Residents rally to ‘re-fund the police’

Some residents ask city council to reallocate the Visalia Police Department’s budget for de-escalation training while others urge city officials to maintain the department’s funding

VISALIA – The city of Visalia passed its two-year budget last week under pressure from residents to “re-fund” rather than “defund” the police department.

During the June 15 Visalia City Council meeting, some urged the council to maintain funding for the Visalia Police Department which has made strides to reduce crime to 20-year lows while others called for the council to reallocate police funding to retrain officers in nonviolent techniques.

“Why hire new people when the ones you have aren’t properly trained in mental health techniques and de-escalation?” Samantha Marquez asked the council.

Heather Carini said defunding the police was “just a catchy phrase” and instead told the council to think of the phrase as a call to spend less money on the use of force and more money on prevention and community resources. She said by hiring more social workers, mental health professionals and drug rehabilitation specialists and youth counselors, the city could reduce homelessness, crime and substance abuse therefore decreasing the need for police officers.

“Citizens need more resources, not more handcuffs,” Carini said.

She asked the council not to vote on any increases for police funding until they can implement all of the EightCantWait methods of policing. Eight Can’t Wait is an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement that urges elected officials to enact eight methods of de-escalation it claims have reduced police violence by 72%. Visalia has only enacted two of the eight policies of requiring warning before shooting and duty to intervene, which requires officers present and observing another officer using unreasonable force to intercede and report it to a supervisor, according to EightCantWait.org. The six other policies include: banning chokeholds and strangleholds; required de-escalation tactics; requiring officers to exhaust all alternatives before shooting; banning shooting at moving vehicles; comprehensive reporting; and use of the “force continuum,” which restricts the most severe types of force to the most extreme situations and creates clear policy restrictions on the use of each police weapon and tactic.

Two days after the meeting, VPD responded to claims that its officers were not properly trained in the methods by posting a report titled, “The VPD Way: A comprehensive look at your Visalia Police Department” to the city’s Facebook page. The report outlines the department’s policies regarding each of the eight methods. The report states that 81% of VPD officers have completed a 40-hour crisis intervention training course that contains significant training on de-escalation and far exceeds any state or federal mandates. The Department received recognition from California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) for this achievement in 2019. The department has policies in place discouraging officers from shooting at moving vehicles “acknowledging that doing so is rarely effective” and says it should only be done if it is “the only course of action to stop an imminent threat.” As of June 9, VPD has removed the Carotid Control Hold, or choke hold, from its Use of Force policy. VPD officers are bound by state law allowing use of deadly force “only when necessary in the defense of human life.” The department admittedly does not subscribe to the “force continuum” describing it as an “aged concept” that has given way to more evidence-based practices. VPD’s Use of Force policy does list 19 factors officers are to consider before using force, which includes a range of options from de-escalation to tasers to firearms.

The department does have a policy about “Reporting the Use of Force” but it does not require officers to report “whenever they point a firearm at someone” as outlined in Eight Can’t Wait.

Measure T

The overall budget for 2020-21 is $224.6 million with just over $73 million for the General Fund, the county’s pot of unrestricted money primarily used for police, fire, parks and general government administration. More than one-third (39.5%) of the General Fund, or $28.8 million, goes to the Police Department budget, which represents about 12.8% of the overall budget. The council unanimously passed the 472-page budget document.

About 93% of VPD’s budget is spent on salaries and benefits. In order to hire more officers and support staff, Visalians have passed two special tax measures to either fully or partially fund public safety. One, which has largely gone unnoticed during public comment, is Measure T, a quarter-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2004, generates about $6 million per year. The money is divided between police (60%) and fire (40%) departments. In the past, the measure has built two police stations, two fire stations and a training facility, hired 23 officers, 13 firefighters, a fire captain and battalion chief, purchased 23 patrol cars, a fire engine and fire apparatus and payed for the construction of the Visalia Emergency Community Center, which handles dispatch and headquarters for police and fire in addition to other types of emergency services. Almost all (98%) of the police department’s portion, about $3.4 million, funds 23 officer positions and was passed unanimously.

Measure N

The other sales tax measure, which has been more scrutinized during public comment, is Measure N. The half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2016 generates about $11 million annually. Measure N only represents about 5% of the General Fund budget but has garnered nearly all of the community’s focus within the “defund the police” discussion that is happening in cities across the country.

The voter-mandated spending plan earmarks 36% of the sales tax for police, a third for roads, 13% for fire, 10% for maintenance, 5% for parks and recreation, 2% for youth services and 1% for a reserve fund. The police portion of next year’s Measure N budget is $2.8 million. About two-thirds of that will be spent on 23 officers. Only two of the 23 are new officers hired for the 2020-21 year. The others were already employed by the city.

Councilmember Phil Cox tried to help the crowd narrow its focus by suggesting they look at the “maintenance and emerging needs” funds rather than the “youth programs” fund. As part of the voter-mandated expenditure plan, the city set aside 8% of the annual Measure N revenues for building maintenance and emerging needs. The emerging needs portion of the fund, about $257,000 for 2020-21, is where the “council actually has discretion,” Cox said, while the 2% for youth funding cannot be increased.

Heather Carini said she was a business owner, knew and respected Chief Salazar and voted for Measure N, but said there was more at stake in police funding than just dollars.

“You’ve allocated enough to staff 24 police officers. Why? So they can arrest more people?” Carini asked.

City manager Randy Groom told the crowd they were focusing their discussion on things the council could not change rather than what they wanted. He said changing Measure N would be going against the will of the voters who approved it. He then turned the tables around on those calling for the council to change the priorities.

“If a voter approved measure you voted for spent 80% on youth services, then 10 years later a different council said we don’t want to spend that on youth services anymore, I think you’d be upset,” Groom said in response to one man’s claims that the city had the authority to change the percentages.

Cox offered to sit with those who wanted to learn more about the city’s budget process to get more involved in commenting about the city’s budget in the months leading up to the city’s review of its 2021-22 budget next March.

Visalia native Gabriella Vaca thanked Cox for listening and asked the council to spend the next year contemplating the issues raised this year.

“When it comes to Measure N, don’t know what your power is, but a lot of people want you to rethink how to spend those funds,” she said.

Cut short

After several failed attempts to redirect the public to areas of the budget that were open for discussion, Mayor Bob Link cut the public comment period short.

“I think we’ve missed some of the direction that we are here to talk about,” Link said five minutes short of the 30 minutes he allotted for public comment on Measure N.

Barry Caplan, one of the most consistent voices to “re-fund the police,” demanded the council give more time to the public, noting that much of the time was taken up by staff’s comments and explanations.

“It’s my discretion and I have closed the public hearing,” Link stated sternly.

Brittany Pallotta, who has lived in Visalia for the last four years, chided the council for not providing them with enough time to be heard about issues facing a segment of the population that doesn’t feel comfortable

“More people, especially those of minority backgrounds, don’t participate in government because we are met with condescension and annoyance,” Pallotta said. “It’s your duty to encourage participation.”

Councilmember Greg Collins said he was in favor of reallocating the 8% in building maintenance and emerging needs to increase youth services to 10% of the Measure N budget, something he had initially suggested when the expenditure plan was drafted.

“I felt 10% on youth would pay dividends down the road,” Collins said. “I think law enforcement would concur with that statement.”

After a final explanation by staff about Measure N funding, Vice Mayor Steve Nelsen motioned to approve the sales tax measure’s budget for the next two years, the city’s standard budget cycle.

“We are listening but you want wholesale change,” Nelsen said. “That can’t happen. Our hands are tied when it comes to Measure N.”

The motion was seconded by Councilmember Brian Poochigian and passed 4-1, with Collins casting the one dissenting vote. Prior to the vote, Poochigian said he remembers the 1990s when Visalia had a “big gang problem” and how the police department worked in the community to make it “minuscule” today.

“I’m supportive of continuing that,” Poochigian said. “Changing police, fire, roads and parks and recreation [in Measure N] would be lying to voters and we have to keep our word.”

Police positive

The budget highlighted several other accomplishments of VPD, some of which were in line with requests for a less militant form of police. In the last two years, VPD has expanded its Homeless Outreach Proactive Enforcement Team (HOPE) by two officers and partnered with Tulare County Mental Health to provide clinician to assist the chronically homeless population as well as focus on traffic enforcement to avoid fatal collisions. In the last three years, traffic fatalities have fallen from 14 to 9 and calls for service regarding the homeless are down 20% and emergency calls regarding homeless are down by a third.

Longtime Visalia resident Mark Fulmer submitted a letter asking the council to continue its financial support of VPD. In addition to the HOPE Team and partnership with Mental Health, Fulmer noted that VPD also worked with Family Services of Tulare County to help victims of domestic violence.

“I’m aware there are some few members of our community who are attempting to have an oversized voice that is hostile for those who protect and support Visalia,” Fulmer stated but was read into the record on his behalf by vice mayor Steve Nelsen. “Please keep in mind their loud claims do not represent the other 134,000 citizens of Visalia.”

Deene Souza urged the council not to defund the police department because the taxpayers of the city demanded public safety. She said a reduction in the police force would result in more unsolved crimes, more criminals and longer response times to calls.

“Before this council takes drastic measures to appease the social media justice warriors, I request the council commit to engaging with every willing Visalia resident to decide what safety looks like for us,” Souza said. “Please take the time to find out what your constituents desire and represent us.”

Mary Ann Headstrom said it was the quick action of a Visalia Police officer that saved her business from a fire. She said she has seen officers of all backgrounds respond to calls over the years and all of them came ready to put themselves in harm’s way to protect the public.

“I’ve had some good times and bad times with the police but they go to work every day and put lives on line for our community,” Headstrom said. “I do think they deserve our respect.”

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