By Leon Galis
Along with nearly 8,500 other people (and counting), I read with interest Nhan-Ai Simms’ extended discussion of the plan Commissioners Tim Denson and Mariah Parker have proposed for reducing the size of our police force by 50% over ten years (Plan to reallocate police funding hasty response to events outside of Athens, Classic City News, June 15). Given that her husband is an Athens police officer, I understand her anxiety about this. But I think it’s misplaced because she went off on a plan that nobody has actually proposed. I’m not here to defend the Denson-Parker initiative. Commissioners favoring it are more than capable of doing that themselves. But if there’s going to be a productive community discussion of it, it’s critical that we all be talking about the same thing. So I’m here as an honest broker for that modest purpose.
Ms. Simms’ argument is that it would be reckless to reduce funding for what’s already an underfunded police department. I wouldn’t know about the adequacy of the department’s funding so I’ll just take her word that it’s not.
An agency is underfunded when it lacks the resources to carry out its assigned mission. When it is, the two solutions are more funding or changing the mission to better align it with available resources. Denson-Parker proposes the second.
There’s a wide national consensus that the country has for some time now expected more of law enforcement than it’s able to deliver, a consensus including some very senior law enforcement officials. A typical example is David Brown, Chief of Police in Dallas, Texas, who said in 2016, “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it… Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops… That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”
The Denson-Parker plan, like similar ones around the country, is an attempt to address this sort of “mission creep” that has dumped onto the police department a whole array of problems that, as Chief Brown said, police were “never meant to solve….” But in contrast to some cities, Denson-Parker would put us on an incremental path with off-ramps all along the way. Contrary to Ms. Simms, it’s not the sort of rush job being implemented right now in Albuquerque, New Mexico, whose mayor announced recently, according to the Washington Post, “the formation of a new public safety department designed to relieve stress on the city’s police. Instead of the police and fire departments responding to 911 calls related to inebriation, homelessness, addiction and mental health, the new division will deploy unarmed personnel made up of social workers, housing and homelessness specialists, and violence prevention coordinators.”
I’m not going to follow Ms. Simms far into the budgetary weeds here but it’s important for us to understand a few basic things about Denson-Parker. The county’s budget is put together annually. When the Commission adopts one, it funds the government for only a single fiscal year, after which the Mayor has to put together another budget for another fiscal year. Far from “defunding the police,” for fiscal 2021, Denson-Parker actually proposes about $400,000 for measures that would support the department, including funding for an additional Mental Health Co-Responder Team and for bringing 911 dispatching under the department’s control as the it has recommended itself to shorten 911 response times.
The budget item that Ms. Simms seems to think directly takes funds away from the police department is $50,000 to supporting the operation of a committee to implement the Denson-Parker plan for reducing the police force by 50% over ten years. But as far as I can tell, the $50,000 doesn’t come from “disinvesting in policing,” as Ms. Simms believes. In fact, Denson-Parker doesn’t say specifically where that money would come from. Commissioner Parker provides some clarity in a Flagpole story reporting her belief that the total cost of the plan, including the $50,000 Ms. Simms thinks would come from policing, could be covered by savings in several areas that don’t specifically impact the police department.
One budget item that I thought would’ve disturbed Ms. Simms didn’t apparently, but disturbed me. Denson-Parker proposed permanent elimination of five currently vacant police positions. Since those positions are projected to remain vacant for fiscal 2021, they don’t generate savings that would support Denson-Parker next year. But after fiscal 2021, permanently eliminating those positions would save $200,000 a year or more that could be allocated to other purposes.
Denson-Parker describes that provision as “a first step toward the 10-year goal to reduce the size of ACCPD by 50 percent.” But that pre-empts the committee to which Denson-Parker assigns the critical task of figuring out how to implement the plan. The committee is a very big deal, to consist of “a trained facilitator, Athenians well-versed in the local social supports and direct services landscape, researchers with expertise in alternatives to traditional policing, members of communities disproportionately impacted by overpolicing and police violence, and a number of ACC Commissioners.” To me, putting this team in place should be the “first step” toward implementing the plan. Any other steps toward the plan’s goal should be taken only after review by this committee. So Denson-Parker is getting ahead of itself in proposing to permanently eliminate five currently vacant police positions as a “first step.”
I wasn’t in the room when Commissioners Denson and Parker put this proposal together, but anybody with a pulse can figure out that one reason for the ten-year time frame is to allow the force reductions they envision to occur by attrition. And Commissioner Parker confirmed that in the Flagpole story. She and Commissioner Denson aren’t stupid after all. They know that telling current ACCPD officers that their jobs are in jeopardy would set off a stampede out the door on the way to other jurisdictions. Police officers aren’t stupid either.
Another reason for the 10-year time frame is this. The goal, remember, isn’t to further starve the police department of resources. It’s to reallocate resources in a way that shifts to other agencies responsibility for the sorts of problems that Chief Brown of Dallas said the police were never meant to solve, leaving the police with a mission that they can actually carry out and resources to match. The goal, in other words, is to “right size” the department, not to “disinvest” in it.
But that’s only an aspiration at this point because that’s all it can be. Nobody knows whether this is even going to work. So the prudent approach is to undertake it as an experiment with an annual assessment at budget-writing time of how it’s all going. The annual budget exercises are the off-ramps. If the data show at year five or whenever that the plan is working spectacularly well, leaving some officers mostly taking identity theft complaints, that will tell the budget writers that some number of vacancies occurring during the next fiscal year need not be filled.
If, on the other hand, the data are terrible, we wouldn’t be locked into this scheme for the full ten-year run. Under our system of government, no legislative body can bind its successors. So anything that this Commission might do can be undone by future ones, either by amendment or repeal.
Finally, Denson-Parker isn’t the only plan on the table for relieving our police department of responsibilities that really shouldn’t be part of its mission. “Steps Toward Anti-racism Together (S.T.A.R.T) Athens” is a competing proposal (or maybe complementary one) that really has the same objective although it doesn’t explicitly call for shrinking the footprint of the police department. Both proposals are driven by the assumption that improving people’s life prospects relieves pressure on law enforcement. Each deserves careful consideration based on a fair reading. So don’t take my or Ms. Simms’ word for any of this. There’s no substitute for reading and thinking about the proposals yourself.
Leon Galis is an Athens native who returned to town in 1999 after retiring from the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. Since 2008, he has written dozens of columns for local Athens publicatuons, and is a frequent contributor at LikeTheDew.com and Medium.com.Galis is a professor of philosophy emeritus, with broad interests in current events and cultural commentary. You can read additional works by Galis at https://medium.com/@leongalis