A number of public safety reforms are in motion after Santa Monica City Council members approved a slate of recommendations Tuesday. But city leaders decided it was best to keep local police resources intact after it was suggested that Council shave $8 million off the Santa Monica Police Department’s annual operating budget.
In the months since mayhem occurred locally on May 31, residents have called on the city to decrease SMPD’s funding after officers allegedly fired teargas on peaceful protesters and failed to act while stores downtown were looted. The call to defund the police has been repeated in cities across America but not all Santa Monica locals agree with the proposal.
In June, Council fully funded the local police department during a budget decision that resulted in layoffs to librarians, planners, traffic engineers and other positions. Officials said at the time they intended to alter SMPD’s finances in the “near future” since they didn’t want to make a hasty decision before hearing specific proposals from members of minority communities who should have input on any changes.
Many residents opposed the city’s adoption of its budget this summer and demanded additional cuts to police services but city leaders said they were legally required to pass a budget by June 30. In the weeks since the budget adoption, Santa Monica’s Public Safety Reform Advisory Committee has met multiple times on Zoom with dozens of community activists. On Tuesday, the group presented their final report to councilmembers and the general public.
“One of the initial stated goals of our committee was to recommend changes that should be made to the city’s budget to better achieve public safety and wellbeing for everybody in our community. The adopted 2020-2021 Santa Monica Police Department budget is $98.9 million,” and the committee has made the recommendation to divest $8 million from the SMPD budget going forward, said advisory committee member Mike Shotton. “That would put the budget in line with the police budget from just two years ago.”
Shotton added the three City departments that most directly impact residents’ wellbeing are the Community Services department, library department and the police department. If those three departments were treated equally in the pandemic-related budget cuts, he said, “each of them would have been reduced by 7.5 percent. And a 7.5 percent reduction of the police budget would take them down to $91 million.”
Instead, the Community Services Department was cut by $6.3 million, “or 21%,” according to Shotton. “The library department was cut by $4.6 million, or 35%, while the police department budget increased by $600,000,” which is just under 1 percent more than the previous year’s allocations.
“Our committee does not believe that this is an equitable way to respond to the reduction in revenues from the pandemic,” Shotton said Tuesday, stating some of the $8 million could be used to fund the advisory committee’s recommendations.
“Now, our full list of recommendations are in the document and we encourage you to look at those,” he said, before Kristin McCowan, who was recently appointed to council partly due to her work on the Black Agenda, asked if staff had considered what the proposed cuts might look like on paper.
Budget isn’t typically discussed until October or January so Interim City Manager Lane Dilg said staff was unsure how many positions would be lost. But the council asked to speak to SMPD chief Cynthia Renaud, who said an $8 million cut to the department would be a substantial loss.
“Knowing that 92% roughly of our budget is personnel costs, the cut of $8 million would result in layoffs within the police department,” Renaud said as city staff estimated about 35 to 40 positions could be lost. “We’ve cut substantially from every area that we can,” so there’s no way to make a budget adjustment without losing dozens of vital jobs.
Councilmember Ted Winterer later noted the adopted budget was based on the assumption that the shutdown would end June 30 but that’s clearly not the case so he was hesitant to direct $8 million in cuts.
“I think maybe we ought to head in the direction of trying to get some more input on what budget changes might be advisable and where they would come from and where they would go,” Winterer said. “We also need to acknowledge that it wasn’t too long ago that most people in the city were upset about the crime rate and the PD has done a good job of reducing the crime rate in the last year, so we don’t want to have the unintended consequence of taking away people-power that they need to continue to reduce crime.”
Councilmember Gleam Davis said she understood Winterer’s thinking, “but I think that one of the things this committee really was asking us to do was rethink public safety, and not think that public safety resided solely in the police department budget.”
Davis added she would appreciate staff looking at all of the recommendations to consider what’s feasible now and in the future.
Councilmembers agreed and directed staff to take steps — through the budget process — to achieve a more balanced investment of city resources to promote public safety in different spheres.
“And I added to that,” Winterer said, “that the process should be informed by recommendations made by the Civilian Oversight Commission and the work of the Public Safety Reform Advisory Commission.”