Police Layoffs Are Not Happening
In recent weeks, a sudden preoccupation with police layoffs entered the public conversation around the Reimagine Public Safety Community Task Force proposals. The origins of this fear have been difficult to track, as the Task Force provided numerous sample budgets for city staff to refer to when implementing the proposals—none of which included layoffs. Instead, the four pillars of the public safety program were to be funded through such budgetary procedures as eliminating frozen police positions, staff vacancies, and unnecessary contracts with private firms. Eliminating the twelve police department vacancies, for example, would save the city $3 million dollars annually while maintaining the same level of police services from last year.
The budgetary process has also indicated that Richmond is working with a sizable surplus this year (roughly $15.6 million dollars). These noticeable increases in the City’s revenue streams came thanks to voters who passed Measure H, known as the Real Estate Transfer Tax, in 2018. Because of this surplus, we can afford to fund the Reimagine proposals and not take all the funds from the police. The availability of these funds, coupled with the money that can be trimmed from the police budget, makes layoffs unnecessary.
On June 8, during a Special Session of City Council, Councilmember Claudia Jimenez cemented this point. Her motion, which passed with a strong 5-2 majority of votes, directed staff to fund the proposals without any layoffs in the police department. As a result, the budgetary process can rightfully return to its original path, which is to reallocate funds unnecessarily stored within the police department budget.
On June 15, City Council voted in support of Task Force recommended funding Option E, which reduced the overall Reimagining Public Safety budget recommendation to $6.38 million and approved other funding sources beyond Richmond Police Department. Under Option E, the Police Department budget is only reduced by $3 million, resulting in the same operational impact as described under staff recommended Option A.
Yet the fears around layoffs persist. This narrative has been exacerbated by the Richmond Police Officers Association (RPOA) mailer sent to every household in Richmond, which cynically deployed pictures of young police officers of color, accompanied by quotes expressing anxiety about losing their jobs. This tactic visually co-opted the sincere and powerful language of the BLM and broader racial justice movements, suggesting that reimagining public safety in Richmond would target people of color via their positions within the police department.
Two things must be said about this spin campaign, aside from the reemphasis that layoffs are not on the table. First, the Task Force proposals will put many more public safety staff on the streets, from mental health counselors to gun violence prevention specialists. These workers will be better trained to appropriately handle the situations they respond to. The police, in turn, will be freed up to contend with such crimes as homicides, violent assaults, and robberies. This targeted division of labor will enable police to utilize their training more fully in appropriate areas, and it addresses their assertions that they are overworked.
Second, the Task Force programs will create a significant amount of jobs. Safe Organized Spaces! Richmond (SOS!) will employ staff for its Shower Power program and Streets Team, thereby providing regular income for unhoused individuals. In order to address evening gun violence, the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) will hire a night shift, which will require doubling current staff levels. The community-based crisis response team requires up to 50 new positions. Most impressively, YouthWorks estimates that their proposal will create up to 500 jobs for at-risk Richmond youth, as well as undocumented youth and DACA recipients. Leaving aside that police layoffs aren’t happening anyway, it is shortsighted to focus on 35 police officer positions when these new proposals create hundreds of new jobs within our community that are entirely focused on public safety.
We cannot arrest our way to safety. From the legacy of the War of Drugs and Broken Windows Theory has emerged an aggressive policing culture with racist and deeply harmful effects. It is a strategy that has failed our community. And it’s far too expensive: the Richmond Police Department already siphons off 40% of our budget, while proclaiming they need even more funds.
In the coming year, our city will have the opportunity to put serious work into the implementation of the Task Force programs. Reimagine leaders, service providers, and the progressive community have all committed themselves to ensuring strong program implementation and effectiveness, monitoring the police budget, and gathering community feedback. But our primary task must be to focus on our fight for racial justice and a truly safer community.