Some want city to dismantle the police but most want to shift police funding to training officers to address racial bias and de-escalation tactics
VISALIA – A group of Tulare County residents are echoing calls to “defund the police” that have become a rallying cry from protesters to reform, and in some cases abolish, police departments across the country.
With nothing but a single budgetary item on the agenda, the June 8 special meeting seemed like the perfect opportunity for residents to explain their version of the “defund the police” message.
One woman, who did not give her name, called for dismantling the police force as a first step toward rebuilding it into a force for prevention. She said the “defund the police” message is about investing in mental health, drug rehabilitation programs and other resources that prevent people from returning or turning to a life of crime instead of the police department.
“This is a very big change that I am proposing, and I ask it with a lot of questions and to keep an open mind,” the woman said.
She asked the city council make this year’s Measure N budget conditional upon the 23 officers it funds to receive training on the Eight Can’t Wait 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%. But the group’s ultimate goal is the abolition of police.
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. 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.
The Tulare Police Department is the only other department to enact at least one of the policies, according to EightCantWait.org.
City officials and staff pointed out they were not there to talk about the entire city budget or even the entire police department budget. Instead, the meeting was strictly to discuss the budget for Measure N, a half-cent sales tax approved by voters in 2016. Measure N revenues are projected to be $11.4 million in 2020-21, just 5% of the city’s overall budget.
“People have already talked about wanting to shift funds from one thing to another,” city manager Randy Groom said. “Measure N was voted on by the voters with a very specific expenditure plan, which means the voters said this is what we wanted the money to be spent on and by law it has to be spent on that. In fact, there is an oversight committee that makes sure we spend money on exactly what voters said they wanted it spent on.”
Jeremy Fredericksen spoke during public comment asking the city to begin its reforms with the $4.1 million in Measure N funding earmarked for police in 2020-21. He called on the council to “rethink and reimagine” its police funding by spending that money to train officers on anti-racist practices and retrain them on de-escalation and harm reduction tactics.
“Listen to the voices of people here tonight and create a new Measure N budget that reflects values of most vulnerable populations, a budget that reflects that you do believe that Black Lives Matter in Visalia, a budget that reenvisions what our city can do to stop the racism that runs through the institutions of our city and make Visalia an example to cities across the country,” Fredericksen said.
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.
“We have no authority to change any of this tonight,” Mayor Bob Link said.
Mayra Espinoza Martinez called the response from city staff and the council “a bit disingenuous,” saying that city leaders may not have the authority to change the percentages set by voters but did have discretion on how that percentage could be spent within the police department.
“Not a single dollar of that is going to bias training, psych evaluations while more than half of that is going to 23 new cops or police officers who have not been properly trained to interact with their community and respond to their community,” Martinez said.
Mary Jane Galviso said she was traumatized by the events of May 30, when a Jeep ran into two protesters who had left the sidewalk to confront the occupants flying a Trump flag and an American flag. She said the Visalia Police Department had failed by not conducting its investigation in a timely manner and that the Tulare County District Attorney’s Office had failed to charge the driver with a crime more than a week after the incident. VPD public information officer Sgt. Celeste Sanchez said the police report had been forwarded to the DA’s office but DA Tim Ward’s office said he was still waiting for the “entirety of evidence” to be submitted before filing for charges.
“How safe do people feel when two men can just drive into a crowd and basically get away with it?,” Galviso asked. “I think it’s beyond barbarism. You don’t get away with this anymore.”
Barry Caplan said he understood there is normally very little input from the public about the details of the budget, but that there were more than 30 people at the meeting getting involved in government for the first time. He asked how the public could get involved in the budget process year-round.
“How can the public raise their voice so that staff is reflective of issues all the time and not just when there is public hearing every six months,” Caplan said. “I know you didn’t ask for this to happen right now, but it’s happening and it’s going to require a different mindset for you. You have to represent all of us and not just staff, because staff is not accountable to us.”
Groom said the city has always afforded the public the ability to get involved. City budget documents going back to 2003 can be found on the city’s web site under “How Do I…Find…Budget Information” from the main menu and he said there are at least 50 positions on various committees that discuss budgets of different funding sources and departments including the Citizens Advisory Committee and the Measure N Oversight Committee, under the “How Do I… Apply For…Committees and Commissions” from the main menu.
“We are always looking for people to serve on that or just to speak to them,” Groom said. “Now that [people] are asking, hopefully they can find those avenues because there are many of them and to avail themselves of the opportunity.”