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Despite calls to ‘defund,’ Salt Lake City approves police budget — but with controls

$5 million placed on hold to fund future changes

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Salt Lake City Public Safety Building

Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Despite dozens of furious public commenters accusing them of ignoring their demands to “defund” the police, the Salt Lake City Council late Tuesday night approved the city’s budget with tighter controls on a portion of the city’s police budget and new money for body cameras.

“The problems of systemic and institutional racism are deeper than $10 million, $20 million or $30 million funding fixes,” Salt Lake City Council Chairman Chris Wharton said, bracing for the ire of dozens of online attendees before the council’s vote.

“We’ve got a lot more work to do on the policy level,” Wharton continued. “A lot of you are angry. A lot of you are still going to be angry about this proposal. ... We understand that. But we are hopeful you will continue to dialogue with us. Stay determined. Stay engaged. Keep telling us what you want to see and we’ll keep listening and working.”

From what was proposed to be an $84 million Salt Lake City Police Department budget, the Salt Lake City Council voted unanimously to shuffle out about $5.3 million — but not to cut police services.

Instead, the council voted to move that money, including $2.5 million for the police department’s social worker program, to a nondepartmental budget outside of police administration control so the City Council will have more power over how it’s spent in the future.

That money will now sit in a holding account — including an additional $322,800 for possibly more de-escalation training — with the council’s intent that it will be spent using input from a new city commission being formed to focus on “racial equity and policing” and a deep audit of the police department budget as a whole.

The council also voted to approve a lengthy list of legislative intents to “re-evaluate” the police department’s future role, use an independent audit to “reconstruct” the police department’s budget from the bottom up, prioritize forthcoming federal COVID-19 aid money to help fund equity-focused initiatives, direct the city’s attorney to create an ordinance to ban the city from accepting grant awards for federal military equipment, and a citywide review to “decriminalize” certain city laws.

The council also voted to put nearly $1.7 million in redevelopment and capital improvement money into another holding account, meant to be used for future investment in minority communities to be shaped by the racial equity and policing commission Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall’s administration is now racing to create.

The council also voted unanimously to add an additional $687,000 to provide all sworn police officers with body cameras, with data and Tasers.

To pay for these initiatives, the council voted to approve a judgement levy (or a one-time property tax increase) for about $456,000, and pulled money out of the city’s rainy day fund while keeping it above its 13% target in case of tough economic times.

When some City Council members voted in favor of the budget over Tuesday night’s online meeting, they did it with somber faces, expressing that they knew the budget moves would do little to appease an outpouring of demands to “defund” or “abolish” the police department, as seen in other cities across the U.S. after the slaying of George Floyd.

In Salt Lake City, an army of public commenters have demanded the police department be slashed by $30 million — a cut that Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said would jeopardize public safety, “cut to the quick” and “devastate” police’s ability to serve and protect.

Council members stressed that their budget actions were only a start, not an end, to a lengthy public conversation over police violence and systemic racism.

“We know there were calls for much more reductions, but we need time and more information to direct the path for lasting systemic change going forward,” Salt Lake City Council Chairman Chris Wharton said before the vote. “Cutting an arbitrary amount off the top will not give the council the type of oversight and involvement we want to see long term.”

As protests have persisted for weeks, hundreds of public commenters have flooded Salt Lake City’s online hearings, at times pushing the council’s meetings past midnight. But Tuesday, fewer commenters attended, though they still surpassed 50. Some commenters said it was because they felt Salt Lake City officials weren’t listening and proceeding with “disappointing” moves rather than the “bold” changes they demanded.

“You might have heard, but you’re not listening,” said Emma Roberts. “These reforms of body cameras and choke holds ... they aren’t getting us to the root of the issue. It’s not what we’re asking for. We’re asking for a defunding of a corrupt system that is killing people based on the color of their skin.”

Roberts, like many other commenters, urged the City Council to swiftly divert more funds away from the police department and to social programs to address poverty, education divides, and other issues that disadvantage generations of minorities.

“We are not satisfied with this. This is really not enough,” Roberts said. “(The system) needs to be dismantled for any real change.

Some also criticized the City Council for funding police body cameras, saying “black and brown” communities already know police officers kill their loved ones and they don’t need footage to prove it.

Wharton acknowledged that argument and that studies have shown cameras do not necessarily decrease police violence, “but the problem isn’t with the footage itself,” he said. “It is with the legal standards prosecutors use to determine whether conduct is justified under existing law.” However, Wharton said police body camera footage is “invaluable” for other nonviolent incidents, to help protect the rights of officers, the public and criminal defendants alike.

“Body cameras are about more than just officer-involved shootings. They are about transparency and accountability in all police operations and interactions with the public,” Wharton said.

Councilman Darin Mano, before his vote in support of the budget, urged residents to understand the budget was not a solution, but “merely a starting point.” And Mano said he hopes the last few weeks have “marked what I hope will be seen as a major turning point in our nation’s history toward great racial equality and justice.”

“I am hopeful the to-be-formed commission and the (budget audit) will give us the information we need to make even bolder and more impactful steps toward eliminating systemic racism in our police department and throughout our community.”