Providence leaders mulling how to rethink police budget after 9 hours of public testimony

Providence

The Council Finance Committee held a in-person public hearing on the budget on Monday, where people entered one-by-one to testify. (WPRI/Steph Machado)

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — After hundreds of people testified in favor of defunding the Providence Police during a marathon nine-hour hearing Monday night into Tuesday morning, several top city leaders say they plan to look into reallocating resources in policing.

“Based on what we heard, something needs to be done,” Council President Sabina Matos said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “We’re trying to determine what changes that are feasible.”

She said council staff is still researching what areas of the police budget could potentially be reallocated in the budget proposal currently under consideration by the council. The new fiscal year begins July 1.

“There are many issues that can probably be addressed without having to send an officer with a weapon,” Matos said.

Mayor Jorge Elorza said he has received more than 3,000 emails and calls about rethinking policing.

“The call for change has been resoundingly clear and it is inspiring to see how it has developed from the grassroots,” Elorza said in a statement. “As we work through this budget process and beyond, we will continue to engage with the community, in particular with Black leaders, to set priorities for reallocating resources and reforming structurally racist systems.”

The hearing on Monday was the first in-person meeting of the Council Finance Committee since March, rescheduled to the council chambers after a virtual version of the required budget hearing was Zoom-bombed by racist remarks on June 9.

Close to 70 people signed up in advance to testify in person at the new hearing, entering City Hall at assigned time slots starting at 5 p.m. and getting temperature screened. But the committee also ended up allowing those who tuned in remotely to testify as well, causing the hearing to last until 2 a.m.

Eb Saldaña was among those who argued the money in the police budget — proposed to be $88 million in the upcoming fiscal year — would be better used elsewhere to support social services or health care.

“Really consider whether that $88 million is really best used on policing,” Saldaña said. “What is necessary in this moment is a reckoning with the funding disparity with the police and other social institutions that actually do the work the police cannot and will not do.”

Kristen Haines, a Smith Hill resident, said she often sees four or five officers responding to a simple call in her neighborhood that she believes doesn’t require that level of response.

“It just shows how we have over-invested and have too many officers in our city,” Haines said. “I’m asking the City Council today to acknowledge that policing and brutality are inseparable.”

Many of the people testifying said they ultimately support abolishing police altogether, and some said they fear calling the police to make complaints out of concern that the person they are calling about could end up being a victim of police brutality. Several made specific budget suggestions, such as cutting personnel, ammunition and the equestrian unit.

One proposal on the table comes from Council Finance Chairman John Igliozzi, who said Wednesday he wants to create a “mobile crisis intervention unit” within public safety that would send counselors or crisis managers to initially respond to calls that don’t necessarily require police or firefighters. The social service workers would then only call for police if necessary after arriving and assessing the situation.

Igliozzi said the program would be modeled on a longtime program in Eugene, Oregon, called Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets (CAHOOTS), which deploys unarmed civilian workers to “calls that are nonviolent and do not require an armed response.”

“Monday night, and into the early hours of Tuesday, we heard from more than 200 individuals that shared their fear, anguish, and concerns over the way police are called upon to handle crisis situations,” Igliozzi said in a statement. “Several of the 911 calls that our police department is called to answer are situations in which they are not necessarily trained to address. They are trained to deal with violent crimes, not mental health, and social service calls.”

Elorza’s press secretary Patricia Socarras said the mayor is supportive of Igliozzi’s proposal, and said it could build on the existing Mobile Health Unit within the Fire Department, which responds to a small number of non-life threatening medical calls in order free up ambulances for life-threatening emergencies.

Igliozzi said the proposal would be discussed at the next Council Finance meeting, which has not yet been scheduled. He told WPRI 12 the cost of the pilot program is yet to be determined, but he would anticipate shifting funds from other areas of public safety to pay for it.

“We are definitely cutting the budget, the total budget,” Igliozzi said. He suggested delaying the planned police academy scheduled for February, which would bring on 50 new recruits to the department.

He also said he was looking into shifting funds from the police operating budget that is spent on equipment to the city’s Master Lease, a separate budget that pays for equipment and vehicles through a lending agreement. He said an amendment to the current Master Lease plan is being worked on.

After the nine-hour hearing, the Finance Committee met to pass the $370 million property tax levy close to 2:30 a.m., advancing it for a full council vote on Thursday.

The tax levy ordinance is separate from the spending plan portion of the budget, which is still being worked on. Passing the levy will allow the Elorza administration to begin sending out property tax bills as soon as next week. Tax rates are remaining the same as the current year.

The spending plan, on the other hand, is not expected to be passed before the fiscal year starts on July 1, according to Igliozzi. He said the council is waiting for more information on state and federal funds before making final decisions. (The state budget is similarly delayed, and lawmakers expect to return to Smith Hill in July to consider it.)

Matos said she would prefer to wait until the state budget is passed before passing a city budget, noting that a lot might have to change depending on how much state aid materializes.

She added that she does expect changes to the police budget this year, though the matter will need to be studied further in the coming months.

“There’s only so much that can be done right now,” Matos said, citing the short amount of time left until the budget will be passed. “We are doing our best to address the concerns of the community to come up with alternatives. … I think we can make changes this year.”

She said she is “open” to Igliozzi’s proposal, and welcomed other council members and members of the public to pitch other ideas.

Providence Police Chief Hugh Clements and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré defended the department and spoke against cutting its budget at a Council Finance meeting earlier this month, with Paré arguing that abolishing police would bring “chaos and lawlessness” to Providence.

“There’s some bad apples in every profession,” Paré said. “But to say that the entire profession is bad apples, I respectfully disagree because I know a lot of those apples and those apples are good apples that work hard for the right reasons under really difficult conditions.”

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) covers Providence, politics and more for WPRI 12. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook

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