By Vaidya Gullapalli, The Appeal

Durham City Council members at the mayor's 2019 State of the City Address  Flickr/City of Durham

Durham City Council members at the mayor's 2019 State of the City Address

Flickr/City of Durham

Last week, in a 4-3 vote on the 2019-20 budget, the City Council in Durham, North Carolina, voted against funding 18 new police officers. It voted instead to raise the wage for part-time city workers to just over $15 an hour. With that, the city joined jurisdictions around the country that are critically evaluating requests for increased funding for law enforcement and finding that they cannot be justified—both on grounds of community safety and in the dollars they take away from other vital expenditures.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, last year, Mayor Melvin Carter rejected a request for 50 new police officers. In a statement explaining his decision, he wrote: “The philosophy that more police officers, tougher prosecutors and bigger jails equal a safer city has failed. Our driving goal shouldn’t be to hire as many officers as possible but to reduce the number of times we have to call police in the first place. The City currently spends three times more on police and fire services than on recreation centers and libraries. As long as we focus more on responding to emergencies than on preventing them in the first place, we’ll never have enough police officers.”

In February, commissioners in Harris County, Texas, voted against funding 102 new prosecutors, as requested by District Attorney Kim Ogg. (Keri Blakinger reports for The Appeal and the Houston Chronicle today that Ogg’s office may have also misstated caseloads in her office when making the case for additional funding.)

The original request in Durham, from the police chief, had been for 72 additional police officers, which would have cost the city close to $2 million a year. That request was eventually revised to 18 officers at a cost of $1.2 million.  But in a city where crime has been on a downward trajectory for many years, the police department’s argument for increased staffing ultimately proved unpersuasive.

Jillian Johnson, mayor pro tempore, was the council member who led the push for higher wages for city workers rather than increased police spending. Johnson explained the interplay between spending more on police versus other expenditures.

The effort to raise the wage for part-time workers had actually been a long-deferred priority, ever since the city raised the minimum wage for full-time workers to $15 an hour three years ago. “We realized it wasn’t just students, teenagers working as lifeguards,” Johnson told the Daily Appeal. “We realized there were a lot of people, especially in the parks and recreation department, who were making as little as $9 an hour. These were folks who were working in multiple parks and recreation departments in the area, trying to cobble together a full-time job. They were adults with families who needed to make more than $9 an hour.”

Johnson also explained why she and three other City Council members thought additional police officers were not warranted. “We have already a police department that’s larger than average for cities our size,” she said. “We have response times that are meeting or very close to meeting our goals. Our clearance rates are generally higher than national benchmarks. All the indicators were that they were performing and didn’t need additional resources.”

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Olivia McDowellComment