“I can’t breathe!”
“Black lives matter!”
“We will not be silenced!”
Those cries echo across the nation as thousands upon thousands of people — black, white, brown, Christian, Muslim, gay, straight — protest against police brutality and systemic racism, to name a few.
At the top of their lungs comes another cry: “Defund the police!”
Funding for police departments across the nation has increasingly come from federal grants and programs, which some argue brings police departments more militarization power in law enforcement instead of attempting to minimize harm.
For example, the James City County Police Department received $27,092 in partnership grants for bulletproof vests in 2018, according to JCCPD documents. The department also received more than $24,000 from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services for various programs, such as recruitment, technology and Naloxone for opioid overdose victims.
What does defunding the police mean?
The James City Police Department isn’t alone in receiving thousands of dollars of grant money from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services and to some, it seems unnecessary.
“A lot of people think across the country, we just want to take money from police departments and that’s not what we’re saying,” said LaShay Freeman, chairwoman of Williamsburg Action. “Part of local police departments funding is from the federal government and that needs to end.”
Freeman said people across the country have been killed by officers because they have a level of qualified immunity, meaning police are protected by the government to a certain extent, and funding isn’t necessarily going to the right resources, such as more training for officers.
“I think that defunding is diverting resources away from the police department in every city and every county and investing it in social services,” said Jenny Glass, director of advocacy for the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
One way the money can be used is for community programs and public education.
Glass noted she heard someone say “this is the way that police operate already in white suburbs” as opposed to “black and brown neighborhoods.”
“So to me the key to the defunding is taking that money away and putting it into the public and putting that into community based solutions,” Glass said. “We would love to see more cities, more counties taking this on and taking on this approach.”
“We would love to see legislatures ––the General Assembly, look very thoroughly at their state budget and figure out what kind of cuts they can make,” she added.
But Nate Green, commonwealth’s attorney for Williamsburg-James City County, said he doesn’t want to see funding cuts to local police departments simply because of a national issue.
“I think each community is taking a look at their police departments and budgets and I would hope [are] making an intelligent decision about their needs,” he said. “But if it’s ‘we want to defund the police as a punishment or hope they will do better by taking away their money, I don’t agree with that. I don’t think that’s an appropriate use of the budget to punish the department for national issues.”
Green said he believes the James City County Board of Supervisors and the Williamsburg City Council do a great job of monitoring departments and considering budgets but shouldn’t be influenced by a “national protest cry.”
Williamsburg Action has started the movement to reallocate funds from the departments at a local and state level, said Adam Solderitch, the group’s policy sub-committee chairman.
“I think another word for ‘defunding’ is de-militarizing police,” Solderitch said. “The biggest issue is that law enforcement agencies have military grade equipment that’s not worth having in a small community.”
The James City County Police Department does have military surplus patrol rifles, said Deputy Chief Steve Rubino. The department also has tear gas grenades and smoke grenades but they aren’t designed as an explosive, so Rubino said he doesn’t know if that would qualify as a military weapon.
“We don’t refer to anything as ‘military-grade,'” Rubino said. “There are handguns the officers carry that people in the military also carry but I don’t know if that’s a military grade weapon. We don’t have tanks or bazookas or grenades that are explosive.”
The Williamsburg Police Department doesn’t currently have any military surplus equipment nor does it have a SWAT team, said Steve Roberts Jr., the city’s interim spokesman. Roberts said there isn’t a need for that kind of equipment because it’s a small department.
Solderitch said the committee is working with Williamsburg to figure out how to reanalyze and distribute finances in a way that supports community programs.
“It goes hand-in-hand,” Solderitch said. “It’s not just making sure police are demilitarized of the military-grade weapons, but also a form of defunding is to make sure we are reallocating funds. As a community, we spend too much money on public safety and these funds need to go toward benefiting the community as a whole.”
According to the city of Williamsburg’s budget, there is $4,391,499 allocated to the police department for fiscal year 2020. In James City County, the police department is allocated $11,941,728 for fiscal year 2020, according to the county’s budget.
“You have to look at the economics of it,” Green said. “If social services, for example, would take on the role of responding to domestic abuse as opposed to the police, how much [money] would they need and how much would be taken from the police budget.”
One solution to the issue is turning police departments into a “community policing” situation.
That’s been done in other areas across the country, such as Camden, New Jersey, which dissolved its existing police department and created a countywide force in its place, according to NPR. The Camden Police Department rehired a majority of the officers but each had to go through extra steps before hiring, such as a 50-page application and psychological testing.
The department also put more officers on the street to interact with the community more and changed performance measurements from arrests or tickets issued.
Green said community policing can be done in a variety of ways, but most commonly it means having an officer in one area consistently so they get to know the community and the community feels comfortable with them.
He said the Newport News Police Department has done that in a way by assigning precincts to community response teams, which allowed officers to work one area more consistently.
Freeman, who is from New Jersey, said she’s familiar with her local police officers from the time she was a child and it wasn’t until she moved to Virginia in 2007 that she learned she should fear them.
“Some [officers] in Hampton Roads do go out of their way to do community policing…but when was the last time you saw an officer walking around your community not because he was called there?” she said. “They have to go into communities and build relationships so that the people in that community aren’t afraid.”
WYDaily multimedia reporter Julia Marsigliano contributed to this story
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