Eleven of the 15 members of the Milwaukee Common Council have signed on to legislation directing the city’s budget director to create a model 2021 budget in which the Milwaukee Police Department would lose 10% of the funding it was budgeted this year.
“Our citizens have been marching in the streets for the past several weeks demanding change,” Ald. José Pérez, the measure’s lead sponsor, said in a statement Monday. “They deserve to be heard. If adopted, this proposal will begin a community discussion of how we could make that change.”
Milwaukee is far from alone in this conversation.
Since George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, there have been calls across the nation to significantly rethink how public safety is carried out — and whether police are the best equipped to address many societal challenges. That includes in Minneapolis, where most of the City Council has pledged to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.”
The Milwaukee Police Department budget, at $297.4 million this year, is nearly half of the city’s general fund departmental appropriations.
The resolution — scheduled to be taken up at Tuesday morning’s Common Council meeting — compares the police department’s share of the budget to other departments: The Department of Public Works made up 18.3% of those appropriations, with the library representing 3.6%, and the Milwaukee Health Department — which receives most of its funding through grants — representing 2.2%.
The growth of the police department’s costs is unsustainable and threatens to starve other city services, the resolution states.
It also notes the “local and nationwide calls for reallocation of resources to services and agencies that work to address racism, poverty, joblessness, mental illness, and other underlying causes of criminal behavior.”
The city has seen continued protests against police brutality after Floyd’s death, and members of the Common Council have challenged and criticized Milwaukee police over tactics used during the protests.
In a move that highlighted the growing rift within the city, police last week tweeted about this year’s budget, in which Mayor Tom Barrett and the Common Council approved cutting 60 police officer positions through attrition.
“MPD is committed to serving our community with the resources we are afforded. However, the Mayor and Common Council reduced our budget by 60 police officers this year. The homicide rate has more than doubled & non-fatal shootings have increased by over 35% since 2019. #DidYouKnow,” the department tweeted.
Kimberleah Bledsoe, 29, of Milwaukee, said she’s been attending protests every day that she can. She said she wants to use the momentum on the ground to push for policy change.
Bledsoe said she’s been working with state Rep. Jonathan Brostoff to “hold the Common Council accountable to defunding the Milwaukee Police Department.”
Defunding the department, Bledsoe said, is an important step.
“I think that’s amazing that Ald. Pérez is saying that,” Bledsoe said. “Ten percent is definitely a start, but I think we can definitely be talking about a little bit more than 10%.”
Sessie Agvley, a 28-year-old Milwaukee resident, said he thinks defunding the police is an important step in demilitarizing law enforcement and investing in community wellness.
“I don’t think 10% goes far enough, but it’s still a good step,” Agvley said. “Unfortunately, progress — when it comes to racial justice and social justice — progress can be a bit slow. But progress is still progress.”
“I’m tired. I’m an immigrant, but I’m also Black, and that’s the first thing people see and police officers will see,” Agvley said.
Last year, a campaign launched by the African American Roundtable and other groups called for moving $25 million from the police department to community programs aimed at community safety and health.
This year, the call is for a $75 million divestment from the police department budget, with $50 million being invested in public health efforts and $25 million in housing cooperatives.
A 10% reduction would amount to just under $30 million.
But the city’s existing financial challenges will also have to be part in any debate about redirecting funds from the police department.
“I think it is important to look at the police budget really in-depth to see where the money is being spent, to see what we can do there,” Barrett said. “But I’m also very mindful of the fact that our long-term obligations coupled with our loss in revenue because of the COVID-19 pandemic are placing us in a very daunting fiscal position before we even have that philosophical debate.”
The city begins annual budget deliberations with an approximately $30 million structural deficit that must be addressed, city Budget Director Dennis Yaccarino told the Journal Sentinel.
“Very simply, we will have to deal with the budget gap first and then any decisions on funding for any particular service will then be determined,” Yaccarino said, though he noted that funds to fill the budget gap wouldn’t necessarily have to come solely from any cut to the police budget.
He said about 95% of the police department budget is salaries and fringe benefits.
A statement from the Milwaukee Police Department said the department “remains committed to best serving the community with the resources it is afforded, including partnering with the various agencies that provide much needed social services.”
The city will adopt the 2021 budget later this year, so this proposal will not determine what the police budget will be next year.
“It is time to consider the impact a change in the MPD budget could have,” Pérez said in the statement. “This must be done far enough in advance so that these proposals can help inform the creation of the Mayor’s 2021 Proposed Executive Budget.”
He said he expected to see a model in a month that includes “real, manageable budget changes that can be reinvested to meet the demands of our neighborhoods.”
The resolution also expresses the council’s “intention” to move those resources to other areas of the budget, including the Fire and Police Commission that is responsible for oversight of the police and fire departments, the city’s health department to fund community-based mental health programs and other services, the Community Collaborative Commission that will fund community-based organizations to build police-community relations, and affordable housing efforts.
The measure is co-sponsored by Common Council President Cavalier Johnson along with Alds. Milele Coggs, Marina Dimitrijevic, Ashanti Hamilton, Nik Kovac, Robert Bauman, Khalif Rainey, JoCasta Zamarripa, Chantia Lewis and Russell Stamper II.
Johnson told the Journal Sentinel last week that he thought the protests would continue until people see real changes to systemic, institutional problems that have caused destruction, oppression and death for people of color in the U.S.
Instead of using the term “defunding” the police, he said he sees this as a conversation around “reallocating” funds.
Police budgets that take such a substantial portion of a city’s funds make it difficult to invest in addressing the root problems that lead to police being called, he said.
Investing in education, affordable housing and mental health services could make the jobs of police easier, Johnson said.
“When somebody has a mental health issue, or somebody has an issue with housing, for instance, you don’t necessarily need to send somebody in with a badge and a gun,” he said.
There has to be a multi-pronged approach to addressing challenges in society, he said, and those other prongs need funding to be effective.
Barrett earlier this month announced a new Commission on Police Accountability and Reform that he said he wanted to act as a “catalyst,” bringing together years’ worth of proposals on police reform in the city.
But the announcement was criticized by those frustrated at the idea of yet another commission.
Barrett said Monday he had not made appointments to the commission and didn’t have a deadline to do so. He said it’s “on the front burner.”
He anticipated a discussion this year about whether others can perform the functions historically considered the responsibility of police and said he wanted an in-depth analysis of calls for service, which he said are an indicator of demand for government intervention.
“Part of the debate has to be, if the police are not responding to mental health calls, if the police are not responding to domestic violence calls, if the police are not responding to neighborhood dispute calls – who is responding, if anyone,” Barrett said.
He said he hears both from people who feel they have been mistreated by police but also people who say they’re waiting too long for police to respond.
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Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonDirr.