Long Beach City Council members and community members alike appear divided on the question of whether the Police Department should see significant cuts in next year’s budget.
During a Tuesday, Aug. 18, hearing, at which the leaders of the Police, Public Works and Library Services departments provided the council with presentations about their proposed budgets for the 2021 fiscal year, much of the focus centered on calls being made in Long Beach and across the nation to defund the police — and whether reallocating funds to social services is a viable way to protect public safety.
Police Chief Robert Luna, for his part, acknowledged the city’s need to balance a budget that currently faces a $30 million deficit. But, he said, it’s important cuts to his department — which, under the current proposal total roughly $10.3 million — are made thoughtfully.
“I also want to acknowledge that law enforcement has been one of the only few resources responding 24/7 to the challenges in our community,” he said, “many of which have resulted from a lack of funding and support for social services and the root causes, like poverty, mental health and substance abuse.”
But, Luna added, “I do believe it may be irresponsible or even possibly negligent” to make changes to the department’s funding “without the appropriate planning and resources in place.”
The proposed police budget would eliminate 54 sworn positions, which would include assigning 34 of those jobs to civilian employees instead of sworn officers.
Of the eliminated positions, six would come from the Investigations Bureau; 11 more would come from the Patrol Bureau: four officers in the South Division Bike Unit, four in the Traffic Motor Unit and three in the K-9 unit. Jobs that would be “civilianized,” meanwhile, would include six positions in the Air Support Unit and five positions assigned to equipment and facility support, among others.
Other changes proposed included the creation of an Office of Constitutional Policing to review department practices and question traditional policing as the city aims to increase equity and justice.
Community members who spoke in public comment were split on whether the cuts would be necessary.
“These cuts are severe and will have a serious impact on the safety of our community,” said Jackie Williams, who identified herself as a Black woman living in the city’s Seventh District. “Police do have a strong positive impact, and they’re needed, and they keep Long Beach safe.
“There has not been enough discussion,” she added, “on how these cuts will make residents safer or services more efficient.”
Others saw the proposed cuts differently.
Pointing to Luna’s comments, Jordan Doering said the chief “actually put the case better than I could” for why the budget should be cut.
“Police do not address the root causes of crime; they only address the symptoms,” he said. “Defunding police departments and putting in social services does make communities safer.”
Council members, for their part, spoke more specifically about the suggested reductions.
Fifth District Councilwoman Stacy Mungo said she thought it was important for the city to consider investments that have already been made — like trained dogs — when making cuts.
“For the K-9 unit, if there are currently dogs that are trained and implemented and equipment that has been purchased,” she said, “it is important those doggies are given the opportunity to serve.”
Mungo also said being creative in other areas — like using smaller helicopters to save on fuel costs — was worth studying.
Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson, meanwhile, said he hoped to see other changes in the budget, like moving the Mental Evaluation Team — which uses sworn officers and mental health clinicians to respond to calls involving people who may have mental health issues — to the Fire Department or the Health Department.
Richardson also pushed for the city to hold a study session for the City Council, which would likely take place in October after the budget is passed, on how the Police Department plans to build more trust and accountability with the community in the years ahead.
Third District Councilwoman Suzie Price, who chairs the Council's Public Safety Committee, said she agreed that some of the work currently assigned to the Police Department could be better handled by other services.
“I believe we absolutely should be doing that, but I also have concerns about the way we’re doing it right now,” she said. “I would like our response to be thorough and well thought out and not reactionary.”
The two-and-a-half hour discussion did not coalesce into a consensus among the council or the community, and the issues likely will be discussed further as Long Beach heads toward approving a budget before the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
One issue that did seem to unite the council, though, was members’ opposition to reducing the availability of some library branches to three days a week. Mayor Robert Garcia has proposed using city reserves to keep those branches open five days a week, and City Manager Tom Modica said he will come back to the council with other alternatives to prevent shortening the hours of those locations.
The proposed change in library scheduling would have been offset, city staff said, by expanding availability to the city’s three flagship branches — Billie Jean King Main, Michelle Obama and Mark Twain — from five days a week to seven days a week.
Council members said they hoped that suggestion could be preserved while maintaining five-day access to other locations.
Especially during the coronavirus, as students are stuck learning from home digitally, Price said, “I think having more access to libraries and allowing for families throughout this entire city to have access to library services is critical at this time.”