The community policing model that led to vast crime reduction in Richmond during the mid-2010s and became a national model for effective policing can no longer be maintained, according to public safety officials and neighborhood leaders, as the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA)-dominated City Council voted Tuesday to further strip the Richmond Police Department’s funding by $3 million, resulting in a permanent reduction of another 12 sworn officer positions.
Under former Chief Chris Magnus, who gained national fame for implementing the community policing model in Richmond that resulted in record low homicides in 2014 — and is currently Tucson’s police chief and also President Biden’s nominee to lead the U.S. Borders and Customs Protection — the RPD had 196 sworn officers. Since then, amid a period during which the city council has been dominated by members of one activist group — the RPA — the Police Department has seen its staff dwindle by 26 percent.
Tuesday’s decision by City Council – of which four of seven members are also members of the RPA — will have the Police Department down to 145 sworn officers, according to Mayor Tom Butt, who along with Councilmember Nat Bates voted against further defunding the RPD. In the current fiscal year’s budget approved last year under an RPA-dominated council, 34 police department positions, including 20 sworn officers, were eliminated. Late last summer, Councilmember Bates declared, “We’ve already defunded the police department.”
RPA members on council including Gayle McLaughlin, Eduardo Martinez, Melvin Willis and Claudia Jimenez, voted in favor of shifting another $3 million away from the RPD to support other services, such as the YouthWORKS employment program, Office of Neighborhood Safety, those geared at supporting homelessness and toward community crisis response. Councilmember Demnlus Johnson, who is not an RPA member, voted to abstain. The council chose this route even though another option proposed Tuesday would have funded those programs without defunding the RPD.
Richmond Police Chief Bisa French said continued gutting of police staffing will further hamper the RPD’s ability to solve crimes and address quality of life issues, such as open-air narcotics sales, drug house abatement and human trafficking on 23rd Street. Moreover, overtime will need to be used to maintain the minimum city patrol levels, and unsolved crimes will remain cold, Chief French said.
Calls to defund the police have been unpopular among Richmond residents. The Community Police Review Commission and all neighborhood councils voted in favor of enhancing funding for social services without further cuts to the police budget.
“Our neighborhood councils across the city are disappointed,” said Arto Rinteela, president of the Fairmede-Hilltop Neighborhood Council.
Rinteela noted recent fatal shootings, including on Shane Drive involving automatic gunfire. Last weekend, a Walking School Bus involving community members and public safety officials helped escort children from their summer school at Verde Elementary to the Shields-Reid Neighborhood Center, where a fatal shooting had recently occurred. Marena Brown, the president of the Shields-Reid Neighborhood Council, helped organize the call for safety.
“The cuts are coming at a bad time,” Rinteela said, adding that the police cuts are the latest RPA decision that have community leaders considering an effort to recall members on council.
James Lee, president and CEO of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, and Katrinka Ruk, who heads the Richmond Council of Industries, also voiced opposition to police cuts, as did leadership of the 23rd Street Merchants Association.
“We have street drugs, drug houses, prostitutes, and the new fireworks issue,” said Vernon Whitmore, president of the Sante Fe Neighborhood Council. “We need the police in Sante Fe. We need our residents to be safe.”
Joining Rinteela, Brown and Whitmore on the lengthy list of neighborhood leaders speaking out against defunding police were Naomi Williams, president of the Pullman Neighborhood Council; Jan Mignone, president of the North and East Neighborhood; Joe Fisher, president of the Coronado Neighborhood Council; and Oscar Garcia, president of the Iron Triangle Neighborhood Council.
Neighborhood leaders see crime going up and fear a return to high crime rates of the past.
“I was one of those kids in the early ‘90s, and believe me I’m still dealing with the effects of that,” said Garcia, who grew up in the Iron Triangle.
Residents say the City Council should support Chief French, the city’s first Black and Latina woman to serve in the role.
“If you all lived and paid taxes in Richmond, you would not even think about defunding, but refunding,” Williams said, adding the city should “bring your police force up to where it should be and stand behind your chief.”
Councilmember Bates said in his capacities on City Council over four decades, “I have never received as many emails and communications from individuals and citizens within the community…that are totally opposed to defunding the police department.”
“Yet you want to take the minority viewpoint and go against the will of the people, many who elected you,” said Bates.
Defunding the RPD only hurts minorities who have “the greatest need for police protection,” Bates added. He charged that the RPA is making the decision in order to benefit its special interest groups that happen to not include the RPD and the union representing its police officers.
“They’re creating jobs for membership and union dues,” Bates said.
The decision made Tuesday followed the formation of the Reimagine Public Safety Task Force that aimed to respond locally to the national movement to defund police following the murder of George Floyd while in Minneapolis police custody. The task force members were appointed by City Council. It was criticized for having members who are not Richmond residents, including anti-police activists Tamisha Walker, who serves on the Antioch City Council and who works in Pittsburg, and Andres Soto, who lives in Benicia.
“Apparently, City Council members could not find task force members radical enough in Richmond, so they looked elsewhere,” Mayor Butt said. “Task Force members Andres Soto and Tamisha Walker live in Benicia and Antioch, respectively, and both continue to nurse grudges against police that stem from incidents decades ago.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated Councilmember Demnlus Johnson’s vote. The story has been updated with the correct information.