As protests against police brutality and systemic racism continue across the country, demonstrators in several states have begun to call for defunding or dramatically restructuring police departments.
In Salt Lake City, thousands are demanding change too.
Over the last two weeks, city councilmembers have heard hours of public comments from residents calling for defunding the police department, in addition to thousands of emails and phone calls. Most are asking for a $30 million reduction to the department’s proposed $84 million budget, and using that money instead for social services such as affordable housing or hiring more social workers.
Some commenters, including many who were people of color, said Salt Lake’s police do not make them feel safe and felt officers aren’t equipped to handle many of the situations they often respond to, such as people with mental health disorders or those experiencing homelessness.
“I have to continually fight to make sure my clients have funding,” said Ann Charles, a Salt Lake City resident and therapist at a substance abuse treatment center. “I have had to resubmit funding requests, just to ensure that they can stay in a place that keeps them safe and off the streets. Otherwise they would be in jail or homeless.”
City councilmember Amy Fowler said reallocating police funds to social programs is a good call, but figuring out how to do it is a challenge.
“I think simply slashing a budget without understanding the consequences doesn't seem [to be] a step I want to take right now,” Fowler said.
She said she is looking in part to other cities for answers, such as Camden, New Jersey, which completely rebuilt its police force in 2013. She’s meeting with Camden officials Friday to hear about the experience, what they've learned and what they could have done better.
Prior to budget cuts, however, Steven Winters, president of the Salt Lake Police Association, said he’d like to see some of the proposals for social programs enacted first.
“You really have to wait to make sure it works first,” he said. “You have to put those programs into place. You have to see how they're working. You have to see if they're effective. If they are and they're reducing crime, that's fantastic.”
Ian Adams, executive director of the Utah Fraternal Order of Police, said there are some other things that need to be considered.
“Given how police budgets are structured, you've got some costs there that are hard to get rid of,” said Adams, “We're not going to stop responding to sexual assault complaints, homicide investigations or any of the other things that make up primary police responses.”
Reducing the budget now, however, would result in officer lay-offs, Winters said. And police are already struggling to answer the calls they’re receiving. Salt Lake City police receive around 4,000 calls a week, according to Detective Greg Wilking. They include everything from parking complaints to suicide threats and shots fired.
“You can have a high school diploma and become a cop,” Winters said, adding that budget cuts could lead to lesser pay. “And then you want us to wear the hat of a social worker, therapist, family counselor, depending on what the call is that comes through. Then you want us to be infallible when we have to do all of these things, which is unrealistic.”
Adams said a better solution is to focus on reforms, such as those proposed by the NAACP, though he noted the state has already implemented some of them. Salt Lake City Police, for example, aren’t trained to use choke holds or tear gas.
Shima Baughman, a law professor at the University of Utah, said Salt Lake City officers have demonstrated genuine efforts to improve. They’ve introduced a number of community-oriented policing programs — such as coffee with a cop and explorers — which she said have been shown to improve trust between police and the communities they serve.
And she agreed a lot is asked of law enforcement, but it also helps illustrate why she thinks there is a case to be made for defunding — or at least restructuring — police departments.
She said police, on average, spend only about 20% of their time arresting people or looking into specific crimes. The other 80% is spent mostly on what she said amounts to social work, things like fights between neighbors, dealing with people experiencing homelessness and traffic stops.
“Let's see if we can get medical professionals for the medical emergencies — [including drug overdoses] — social workers for the family-type emergencies, traffic cops dealing with traffic flow,” she said. “And then let's get some kind of crime-solving force that's better than what we currently have.”
For her part, Councilmember Amy Fowler said she and her colleagues are committed to keeping the conversation going and are meeting again Thursday to continue discussing the issue.
Jon Reed is a reporter for KUER. Follow him on Twitter @reedathonjon