Mayor Byron W. Brown suggests spending less money on police for the next year.
But Buffalo isn’t joining the ranks of cities across the nation defunding their police departments in the aftermath of protests over the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
The $85.3 million Brown proposes for the police department is $743,139 less than its current budget. The items slated for increases: salary lines, pension costs, Tasers, body cameras, computer systems and vehicle purchases. Reductions include supply lines. New police officers joining the force at a lower salary also account for the reduced spending, city Finance Commissioner Donna J. Estrich said during budget hearings.
“Once people retire, we bring in officers at a lower salary rate," Estrich said. "Along with that salary you get also get lower longevity payment and all the other contractual services.”
For some, the cuts aren't nearly enough.
India Walton, a mayoral candidate and community activist, said the city could cut about $7.5 million more by removing police from mental health calls and from minor traffic enforcement duties. She supports reallocating the money to reduce crime through youth employment, living-wage jobs, safe and stable affordable housing and improving the education system.
“We expect the police to respond to all of our societal ills that really are the result of these austerity budgets, where we cut social safety net services and mental health services and now the police are responding to everything from cars inappropriately parked in peoples’ driveways to mental health crises, and it’s just not a good use of their time or our taxpayer dollars,” she said.
For others, the cuts are worrisome.
John Evans, president of the Police Benevolent Association, the police union, said the department needs more money for maintenance of its vehicle fleet and district precincts and higher wages.
“We haven’t seen a raise since June 2018,” he said. “And inflation along with the consumer price index are rising at an alarming rate.”
As Walton and Evans give voice to conflicting visions of police spending, it is clear Buffalo's mayor isn't slashing funding to police and redirecting the money to social programs and community services like other cities have.
An August 2020 Forbes report listed 13 cities that are defunding their police departments, ranging from $1 billion in New York City to $865,000 taken from the Norman Police Department’s $23 million police budget in Oklahoma. Baltimore reduced police spending by $22 million, Seattle by $3.5 million and Portland, Ore., by $16 million.
Brown has said he does not support defunding the police department but remains in “strong favor” of reforming it. Police initiatives in his proposed budget include $20,000 for training for BPD officers, detectives and command staff to recognize implicit racial bias; $25,000 to incorporate a law enforcement assisted diversion program, or LEAD, into the existing community policing program; and $100,000 for a community planning process to be administered through the city's Commission on Citizens Rights and Community Relations. The commission will conduct public surveys to determine the types of training needed for BPD, said Deputy Police Commissioner Barbara Lark during the budget workshops.
The administration wants to divert $145,000 into the budget for the Human Resources Department, which provides citywide training, and some of the proposed training may benefit other departments, Estrich said.
A public survey started last July by the Buffalo Common Council showed a majority of 4,156 respondents supported defunding the police department: 58.7% indicated they were in favor; 37.1% were opposed; and 4.2% said maybe.
When asked where appropriations for police programs should go, the popular responses included schools, community centers and programming, police training and affordable housing.
Partnership for the Public Good, a coalition of 315 community group and nonprofit partners, is another voice calling for Buffalo to redirect funds from police to social, community and educational programs such as Mayor Brown’s Summer Youth Internship Program. The mayor called for increasing funding to that program by about $875,000. Partnership for the Public Good also suggested more money for foreclosure prevention; additional health and mental health services in the city; turning vacant, public land into green space; affordable housing developments; and space for local food growing to address food insecurity.
In a report issued earlier this month, the organization identified ways the city could cut an additional $16.5 million from the police department budget. That included $2.9 million by cutting vacant positions, and $11 million by moving certain civilian positions and duties – like forensic sciences – from the department and into other areas of city government.
And the organization said at least $1 million more in savings could come from bigger cuts to overtime and court time pay. The proposed budget calls for cutting overtime to $7.5 million from $8 million and court time pay to $2 million from about $3.5 million.
Estrich said much of the savings is attributed to less court time because of the pandemic and closed courts. And with the implementation of the law enforcement assisted diversion program into the existing community policing program and as other alternatives to arrest are implemented, such as the department's Behavioral Health Team, overtime and court time should decrease even more.
The Common Council has until May 21 to consider the mayor's overall $534.5 million for the 2021-22 fiscal year and recommend its own reductions or request other changes.