After weeks of calls to reduce the city’s police department budget, the Salt Lake City Council voted Tuesday night to do just that, though not by nearly as much as what residents have been calling for.
In the wake of mass protests in Salt Lake City and nationwide, council members had been inundated with calls to defund the police department. Most demanded they reallocate $30 million of the department’s proposed $84.4 million budget — a roughly 36% cut — to social services such as mental health care and public education.
Instead, the council opted to reduce the budget by around $5.3 million, which will likely still go to police functions but held in a non-departmental account that gives the council more oversight over how the funds are used. Councilmembers said $2.8 million will be reserved for to-be-determined items, such as outfitting every officer with new body cameras and additional training. Another $2.5 million will go towards the city’s social worker program.
“Every city in this country suffers from a history of racism in the United States and Salt Lake City is no different,” said Council Chair Chris Wharton. “The council is here to create change rooted in equity, and it does not stop with the budget adoption tonight.”
Throughout several meetings, councilmembers expressed concerns over what a $30 million reduction would do to the city’s police force. In the group’s working meeting Tuesday afternoon, staff noted it would likely mean losing about 200 of the department’s 569 officers. Beyond that, they anticipated it could lead to extensive cuts to non-core police functions like its few social workers and rape kit processing.
“To me, it feels like we’re making as big of a cut as we know we can safely make,” said councilmember Darin Mano. “Then we’ll get some more information and potentially make more cuts in the future if that’s what we learn through the process.”
Council members acknowledged many residents would be disappointed by their decision but said more significant reforms are in the works. To start, the city will hire an outside agency to provide a detailed audit of the police department’s budget, so city officials can zero in on the most crucial items. Council staff estimated that could be completed as early as September.
They’re also working to create a commission made up of people of color on racial equity and policing, which will provide recommendations on future budget decisions and reforms. More details on how the commission is formed and how they’ll make recommendations will be decided at a later meeting, they said.
The council also included a number of legislative intents to the budget, which are formal, though non-binding notices to the Mayor's office about actions the City Council plans to take. They include a provision requiring the police department to report more data and an in-depth review of the city code to consider items that could be decriminalized.
“I believe we all want the same things,” Wharton said. “Justice, an end to racism and changes to see budgets and policies that will achieve safer, healthier and more equitable communities. If you are committed to real and systemic change, then you know that this is a process and this is just the beginning.”
Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon