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Police want a share of pandemic relief funds. Activists find that 'offensive.'

Across the country, an avalanche of pandemic relief money has sparked a debate over police spending.
Image: Albuquerque protest
Demonstrators protest the death of George Floyd in downtown Albuquerque, N.M., on May 31, 2020.Andres Leighton / AP file

After months of calling for cuts in police budgets, activists in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were dismayed to hear about Mayor Tim Keller’s plan for the $56 million in Covid-19 relief on its way from Washington.

In April, Keller proposed earmarking more than 15 percent of the funds for the Albuquerque Police Department: $3 million to expand a gunshot detection system, $5 million to refurbish station houses, $1 million for new cars and $450,000 to recruit more officers. A Keller spokesman said this week that the money was part of a plan “to make our community safer and healthier for everyone.”

The activists found it galling that the city would give stimulus funds to a department that had been under federal oversight for years for chronic use of excessive force and still had one of the country’s highest rates of killings by police. They began preparing to fight the plan ahead of a mid-May meeting in which the City Council would vote on it.

“It’s highly offensive,” said Selinda Guerrero, an organizer for Building Power for Black New Mexico, part of a coalition campaigning to divert police funding to health care, housing and social service programs. “We now have municipal leadership deciding that more money and more resources need to go toward oppressive police tactics.”

Similar battles are simmering around the country, as an avalanche of American Rescue Plan cash from the Biden administration pours into cities with relatively few strings attached, leaving mayors free to plug budget deficits and launch programs they would otherwise struggle to pay for. Albuquerque is among more than a dozen cities and local governments steering portions of their shares to police, frustrating activists who have spent much of the past year advocating for slashing police budgets.

In DeKalb County, Georgia, officials are considering using stimulus funding for police training and equipment, including drones and automated license plate readers. Financial advisers for Largo, Florida, have recommended using American Rescue Plan money to launch a police body-camera program. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he’ll send bonuses to police and other first responders. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has announced a similar plan. Other cities, including Watertown, New York, Westbrook, Maine, and the Connecticut towns of Hamden and North Haven, plan to hire new officers.

Police say they deserve some of the relief money because, just like many other municipal services, their spending was cut during the pandemic as cities struggled with lost revenue.

Andrea Edmiston, director of governmental affairs for the National Association of Police Organizations, said that while some cities, including New York and Los Angeles, cut police budgets under pressure from public outcry, many others saw their funding reduced because of financial shortfalls. A lot of these departments “stopped training classes and equipment purchases, had no cadet classes, and hiring and retention initiatives went out the window,” Edmiston said. The American Rescue Plan “is more about providing funding to help departments get back up to levels they need to be,” she said.

Standing in the way, or at least hoping to, are those who envision a new system of public safety that relies less on police and invests more resources in treating crime’s root causes: poverty, mental illness, substance abuse.

Image: Defund the Police demonstrator
A demonstrator at a July 30, 2020, protest in Albuquerque, N.M., where activists recently battled an increase in police funding. Russell Contreras / AP file

This movement to “defund the police,” which gained momentum after the police murder of George Floyd last year, has largely been focused on the municipal budget process, where most decisions about police spending are made. The American Rescue Plan — which includes $350 billion in aid to state and local governments, half of which will be delivered this year — has created a new platform for this battle because cities that were strapped for cash during the pandemic are now flush and moving quickly to spend their windfalls.

The Biden administration has said the money should be used to help bring the pandemic under control, replace lost government revenue, support households and businesses, and address inequalities in public health and local economies. But the rules provide a lot of leeway, and cities are eyeing everything from vaccination outreach to arts grants. With violent crime rising in many parts of the country, police have made the case that they need some of the money, too.

In a blog post last month, Kansas City, Missouri, Police Chief Richard Smith warned that a hiring freeze was hurting response times, and urged residents to demand that the city use some of its $97.5 million American Rescue Plan allotment to hire officers.

Lexipol, a company that helps train and advise police departments, has encouraged them to lobby for a share of stimulus money. “Public safety leaders must lead these discussions, advocating for funding that has largely been out of reach,” the company said in a recent blog post.

Activists have begun coordinating to counter this lobbying.

“We are trying to get in on the ground floor of this conversation so that a year from now we’re not running campaigns where the police budgets have increased 25, 40, 50 percent, and we’re trying to get reductions in a form that are even larger than before,” said Pascal Emmer, a researcher with the Community Resource Hub for Safety and Accountability, which helps local activists develop defund campaigns.

The activists say that it is unjust to use Covid-19 relief money to boost officer pay or to fund ordinary police functions when so many residents are struggling.

“People are still having trouble finding homes, finding food, so you can’t give more money to police, especially Covid relief money,” said Viri Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, a Phoenix nonprofit that helps communities fight systemic oppression. The group has urged the City Council not to approve a clause in a new police contract allowing American Rescue Plan funds to pay for officer bonuses; a city spokesman said such payments are not currently part of its plan for spending the relief money.

In Phoenix and other cities, activists say they began eyeing American Rescue Plan spending after getting caught flat-footed by a previous Covid-19 relief program, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, which passed in March 2020. That measure, known as the CARES Act, came with more restrictive spending rules than the American Rescue Plan, but it was still used to boost pay and cover overtime costs for police and to fund technological upgrades, including a $150,000 robotic police dog in Honolulu.

In Milwaukee, activists obtained spending figures from a city alderman’s office and found that the police department received just under $10 million in CARES Act relief.

“We don’t want that to happen again,” said Devin Anderson, the membership and coalition manager at the African American Roundtable. “We want to make sure there is a very public accounting of how this money is spent because we deserve to know. We deserve to have an influence on it.”

The city hasn’t yet said how it will spend its American Rescue Plan allotment.

The model, for activists, is St. Louis, where newly elected Mayor Tishaura Jones has set up an advisory board to suggest how to spend the $517 million coming to the city over the next two years. The board just started canvassing neighborhoods and distributing surveys.

Jones “really has a commitment to having community voices around the process,” said David Dwight IV, executive director of the nonprofit Forward Through Ferguson, a nonprofit formed to monitor police reforms after the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown. “It's been really heartening.”

In Albuquerque, Keller, the mayor, proposed spending half of the city’s American Rescue Plan cash on direct aid to needy families and struggling businesses and the other half on “New Deal-style job-creating infrastructure investment initiatives and public safety improvements.” In addition to nearly $10 million for police projects, the list included aid to youth programs, bonuses for “essential employees” who worked through the lockdown and upgrades to municipal buildings and tourist attractions.

Keller sent the plan to the City Council, which took it up on May 17.

Seven activists showed up for the public comment portion to rail against the police spending in a city where Black residents are arrested at twice the rate of white residents.

One, Francesca Blueher, a member of a coalition of community groups called The People’s Budget NM, asked how the police funding “is in any way addressing the pandemic response recovery or as support for our vulnerable communities.”

Another, Szu-Han Ho, an artist, said efforts to end the police department’s excessive use of force had failed. “What makes us think that giving APD more funding will fix the problem now?” she asked.

The council made some tweaks. It replaced the $1 million for police cars with a $4 million allocation for new cars across the municipal government, a move that would not prevent the police department from receiving its vehicles. And it made the station upgrades contingent on an “outside needs assessment.” Then it voted 8-1 to approve the plan.

City Councilor Klarissa Peña, who voted in favor of the plan, said she understood the opposition, but the council had to balance it with the need to address rising violence. The number of homicides was up 75 percent in the first three months of the year compared to 2020, according to the police department.

“I think the activists’ calls are being heard, and now’s the time to roll up our sleeves and do the necessary work,” Peña said in an interview.

The police department did not respond to requests for comment. City spokesman Babaak Parcham said in an email that the Keller administration was “making strategic investments here at home to interrupt cycles of violence.” Separate from the American Rescue Plan funding, Keller is taking “major steps to reimagine public safety,” including a new program in which health professionals, rather than police, respond to nonviolent 911 calls, Parcham said.

That has not assuaged the activists. Their goal is to one day present the government with a “people’s budget” reflecting what residents believe they need.

“We are going to continue to organize,” Guerrero said. “It isn’t over by any means.”