Organizers of the local Black Lives Matter movement are calling for the Rochester Police Department budget to be cut by 50 percent next fiscal year. Members of the City Council said Monday that it was not going to happen.
The call to “defund the police,” as advocates here and elsewhere refer to it, predates the protests that have erupted across the country in the weeks since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. But his death has given it new traction.
The Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously this past Friday to disband the police and replace it with what lawmakers there called “a community-based model.” According to the resolution, the council will begin a year-long process of engaging “with every willing community member in Minneapolis” to devise a new public safety model.
Free the People Roc, a new grassroots organization in Rochester integral to the Black Lives Matter movement, has led the charge for redirecting half of all funding for the police into community-based initiatives, counselors, housing measures, and social workers.
“We have a whole bunch of different programs in the city that are community-led that solve a lot of issues, the trauma, and address the violence people have experienced in those neighborhoods,” organizer Stanley Martin told reporters at a news conference outside City Hall on Monday.
While the group wants immediate action with the start of the fiscal year beginning July 1, its members said cutting police funding by half was only a start.
“We really don’t see a role for police,” organizer Ashley Gantt said. “Policing is grounded in slave catching, it’s grounded in white supremacy and the deepest forms of racism. We don’t see a role for that in our community.”
Inside City Hall, Council members were preparing for a news conference of their own at which they would outline a series of steps they intended to take Tuesday in voting for the city budget -- including cutting funding for the Rochester Police Department by $3.7 million, or about 4 percent.
They also announced the department would halve the number of new recruits, that $130,000 in police special event overtime would be invested in the Department of Recreation and Youth Services, and that a task force that would work with the community to examine policing would be established.
The consensus of the Council was that systemic racism exists in policing, but that it was a disease that infects many institutions in American society.
“There’s no doubt about it, the black community faces disparities in all aspects of life each and every day,” Councilmember LaShay Harris said. “We face discrimination based on our skin in housing, in education, health care, employment, criminal justice, and economic mobility.”
The eight members of Council in attendance said cutting funding for police by half was unfeasible given that no groundwork has been done to establish an alternative policing model.
“I don’t know where that 50 percent number came from, but we don’t know,” said Council president Loretta Scott. “Maybe it should be 90 percent, maybe it should be 10 percent.”
Notably absent from the Council’s news conference was Council member Mary Lupien, who supports a 50 percent cut to police.
Lupien said in a phone interview that she supported such a reduction in order to shift duties that now fall to police -- like mental health checks, mediation, and responses to drug overdoses -- to experts in those fields.
She pointed specifically to a program in Eugene, Oregon, known as CAHOOTS -- Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets -- as a model. When 911 calls are placed in Eugene that seem to have a strong behavioral health component, those calls are rerouted to that city's White Bird Clinic, which dispatches crisis intervention workers.
“Programs like that, that can respond in a crisis and understand trauma and know how to de-escalate,” Lupien said. “I think those are critical.”
At one point during the Council’s news conference, Council member Michael Patterson and Free the People Roc organizers got into a shouting match. Activists argued it was the will of the community that police be defunded. Patterson said he has received calls from both sides of the aisle.
Patterson said Free the People Roc will have a seat at the table in the upcoming task force.
“You will be heard, and we will have a conversation with you and everyone else that wants to come to the table and sit down, that’s part of what the task force is going to do,” Patterson said. “I understand you don’t like the answer you’re getting.”
Martin, one of the organizers, replied: “I don’t like the brutality happening in Rochester.”
Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.