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Protesters gather on 6th Avenue in June 2020, where San Diego Police officers shot and killed a Latino man earlier that day. / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

After last year’s marathon budget hearing, in which hundreds of community members and activists tried and failed to persuade the City Council to slash police spending, a clear, aspirational message emerged.

The progressive members of the Council who were sympathetic to the request began arguing that as disappointing as the decision was, change would come in future budget cycles.

The votes to overcome the mayor’s veto weren’t there, former Council President Georgette Gómez said. The detailed analysis of SDPD’s spending, which could serve as a roadmap to potential cuts, hadn’t been done, said Councilwoman Monica Montgomery Steppe.

A lot has changed since then. The city elected a Mayor Todd Gloria, a Democrat, and the City Council now has an 8-1 Democratic majority. The city’s independent budget analyst produced a lengthy analysis of SDPD spending. The federal government passed a massive COVID-19 relief package which, combined with our slow and steady crawl out of economic shutdown, has repaired the city’s budget picture.

Yet one thing hasn’t changed. The mayor’s budget proposes an increase in police spending, for the 11th consecutive year.

Gloria proposes spending nearly $600 million on police next year, a 3 percent increase from last year’s $580 million. If approved, that would mean the city’s police spending has increased 52 percent since 2008. That steady increase has followed the general year-to-year growth in city revenue; SDPD’s budget has hovered around 35 percent of all city spending since the Great Recession, and it would tick down slightly to 34 percent in Gloria’s first budget proposal.

It is – despite all the changes – in many ways the same story as last year. Activists then were furious to see the Council raise police spending by $27 million. This year, it’s increasing by $19 million.

“It’s déjà vu,” said jean-huy Tran, one of the activists who organized residents last year to call into the Council’s final budget meeting, demanding a $100 million cut to SDPD’s budget. “In the activist world, I’ve been hearing frustration. My sense is, we saw a Democratic mayor elected, and the continued conversation around ‘Defund’ and police practices, we expected this was a moment where new changes could happen. But it doesn’t seem like it.”

Gloria’s proposal is the start of the city’s budget cycle. The city’s budget analyst will analyze the plan, the Council’s budget committee will conduct a series of department-specific hearings by and eventually the Council will adopt the city’s spending plan in June.

This year’s cycle will in some ways be a test of a promise made by Montgomery Steppe last year. When she requested a long-term, line-by-line look at police spending in the aftermath of last year’s contentious budget hearing, she said it was meant to inform budget decisions for the new Council and Democratic mayor.

“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,” Montgomery Steppe said last year. “It is a very legitimate concern, and we have to reimagine how we look at what keeps us safe. … 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.”

Now, she’s got the IBA report in hand. The new Democratic mayor is in place, as are five new Council members. And again, there’s a budget proposal on the table looking to spend more on public safety.

“This is the exact reason why we requested the IBA report and we are going to use that as a tool in order to assist us in responding to the budget,” she said last week after the mayor released his budget. “The conversations are not going to go away with regard to reducing the police department budget, but I need to dig into those details and see what we come up with on the other side.”

Despite the overall increase in police spending, Gloria hasn’t ignored criminal justice concerns.

Two weeks ago, he rolled out a series of proposed police reforms. Many are merely promises to explore future reforms, but some could have budget implications, though probably not this year. He, for instance, proposed a “review” of the types of 9-1-1 calls to which police are dispatched, opening the possibility that police could be sent to fewer calls in the future. He’s looking into limiting pretext stops and consent searches, which could change not only how residents interact with police, but how police spend their time. He also said he’d “explore” alternatives for low-level arrests; even if that leads to reforms, though, Gloria’s announcement suggests he’d like to take mental health, substance abuse and quality-of-life calls off SDPD’s plate not so the city needs fewer officers, but so officers could spend more time building relationships in neighborhoods, rather than responding to calls.

And within the sustained spending increase, Gloria has nonetheless proposed some spending changes. His budget calls for a $4.3 million cut to overtime – bringing the department’s budgeted overtime line for the year to $30 million – while dedicating just over $1 million to setting up the Commission on Police Practices, a new and strengthened police oversight body approved by voters in November.

Geneviéve Jones-Wright, executive director of the nonprofit Community Advocates for Just and Moral Governance, said the new mayor’s budget is reminiscent of the old mayor’s final budget.

“While some line items in Faulconer’s 2020 proposed budget differ from Gloria’s this year, the value statements expressed through the budgets are strikingly similar,” she said. “Mayor Gloria’s increase of SDPD’s budget is unacceptable, as is his proposed cuts to our libraries. He clearly didn’t hear community voices last year as a candidate.”

Gloria’s budget and the potential reforms he’s introduced are, however, basically consistent with how he talked about policing on the campaign trail. While running, he said the city needed to end the criminalization of homelessness, and sending police to mental health calls, but stopped short of committing to police spending cuts.

“I don’t know if [police spending] would be lower, but I believe it would be different,” he said.

Andrea St. Julian and Maresa Martin Talbert, co-chairs of San Diegans for Justice, the nonprofit group that proposed and supported the creation of the new commission, thanked Gloria last week for his “comprehensive package of priorities and proposals for police reform,” and called it a foundation for additional changes.

“The priority list, however, is missing the critical component of a rigorous, formal system of accountability,” they wrote in a memo responding to his changes, calling on him to implement a quality assurance program, whistleblower protections for officers and a commitment to consider all recommendations from the newly formed commission and issue a public explanation when they aren’t followed, among others.

The Community Budget Alliance, a progressive advocacy group, has released its alternative vision for city spending, including a roadmap to “redefine public safety,” in its People’s Budget, which “equitably invests public dollars and combats systemic racism.”

That proposal doesn’t set an overall spending cut it hopes to hit, but rather identifies areas of spending the group believes should be reallocated. It calls for cut the department’s overtime budget, plus diverting $16 million spent on gang policing into community-focused investments instead.

Tran said he expects another organized effort to pressure the Council and mayor to make big changes, even if it isn’t as straightforward as last year’s request for a $100 million cut to the department’s budget.

“The situation started turning around because cities started getting federal funding – we thought the city would no longer cut programs, they would say we’re going to fund community programs, and also police,” he said. “But then we saw the same kind of budgeting process as before, where police continue to get an increase, and the library is getting cut. It’s disappointing.”

The police budget, though, includes the annual metrics by which the department judges its performance. The measures they use don’t satisfy the region’s most ardent reformers, but they do indicate that last year was a rough one for SDPD.

Violent crime in the city ticked up slightly, though it hit the department’s target for the year, at four violent crimes per 1,000 residents, and its clearance rate on those crimes decreased to 35 percent, well below its 50 percent target.

Response times increased too – doubling the department’s goal for responding to its second most serious set of calls and reaching its third most serious type of call in 100 minutes, on average, compared with its goal of 27 minutes.

Perhaps most significantly, though, was the change in citizen complaints. The department aims for that number to increase by less than 5 percent a year, which it did two years ago, with just a 2 percent increase. This year, though, citizen complaints are up 15 percent from last year.

Andrew Keatts

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at

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