Before July 2021, Richmond is set to have a re-imagined, and reduced, police force. And what that will look like will be determined as part of a community dialogue in the coming months.
On Tuesday, the Richmond City Council voted to form a task force of community stakeholders to develop a plan to transition from the city’s current community-policing model to a new version that works with a smaller staff.
Councilmembers Jael Myrick and Demnlus Johnson III, who introduced the proposal, say the plan would save a city with a structurally imbalanced budget millions of dollars. It also responds to local and national calls “to consider how large police budgets take resources away from more preventative programs and how some percentage of the services police provide can be provided more efficiently and compassionately through community-based programs,” according to the councilmembers.
The task force will include city and police officials as well as community-based organizations such as the Safe Return Project, RYSE Center and Office of Neighborhood Safety. Once formed, it must meet and report back to council on Sept. 15, and then every month thereafter, with the goal of implementing a new policing model by the end of fiscal year 2020-21.
Tuesday’s vote to form a task force followed the council’s decision to pass a budget that “isn’t sustainable in future years,” according to City Manager Laura Snideman. The COVID-19 lockdown’s economic impact worsened the city’s already difficult budget position. The city closed a $29.5 million budget deficit for FY 2020-21 with ample reliance on one-time funding sources. City staff said more cuts are needed, including millions of dollars in labor union concessions.
The need for savings creates the need to reimagine city policing, which accounts for about 40 percent of the current city budget, Myrick said.
“The current overtime [in police spending] is a result of the fact that we have 150 police officers trying to do the work of 196,” the councilmember said. “Even just maintaining what we are doing right now…is going to require us to figure out how we change our policing model.”
Myrick said this is an opportunity to have a conversation about whether sending mental health experts and other social service providers instead of police officers to certain calls would enhance the community.
Ben Therriault, president of the Richmond Police Officers Association, warned of the consequences of significant reductions to the police force. RPD has been credited in recent years for implementing a community-policing model that’s led to significant crime reduction in the city, Therriault pointed out. Therriault agreed there are some calls to which cops shouldn’t respond. He called for the task force to include residents of the city not affiliated with activists with agendas seeking to benefit from funds stripped from the police department.
Therriault also called on council to more proactively engage in economic development activities that could help the city pay for the type of services residents deserve.
“Defunding the police department is defunding the only part of the city that responds, twenty-four seven, 365 days of the year, rain or shine, day or night,” Therriault said. “And if you reduce that you are going to spit in the face of the 7,000 residents who call us every month. Because this is a minority-majority city, most of them are people of color and they rely on us for public safety.”