PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – If governments are going to take seriously the idea of defunding the police, any significant change would likely require job cuts or major changes to how officers are compensated.
That’s because law enforcement budgets are largely made up of personnel-related costs, including in Providence, where the Police Department spends about 91% of its $85.6 million operating budget on salaries, pensions and health benefits.
The remaining $7.6 million is divvied up across services — such as training – and departmental supplies like guns and ammunition. The city spends millions more on the police department through a separate budget for equipment leases as well as federal grants, but that money isn’t reflected in the police operating budget.
The department’s budget is coming under scrutiny amid calls to “defund the police” following international unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white police officer in Minnesota.
But it’s created some confusion about whether people want to abolish the police – which some advocates support – or just reallocate some funding from police budgets to other community needs, such as affordable housing, mental health and education.
Regardless, the push to rethink how law enforcement is funded has gained traction in Providence, spurring hundreds to rally in Burnside Park on Wednesday during an hours-long discussion on defunding police in the City Council Finance Committee.
The Police Department has requested a budget increase of about $2 million for the upcoming fiscal year, mostly earmarked for a new police academy aimed at hiring and training 50 new officers.
The leaders of the department — Col. Hugh Clements and Public Safety Commissioner Steven Paré — argued in a memo that the academy is necessary because 120 officers are currently eligible for retirement, with 23 set for mandatory retirement in the next five years.
But Finance Chairman John Igliozzi pinpointed the academy as a potential way to cut the budget, floating the idea of shrinking the academy to fewer recruits. The city is planning to pay recruits $20 per hour, accounting for most of the $1.4 million proposed for the academy, which would start in February and continue for 24 weeks. The city is also seeking to lease or buy a new training facility in which to hold its academies.
“You don’t have to have 50,” Igliozzi said. “Maybe have 20, 25 … that will help free up funds.”
Overall, the largest chunk of the Providence Police budget is $41 million in salaries, which includes overtime, call back pay and holiday compensation for 453 officers and dozens of civilian employees.
The department’s second largest cost, $36.9 million, is pensions and other benefits – such as health insurance and dental care – representing one of the more challenging expenses to manage not only in the Police Department but across the capital city.
Providence leaders for years underfunded the amount of money needed to cover current and future retiree pension costs across city departments, resulting in ballooning unfunded liabilities that have topped $1 billion in recent years.
To make up for the years of underfunding, the city is now playing catch up, investing millions of extra dollars each year to ensure the pension fund doesn’t become insolvent. Any reductions to those types of payments would require hard-fought union negotiations or city leaders reneging on agreements made with police unions in various forms over decades, which could result in costly legal challenges.
Beyond personnel costs, the department’s $5.8 million allocated for services and $1.8 million for supplies are the only remaining areas where policymakers could reconsider or reduce spending in the operating budget.
The line items include everything from postage ($3,600) to uniforms and apparel including riot gear ($871,187) to supplies and care for the department’s four horses ($131,125). The spending also includes $130,000 for guns and ammunition, representing a 52% increase compared to the last year. And the department is seeking nearly 20% more — $154,450 — for next fiscal year.
The growth in spending comes despite Clements touting the relatively few times his officers have fired their weapons while on duty in recent years — with the exception of 2017, when five Providence officers fired a barrage of bullets in a deadly shooting on I-95 that was later deemed justified.
Paré said there is a reason more money is needed for ammunition: target practice.
“Our special response unit, they’re at the range monthly,” Paré said. “It’s probably in the tens of thousands if not 100,000 ammunition that we go through.”
He said the goal is to “keep that skill set really high and keep the confidence of every officer high so when they are under stress, and may need to use their gun, they do it in a way that reverts back to training.”
The budget also includes $100,000 for other training, which Paré said Wednesday is an area where the department – and police more broadly across the state – have struggled with having enough funding on a consistent basis.
The $100,000 is there to fulfill annual police training requirements for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Paré said. When pressed by councilors on whether there should be more training for current officers in areas of intervention or de-escalation, Paré said there’s other money baked into other budget items and made available through federal grants.
The $1.6 million in federal funding and other grants the department receives is not included in the $86 million operating budget, and comes in via a variety of sources including the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG), Smart Policing Innovation Grant and grants from the Rhode Island Foundation.
According to a summary of the grants provided by the Police Department, the federal funds go towards a variety of items including overtime costs, body cameras and training by the Nonviolence Institute in Providence.
The department gives a combined $540,000 from the the Smart Policing grant to the Providence Center and Roger Williams University to fund a Behavioral Health Response Team, with a stated goal to “reduce recidivism in the use of emergency services by those suffering from alcohol or drug addictions and mental health issues.”
Two grants from the Rhode Island Foundation this fiscal year paid for renovations to the cat quarantine room in animal control, and a fly spray system for the mounted command team.
The department’s vehicles and major equipment is also not included in the $86 million figure, instead purchased by the city through a separate equipment budget called the Master Lease. This year, the City Council has approved millions in funding for dozens of new patrol cars, 575 new radios and an $80,000 FATS simulation machine for indoor firearms training.
While Providence police leaders have denounced the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis, they push back on the idea of defunding police, saying it’s not the answer.
“Abolishing the Police Department will bring chaos and lawlessness,” Paré said. “We’re not perfect, but we’re doing everything we can to treat everyone in this community equally.”
But community members insist policing — even with reforms — has not been working to stop police brutality and racism.
“Body cameras, and training, and webinars and seminars aren’t going to make a difference because the history of this institution was based on racism, based on slavery, based on anti-blackness,” said Vanessa Flores-Maldonado of the Providence Youth Student Movement.
At the state level, the idea has been dismissed by Rhode Island’s most powerful lawmaker, Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who said he isn’t aware of a bad police department anywhere in the state.
“That is the most ludicrous policy decision I’ve ever heard in my life,” Mattiello said during a WPRO radio interview on Wednesday. “Like any other organization that I’ve seen in my entire life, [police] have very good people and a few bad apples.”
The public health crisis caused by COVID-19 has cast a cloud of uncertainty over the municipal budget-making process across the country, so it’s unlikely the spending plan ultimately passed by the Providence City Council will include many increases.
But council leaders say they are still in the “listening” phase, and have made no decisions about budget cuts to the police department.
Charlotte Abotsi, a community organizer from Providence, argued changes should be made now, rather than waiting for tragedy to happen in the city.
“The community is really fired up,” Abotsi said Wednesday. “Do we want what happened in Minneapolis to happen in Providence?”
This story has been updated to reflect the details of how Providence Police spends federal grant money, which was not made available on the day of original publication.