A beautiful vision is being discussed in communities across the United States, ignited this time by the senseless and cold-blooded murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. The vision is a world without policing as we’ve known it. If anything is clear after the past two and a half weeks, it’s that what we’re doing right now isn’t working. The well-worn aphorism usually credited to Albert Einstein proves true once again, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over [we could add: ‘and increasing the budget’] and expecting a different result.”
If the vision of an end to policing as we’ve known it scares you instead of inspires you, you probably haven’t lived in a neighborhood where the police routinely terrorize the residents. I’m white and I’ve lived most of my life in communities where the police were understood to be on my side. My parents taught me that the police could be trusted and that if I was ever lost or in need, I could call the police. This is part of my privilege. But I have also lived in a neighborhood, right here in Pasadena, where the police presence is at least double what it is elsewhere in the city. For the first time in my life I felt less safe, not because of my neighbors, but because of policing.
The history of policing in the United States is rooted in racism and it is manifestly an expression of white supremacy to this day. Incremental reform efforts have largely failed and our Black, Indigenous, and communities of color have paid an unthinkably high price. That price has been paid repeatedly by Pasadena’s residents, too. When George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police department the cry that erupted from the Black community here in Pasadena was visceral, as though the crime happened here, because it evokes crimes that have happened here. Kendrec McDade. Reginald Thomas. Chris Ballew. Daniel Warren.
For the past two weeks I’ve listened as members of the Pasadena city council have declared their renewed commitment to hearing the concerns of the community and reexamining civilian oversight of the Pasadena Police Department.
At the Public Safety Committee on June 10, Mayor Terry Tornek made a motion to have something for the full council to vote on in 60 days. The 115 page consultant’s report from four years ago was attached to the agenda and Mayor Tornek said he had read it again prior to the meeting. There were many options and none of them seem great, he said.
Then, at city council on June 15, during a discussion of the 2021 budget—which generated 28 public comments, 15 of which were opposed to the proposed allocation to PPD—the community made itself clear. Why would Pasadena even consider, let alone approve, this increase to PPD while protests against over-policing, police brutality, and murder at the hands of the police are happening on our own streets? There are still unanswered questions around PPD’s own abuse and murder of members of our community. Unaccountable Pasadena police officers are still armed and dangerous.
Furthermore, why would we increase the PPD budget by another $1.8 million (or 2% over last year) in the middle of a public health and economic crisis while simultaneously cutting the budget of the public health, public works, and transportation departments? With thousands of looming evictions, mounting food insecurity, and public schools facing unprecedented budget shortfalls in a period of unprecedented budget shortfalls. Somehow with all that going on, the city manager thought the best way we can spend our precious resources is to give nearly two million more dollars to the police.
But what really surprised me at Monday’s city council meeting were the comments from council members in response to public comments. To a one, they swore they were opposed to defunding the police. This tells me that they either don’t understand what defunding the police means or they’re being deliberately obtuse. Legislators defund things all the time. Public education has been undergoing massive defunding for decades nationwide. Same with housing. But suddenly everyone is gobsmacked by the idea of reducing the funding to a city department and reallocating those resources to provide essential services in a safer, more effective way. Several councilmembers, including Mayor Tornek, said that to defund the PPD would be irresponsible and then went on to say that it’s very important that we examine the budget allocations for all departments, including the police, and make adjustments that are responsive to the community. Yes, exactly! That’s exactly what community leaders are talking about.
Very few people, if any, are suggesting that we wouldn’t have any city employees trained to respond to violent crimes—a tiny fraction of the work that current police officers do. The community is saying, however, firmly and in unison, that we need to rethink policing entirely. We need to decriminalize poverty and mental illness and divert funds to programs and services that can actually address those needs. We should stop so-called “quality of life” policing which amounts to police harassment and unfairly targets lower income communities. These are all urgent transformations that are associated with “defunding” or reallocating resources away from policing and towards human services.
I hope that between now and the next public safety and city council meetings our mayor and city council members will read up on the demands being made by the community that sometimes go under the name of defunding the police. There is no end of remarkable writing being done. You could start with the 8 to Abolition campaign. It’s not new, it’s not naïve, and it’s not utopian. It’s real and it’s happening across our country in communities just like Pasadena.
If the City Council is truly grateful for the public input on the city budget I would suggest reading those public comments again. And then again. Before you write off those demands as utopian, do some research, phone up some of those community members who took time out of their day to write to you, and ask them some questions. We really need you to hear us on this. The police allegedly exist to keep us safe, but we don’t feel safe.