WEIGHING IN – During a budget workshop earlier this month, Saratoga Springs Commissioner of Public Safety James Montagnino said he has one clear takeaway about the city’s proposed spending plan: “It defunds the police.”
Meanwhile, Schenectady City Council members quarreled at a special budget meeting Sunday over a proposed cut to police overtime, with one council member saying she hopes the cuts are not the “beginning of a trend by the council’s majority to defund the police.”
The city leaders may regret using the politically charged term. Not only does using the term deepen divisions and play into the hands of political opponents, it undercuts reforms happening in both cities and only serves to hamper police departments by negatively impacting recruitment.
“It doesn’t really help to advance the discussion,” said Matthew Ingram, an associate professor at the University at Albany whose research includes justice sector reforms.
“Nobody really wants to abolish the police,” said Ingram, who serves on the City of Albany Community Police Review Board. “When you hear ‘defund’ you hear ‘disappear,’ and that’s not what anybody means. So I personally don’t use the term. Anytime it has come up in any kind of meetings or discussions, I’ve always found it to be unhelpful – it always makes things worse. The quality of the discussion drops.”
So why did Democratic leaders use the term? They want to demonstrate that they are focused on public safety and that they are worried about police departments not being adequately funded. These are understandable concerns – and, frankly, they are concerns shared by the vast majority on both sides. These concerns are worth discussing, but in doing so, it’s important to look at the whole picture.
In Saratoga Springs, the budget earmarks nearly $32 million for public safety, which includes police and fire. That’s an increase of more than $1 million from this year, and it proposes keeping all 74 sworn police officers, according to Saratoga Springs Finance Commissioner Minita Sanghvi.
Despite the allocation, Montagnino and Police Chief Shane Crooks argue the current staffing levels are short of what they need to sufficiently run the police department.
In Schenectady, the council has passed the largest-ever police budget at more than $23 million and includes the addition of three officers that were previously approved and partially funded by the school district. But at Sunday’s meeting, the council was at odds over plans to cut allotted police overtime by more than $256,000, from a roughly $1.8 million request to $1.54 million. Police Chief Eric Clifford says this cut could make it harder to properly staff periods of high need in the city.
Public safety leaders in both cities are well within their rights to lobby for more money. Leaders of all departments have that right. They can jockey for funds and argue all day about whether it’s better to spend money now or save more for the future in a rainy day fund. That’s called budgeting. But if one party seeks cuts, that shouldn’t be called defunding the police.
The term, emerging from the Black Lives Matter movement, refers to redirecting funding away from traditional police operations. But, as Ingram pointed out, the term has become muddied and means different things to different people.
Many on the political right have co-opted the definition and are all too happy to equate ‘defund the police’ to ‘abolish the police.’
The City of Schenectady Republicans are having a field day with the council’s latest dispute, which, as has become too common lately, pits white council members against council members of color. The city’s GOP sent a press release calling out the council for defunding the police and posted to Facebook an image depicting activist Jamaica Miles as the puppeteer pulling the strings attached to Mayor Gary McCarthy and the four city council members of color.
The post reads: “They said they wouldn’t defund the police. They lied.”
The post is a gross mischaracterization of the actual discussions, and it’s intended to play on people’s fears.
These kinds of attacks may very well be what is motivating Democratic council members in both cities to use such heightened language. Less than a week from Election Day, Democrats across the country are anxious. From Senate, Congressional and governors’ races on down, Republicans seem to have momentum, with the conversation on crime serving as a catalyst. In New York’s governor’s race, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin is within shouting distance of Gov. Kathy Hochul in large part because he’s repeatedly proclaimed that he’s tougher on crime than Hochul.
As a result, many Democrats now seem to feel the need to prove just how staunchly they support law enforcement.
No doubt, people’s fears about rising crime rates are backed by data showing recent increases in violent offenses around the state – to be sure, the data about overall crime rates are mixed.
In Schenectady, crime is up about a third, year-over-year, according to Chief Clifford. The city’s rate is up 28% based on a five-year average, and violent crime is up 13%, the chief said.
“We’re trying to figure it out,” Clifford said in explaining the increase.
But Clifford said he doesn’t really want to go “down the rabbit hole of talking about a political statement like ‘defund the police.’”
He said this week he feels supported by the City Council and is optimistic that in 2023 the city will do what it needs to do to make sure the department can pay for necessary overtime – after all, the city’s police department regularly goes over its allotted overtime budget.
Clifford, like Saratoga Springs leaders, also said he is encouraged by progress on police reform measures. In Schenectady, reform includes working to provide antiracism training for all officers, new body cameras and other technology to increase transparency, as well as the addition of a mental health professional who can serve as a kind of case manager.
What Clifford – like his counterparts in Saratoga Springs – is worried about is police recruitment. In Schenectady County, the number of people taking the written screening test is a 10th of what it was roughly a decade ago – from more than 1,000 to about 100, Clifford said.
Politicizing police departments only serves as a deterrent to recruitment, especially when it comes to attracting candidates of color, Clifford said.
“What’s very concerning to me is that what we’ve gone through over the last three years has made it especially hard for me to recruit candidates of color,” Clifford said. He believes people of color may feel disenfranchised and may not “want to join a profession that is consistently talked about and criticized, and maybe they’ve just lost trust in the profession.”
Schenectady’s City Council is in the midst of a raw racial divide – a divide that escalated last September when a white council member’s supporter shoved a campaign sign on a lectern during a rally for the council’s four members of color.
In a city with such taught racial tensions, a police force that struggles to recruit, particularly a force that struggles to recruit officers of color, could have a difficult time keeping the peace.
Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite.