Councilwoman Monica Montgomery speaks at a press conference announcing San Diego Police Department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz
Councilwoman Monica Montgomery speaks at a press conference announcing San Diego Police Department’s decision to stop using the carotid restraint method. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Criminal and racial justice advocates over the last decade have pushed San Diego leaders to adopt specific reforms, even as those same officials increased police spending each year without opposition.

Now, the police budget itself is at the center of an accelerating conversation on criminal justice, in which politicians are embracing formerly controversial ideas, and advocates are forcing categorically new ideas onto the table.

A month ago, San Diego’s mayor and City Council had not debated whether it spent too much on its police department, much less whether it should be defunded. One marathon budget hearing with hundreds of calls to slash $100 million from the police budget later, elected leaders have been forced to apologize for failing to vote with the suddenly powerful defund movement.

“San Diego has been in our bubble for a long time,” said Councilwoman Monica Montgomery, one of those officials who has been bombarded by criticism for voting to increase SDPD spending by $27 million. “You can go back and listen to Angela Davis and other abolitionists; they’ve been arguing for this for a long time … we’re finally getting to the point where people have been advocating for decades.”

Since protests broke out nationwide following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer, reformers like Montgomery have racked up incremental wins that – in normal times – they would consider cause for celebration.

SDPD banned the chokehold, after ignoring calls to do so for years. A measure to overhaul police misconduct oversight is headed to the ballot, with support from the mayor and district attorney. The Council secured a budget for an office to combat racial equity in the city, with a fund to invest in underserved communities.

But there’s little patience for – let alone celebration of – those incremental gains, as the city engages in its first public conversation in recent history about what it wants its police department to look like.

“There is an obligation I have to make sure that we can take advantage of that, of this paradigm shift we’re experiencing right now,” Montgomery said. “The conversation has changed.”

It’s not just in San Diego.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, among the state’s most successful police reformers, said the Capitol has suddenly changed, too –even lawmakers who fought her on previous reform attempts are now lining up to propose their own measures.

“All of a sudden, now everybody is a reformer,” she said. “Why? Because it’s easy now. And just, all I’m saying is, hallelujah, maybe we’ll get some good stuff going.”

The Origins of the Defund Movement

In January, the Community Budget Alliance floated a light version of the defund movement.

The group, which lobbies the city to prioritize spending in historically underserved communities, included “redefining policing” as one of its 2021 budget priorities, the first time it called for shifting funding away from policing.

“In order to effectively invest public dollars, the city must divest from harmful and racist systems that place financial strain on our municipal budget,” the group’s budget memo read. “Rather than massive investments in policing and police services, the city should be making significant investments in community programs, services and infrastructure.”

Its specific spending and policy requests to enact that goal, though, were modest. It said the city should fund a seven-person staff for an independent commission to oversee SDPD misconduct, the creation of which is the subject of a measure headed for the November ballot. And it said the city should abandon its “smart streetlights” program, a city initiative opposed by criminal justice reformers for its surveillance potential.

Kyra Greene, executive director for the Center on Policy Initiatives, which sponsors the Community Budget Alliance, said reallocating police spending has been part of internal deliberations prior to its first appearance as a budget priority.

“As we’ve done budget work, we’ve identified that there’s only a few things we can do,” she said. “We can raise revenue, or we can reallocate. And if you’re reallocating, the size of the police budget sticks out.”

Indeed, San Diego spends nearly 37 percent of its general fund on SDPD, by far the largest expenditure – and one that’s increased 45 percent since 2011 alone.

“It isn’t just, ‘Is more money in policing good?’ but also, ‘What are you deciding not to fund?” Greene said.

But as protests spread through the county just as the city was ready to vote on its new budget, that nascent conversation took off. Hundreds of protesters, many engaging with the city budget for the first time, called in to demand a $100 million cut from SDPD’s budget.

Jean-huy Tran, an activist who is part of the TRUST SD Coalition, a group against mass-surveillance technology in the city, was one of the primary organizers of that effort to flood the city with calls to slash the budget.

He said he and other activists began focusing on the budget specifically when the mayor proposed cuts to other city departments, but an increase for SDPD. Previously, Tran said he had been focused only on policy changes.

“Now we’re approaching it from another level,” Tran said. “The policy is linked together – why are we funding the police so much, when their policy has been problematic? Are you over-policing communities of color so much that you need to add more money for overtime?”

Greene said there’s a new focus on police spending because so often activists are told the city can’t afford the other ideas they’ve prioritized.

“There hasn’t been enough push on them to justify that sort of spending, when you can’t expand mental health services,” she said. “It comes together at this moment that people feel the system is letting them down.”

The Next Budget Fight

The Council largely ignored the calls to defund the police. It overwhelmingly approved the budget with an SDPD spending bump, without making a motion to cut it. Later, amid days of sustained anger, Council President Georgette Gómez and Montgomery both said they wanted to make a cut of some kind, but didn’t have the votes.

The attention now shifts to Montgomery’s attempt to craft a future budget cut – and if the politics in the city will have changed enough that a Democratic super majority on the Council can muster the votes to pass it.

She’s asked the independent budget analyst for a comprehensive review of 2021 police spending. She indicated that the review would be a step before “serious consideration” is given to reallocating SDPD funds.

In an interview, she said public protests and unprecedented budget activism from the left have created an opportunity that the city can’t miss.

“You only experience these times every 60 or 70 years,” she said. “We are in that time. When the generations that come after us, our charge is that we will be enough, and be visionary enough, for them to be proud of what we’ve done. It is a very legitimate concern, and we have to reimagine how we look at what keeps us safe.”

She said the IBA analysis needs to inform a conversation with the community about changing SDPD. She’d like to have a plan available when the city re-considers its budget six months into the year, and for the next fiscal year, when there will be five new Council members and a Democrat in the mayor’s office.

At this point, though, spending less money on SDPD is now a priority, she said.

“I have to continue to do what I believe is right, that’s all I can control,” she said. “I have no idea who will be holding those five seats in December, who the mayor will be, but I do know I am committed to this, and I will continue to be.”

Greene said the IBA analysis could be a game-changer, simply because there’s never been enough clarity on SDPD’s specific spending to hold it accountable.

“I was in nerd tears to see this request come from in the system, because that means it will happen and now we can push on those questions,” she said. “What I think this allows, is for us to evaluate the effectiveness of every dollar we spend.”

Supporters of the movement to defund or abolish the police have framed it as an alternative from a previous focus on reform.

Yet Weber, a veteran reformer, said the defund movement has it right.

“Having been involved with an awful lot of police reform, I know that our current police structure is not working, OK? And there are a lot of things that need to change,” she said. “And what I think people talk about with defunding the police, what they’re saying is that we want a different structure of policing.”

Los Angeles is cutting its police budget by up to $150 million, and Weber said that was a wise decision.

Tran said he and other organizers arrived at the demand for a $100 million spending cut after considering what seemed possible, based on eliminating the increase from the year earlier, plus $40 million in federal aid for COVID-19 that the city reserved for SDPD, plus another $30 million for good measure. He said he might have been content with a smaller cut that showed a commitment, while others would have been disappointed with anything less than the full number.

Next year, he said he’d be disappointed by anything less than $100 million, but he’s not going to be satisfied until he gets the sense that SDPD has “an appropriately reviewed budget.”

“I don’t want people to think I won’t accept anything below $100 million,” he said. “I will accept it. I’ll take it, and I’d appreciate the Council stepping up to address the issue, but I’ll fight again next year, and the year after, and the year after.”

Weber said she finds herself in an unusual position. She agrees that police budgets are overfunded, and need to be examined and re-allocated. But she’s in the strange position of suddenly urging patience.

“I’m not the go-slow person always, but, I think that when you’re doing something as dramatic as that, you don’t have to go slow, but you have to go deliberate, and you have to know what you’re cutting and why you’re cutting it,” she said. “It’s like being sick and going to a surgeon. You want a real surgeon, you want a person who knows how to cut you, and put you back together. You don’t want somebody just chopping you up, put you in pain. And so I think the conversation needs to be quick and direct about police reform, and what we want.”

Andrew Keatts is a former managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego.

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