Hundreds of protesters march through downtown San Diego to demand justice for George Floyd, a black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.⁣⁣ / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Ten years ago, the city of San Diego spent less than $400 million out of its general fund on city police. Next year, that number will rise to $574 million, marking a 45 percent increase even as other city departments face budget cuts following tax revenue losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In the weeks since Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25, calls to “defund the police” have gotten louder across the nation and in San Diego.

Before San Diego City Council members voted to adopt a city budget that includes the police department for the 2020-21 fiscal year last week, they heard from thousands via email and hundreds by phone during the meeting, many asking for police cuts totaling $100 million.

Unlike the Minneapolis City Council, which has vowed to dismantle its police department, San Diego’s Council ultimately ignored that call and approved a budget that sent $27 million more to city police than this year – though Council President Georgette Gómez said she wanted to make a cut.

Even though police funding remains intact for now, city leaders have made other changes.

The Council created a new $3.8 million city office of race and equity, dedicated to addressing inequalities and racial injustice. And recently, law enforcement agencies across the region including San Diego police swiftly banned the use of the carotid restraint, or chokehold. San Diego Assemblyman Todd Gloria, who is also running for San Diego mayor, penned legislation that would prohibit it statewide.

Moves to overhaul and strengthen independent oversight of San Diego police – granting new investigatory powers and legal counsel – are also moving ahead with support from San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.

And still more city police reforms may be ahead, including budget cuts to the San Diego Police Department – but the path to get there isn’t yet clear. And any police reductions will require buy-in from the mayor, who has shown zero interest publicly so far.

Gómez said she expects to continue the conversation about police “accountability and transformation” at public safety committee meetings restarting in July. And another city councilwoman is eagerly exploring the idea of funding changes, saying she wants to shake things up responsibly.

Councilwoman Monica Montgomery asked the independent budget analyst to conduct a comprehensive review of the 2021 police budget with the goal of better understanding the spending “before serious consideration is taken towards reprogramming SDPD’s proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 funding levels. It is critical that core services to public safety are not sacrificed and reprogramming is done effectively and responsibly.”

Just what would a $100 million cut have meant to the department, anyway? How much does the city spend on the police force each year and what does it pay for? What could defunding police look like and when could that happen?

We’ve tackled each of those questions for you.

How much does the city of San Diego spend on San Diego police each year?

The San Diego Police Department is one piece of the city’s overall operations, which also cover fire services, utilities, libraries, parks and streets, among other things.

All expenses from the general fund – the biggest pot of dollars city leaders have control over – totaled nearly $1.6 billion this year, which ends June 30, with the police making up 34 percent at more than $539 million.

Open General Fund Expenditures in 2020 in new tab.

Under the new budget beginning July 1, those total general fund expenses were expected to dip by $50 million – while simultaneously increasing police spending by $27 million under the mayor’s original proposal before some changes were made – like the addition of the race and equity office.

Much of the added police cost – which was approved – is attributable to salaries and benefit increases awarded in contract negotiations in recent years. (And higher salaries require higher benefits, because pensions are tied to salaries.)

Police pay has risen in recent years dramatically following the city’s decision in 2017 to phase in raises totaling 25 to 30 percent depending on officer experience. The move came with complaints about retention, though it turns out the quit rates for sworn officers were not as bad as reported, according to a city audit released in April. The pay increases followed a five-year city worker pay freeze mostly required by 2012’s Proposition B.

A decade ago, the police budget out of the general fund was a more meager $396 million, city records show. Next year’s increase to $574 million, will mark a nearly 45 percent increase since 2011.

Police staff are the largest group of employees in the city’s general fund budget, with 2,655 full-time equivalent employees out of more than 7,700 citywide. Perhaps unsurprisingly, police staff made up about the same percent of the city’s total workforce as their share of the general fund budget at about 34 percent.

By comparison, Fire-Rescue Department employees make up less than 17 percent of the city’s workforce.

Open General Fund FTE Positions 2020 in new tab.

The largest staffing allocation by police went to the patrol operations division, which had more than 1,100 full-time equivalent employees budgeted this year, police budget records show. Centralized investigations had the next highest staffing with almost 449.

What’s in the police budget?

Within the police budget, spending primarily includes personnel costs for wages and benefits.

Out of $539 million in total general fund police expenses, more than $271 million went to police wages and nearly $201 million went to benefits in 2020. Combined, those line items account for nearly 86 percent of the budget, city budget records show.

Open SDPD General Fund Expenses in new tab.

The next largest police cost in 2020 was contracts at $34 million, followed by IT at $13 million, according to the adopted budget for this year.

Cutting anything close to $100 million would require cutting police employees.

Divide personnel costs by the number of employees, and it cost the city an average of $178,000 in 2020 for each full-time equivalent police department employee, including salary and benefits.

What could defunding the police look like?

Some are calling for the abolition of police forces as we know them, arguing the ongoing police brutality shows lesser reforms of the past – like anti-bias training and hiring people of color – have not worked and are not going to work. The abolishment camp wants a wholesale dismantling of the police department, with redirection toward community-led peace forces and social services.

Another version of police abolishment could end with an entirely rethought and rebuilt police department, like what was done in Camden, New Jersey, years ago.

While others chanting “defund the police” seek only a partial defunding of existing police departments, with money redirected to community efforts aimed at addressing inequities in black communities, or to non-police workers like social workers better suited to handle calls involving mental illness or homeless people. Such efforts have already been implemented in some cities. Some protesters are also calling for the removal of police from schools, among other changes.

So defunding the police looks different to different people.

No one on the San Diego City Council at this point has indicated they want to entirely abolish the city’s police department – or said anything close to that.

When could budget changes or cuts to the police department happen, now that the budget for 2021 is already approved?

It could be a while.

Public discussions about police reform and the budget are sure to continue at the city’s public safety committee as soon as July, but actual changes to the police department budget will be hard to come by for at least six months to a year.

And even if a majority or all Council members wanted to make changes sooner, the mayor would need to be on board and driving the change, to some extent.

That’s because the city charter says the mayor is responsible for amending the budget.

Under the charter, “only the mayor may propose amendments to the budget,” wrote Ashley Bailey, a spokeswoman for Faulconer, in an email. “The Council has the authority to approve or modify such amendments in whole or in part, up to the total amount proposed.”

So if the Council wanted to cut $100 million, but Faulconer only wanted to trim $1 million, just the $1 million would be on the table. If Faulconer wants no cuts, the police see no cuts.

The charter also calls for the mayor to review the budget mid-year, after the first six months, and make adjustments to account for a deficit or surplus at that time. Then the Council again can make changes up to the amount proposed – but not higher.

There’s been some discussion at City Hall about modifying next year’s budget quarterly as the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to play out, said the city’s independent budget analyst, Andrea Tevlin, but even then, the same rules would apply.

In any case, the mayor is key, and at least right now, Faulconer has made it clear he’s not interested in making police cuts, Gómez told VOSD last week.

But things can – and will – change.

When Faulconer is termed out later this year, a new mayor will be elected and take office in December – six months into the fiscal year. Two Democrats, Gloria and San Diego City Councilwoman Barbara Bry will compete for the job.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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