’s going to take a fair amount of work to do it so we do it effectively,” Snook said. “Certainly by a year from now, we want to be in a position to really have a solution.”