As protesters across the world demand justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner and other Black people who were murdered by police, calls for disbanding law enforcement have gained unprecedented support.
Tucson Police Chief Chris Magnus: “I think our use of force guidelines are some of the best you will find."
Widespread conversations about whether law enforcement actually keeps communities safe are ongoing, with a focus on the institutional racism that is tied to the policing profession. Black people in America are five times more likely to be arrested and incarcerated than white people.
Black men are also more than twice as likely to be killed by police than white men.
Many believe that police department budgets have become bloated over the past few years, and that money could be better used to address the underlying causes of crime. Members of this movement want to see a more proactive approach rather than the reactive practice of responding to crime with government-funded force.
Tucson Police Department Chief Chris Magnus is doing his best to separate his department from others across the country who have been exposed as perpetrators of police brutality. He claims (and Tucson City Council members agree) that his police department is one of the most progressive in the country.
At this week’s study session, Magnus gave a summary of how they have been working on these issues for years. He said the department’s use of force protocol is modeled after the PERF 30 Guiding Principles on Use of Force and incorporates guidelines from Campaign Zero and President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing Report.
“I think our use of force guidelines are some of the best you will find,” Magnus told the council.
He said all officers have participated in de-escalation, crisis intervention, implicit bias and cultural awareness training, and all officers wear body cameras. TPD adopted the “8 Can’t Wait” guidelines that ban chokeholds, require de-escalations and warnings before firing a weapon, among other things.
Magnus has been asked about what went wrong in Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer on May 25. He said it’s interesting because Minneapolis has had a series of “very progressive” police chiefs and have put all the right policies in place. They even have a lot of the same policies as TPD.
He argued that Floyd’s murder happened because the Minneapolis Police Department’s leadership-level philosophies were never instilled in each officer due to a lack of supervision.
“Our supervisors and commanders really understand that they are expected to help us develop that healthy organizational culture,” Magnus said.
Even with these progressive policies in place, the American Civil Liberties Union found alarming racial disparities in arrests made by the Minneapolis Police Department. Between 2004 and 2012, an African American person was, on average, 11.5 times more likely to be arrested than a white person for marijuana possession, 8.86 times more likely to be arrested than a white person for disorderly conduct, 7.54 times more likely to be arrested than a white person for vagrancy and 16.39 times more likely to be arrested than a white juvenile for violating curfew or loitering.
More recent data compiled by the New York Times shows that use of force has disproportionately been used on Minneapolis’ Black residents. The Minneapolis population is about 20 percent Black people and 60 percent white people. Since 2015, police have documented using force about 11,500 times.
At least 6,650 of those acts of force were used against Black people. By comparison, force was used about 2,750 times against white people, who make up a majority of the population.
These numbers show that a progressive police department used force against Black people at least seven times the rate of white people in the last five years. This reality is the exact reason why dozens of Tucson residents called into the city’s budget hearing on June 9 to implore the mayor and council to defund TPD.
Paco Cantu, a former law enforcement officer, said when he worked in that role he observed rules and policies being broken on a weekly or daily basis.
“The book learning and the policy training that officers might get in the academy is one thing, and the way they’re taught to work in the field and to cover for one another’s missteps is another,” Cantu said.
Passing reforms and establishing new training is not enough, he said. As much as any single police officer may be a respectable employee or a good person, Cantu said the police institution is still rooted in a system of racial oppression and violence that goes back hundreds of years.
Another caller, Patricia Schwartz, said during her work as a case manager, she watched TPD officers exhibit “inappropriate and often combative behavior” at the scenes of mental health crises.
“In many cases they’ve exacerbated the situation or made the person in crisis feel more fearful,” Schwartz said. “In general, mental health services are gravely underfunded.”
More callers reported numerous bad experiences with law enforcement, including receiving racist and homophobic comments from the police, being harassed by the police, being subjected to violence by the police and seeing police mishandle instances of sexual abuse.
Some who were at the weekend protests said police used rubber bullets, tear gas and kettling to keep protesters away from their cars and out after curfew, which resulted in arrests.
In response to the public pressure, Mayor Regina Romero decided to push back the adoption of the 2020-2021 tentative budget to June 30, in order to allow for more public comment and participation to be included in their decision-making process. The next budget hearing will be on June 23.
When asked about the movement to defund police, Romero said she doesn’t believe it’s an “either-or” situation and that the city can fund both police and community-centered programs.
She expressed a desire to get to the root of the issues by supporting education, childcare, affordable housing, employment and transportation and said this is precisely one of the goals that drove her to get involved in politics.
Romero sees Magnus’ progressive police department as a helpful addition to other social resources.
“We're not going to send a social worker to a domestic violence situation at a home,” she said. “You might show up with a police officer, and then call the social worker so that she can help with the victim and their needs.”
Romero points to the city’s variety of federal and non-federal grants for community development as a path to truly address these issues.
“There's so much that we can do in terms of community development,” she said. “But we have not really had a strong strategy to focus our efforts in our funds.”
At the meeting, Romero successfully passed the development of a city-wide equity needs assessment, a climate action plan and the hiring of a “Housing First” director and eight social workers to be funded in the upcoming year’s budget.
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While some criticize the new energy around defunding police as naive or imprudent, police and prison abolition is a concept that has been worked on for decades by Black activists and organizations.
Some local groups, such as Black Lives Matter Tucson, have been working for years to raise awareness about how law enforcement and the larger criminal justice system have always targeted Black people with violence and oppression.
“I highly pushed back against the idea that this is a quick conversation or that it can be synthesized in a sound bite,” said Tiera Rainey with Black Lives Matter Tucson. “Because the reality is that we have an entire culture that promotes and supports this idea of the carceral state.”
Rainey said the idea of defunding local police is just one piece of a larger issue. While funding for police and prisons take up more and more of government budgets every year, social programs that help increase quality of life are left underfunded.
In Arizona, Rainey cites a lack of mental health services, education funding, rental and unemployment assistance and other necessary resources that could help people survive the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
“Cops are not trained to be social workers, cops are not trained to be nurses,” she said. “Why not just give the money to social workers? They're actually cheaper than a police salary.”
Last year, the City of Tucson allocated more than $164 million of taxpayer money to TPD. This was the biggest line item in the city’s $525 million General Fund, which includes revenues from sales taxes, state-shared revenues and other sources. The city spent just $2.7 million of General Fund dollars on housing and community development.
While Tucson does receive a significant amount of money for housing and community development from outside grants (more than $86 million last year) the total amount is still less than half of the police department’s total budget. Tucson police received more than $29 million in outside grants, including $14 million in federal grants, totaling a $193 million budget.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city plans to reduce the General Fund budget by $11 million. But the tentative budget for 2021 has more than $166 million budgeted for the police department, a $2 million increase. Even less money is planned to be spent on housing and community development, with a new amount of about $2.5 million scheduled.
Rainey points to this disproportionate allocation as why we need to reimagine ways of ensuring community safety. While some may wonder how the community can respond to crime and give victims justice without police and prisons, abolitionists believe that giving everyone the resources they need to live comfortably will prevent crime more effectively.
“Police, and specifically prisons, are a very modern incarnation,” Rainey said. “We had less than 500,000 people in prisons across the United States in the 1970s, but we have reached a point where it's normal to have millions incarcerated in this country over the span of a few decades.”
Rainey said it's incredibly exciting that something as complicated as police and prison abolition has reached the mainstream consciousness, but she believes it’s always important that people remember the deeper implications of the criminal justice system.
Their work doesn’t end with defunding TPD. Rainey pointed out that this pressure to divest is not being directed at the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, which is a larger and more expensive police department that also collaborates with Border Patrol and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to deport undocumented people.
She hopes people will think more critically about prison, jails and the barriers to successful reentry as equally important aspects of this new movement.