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Defunding movement spurs closer look at Upper Valley police department budgets

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Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/27/2020 9:19:31 PM
Modified: 6/30/2020 9:23:04 PM

LEBANON — In the wake of protests over the killing of an unarmed Black man in police custody in Minneapolis last month, an idea long seen as radical has gained mainstream attention: defund the police.

The specifics of the defund movement vary among communities, ranging from calls to decrease and divert police funding to abolishing departments. But proponents share the same general assertion: Police budgets are too high, and that money could be better spent on services that get to the roots of many social problems, in turn decreasing the need for police.

The idea has moved to the national stage from Minneapolis, where the City Council on Friday unanimously voted to amend the city charter, allowing the police department to be dismantled following George Floyd’s death, with the aim of replacing it with a “department of community safety and violence prevention,” the Associated Press reported.

In the Upper Valley, public officials are far from declaring any such intentions. Many defend police spending that, according to an analysis of six municipalities’ budgets, has grown significantly in the past 10 years, often outpacing other departments.

Some suggest that funding for alternative responders, such as social workers, should come from their state legislatures.

“It would be wonderful if we had the level of staffing and ability to respond 24 hours with someone other than a police officer, but the fact is we don’t,” Hartford Town Manager Brannon Godfrey said.

Critics say that’s a shift worth imagining — and acting upon. They point to disparities in policing white people and people of color, especially Black people, and argue that many calls for service would be better suited for other professions.

“We don’t need people with guns walking around,” said Hartford resident Asma Elhuni, an activist for immigrants’ rights and other liberal causes, who favors abolishing the police. “We cannot separate the fact that targeted communities are terrified of police.”

As conversations around policing and funding take place across the country — the Lebanon City Council will hear a presentation on the operations of the Upper Valley’s largest police force this week — budget officials will be asking: What’s the best way to spend taxpayer dollars to ensure safe and healthy communities?

Budget breakdowns

Over the past 10 years, funding for the six police departments in the Upper Valley’s core — Lebanon, Hanover, Hartford, Windsor, Norwich and Claremont — have all increased, in some cases by $1 million or more, according to a Valley News analysis of budgets provided by the municipalities.

In four of those six, the police budget represents a bigger slice of the operating budget in 2020 than in 2010.

Take Claremont, where police — not including dispatch services — represented 13.4% of the city’s operating budget in 2010, compared with 17% today. The budget for the department of 24 full-time and three part-time officers stands at $2.9 million, plus another $540,000 for dispatch.

In Hartford, a police department of 23 full-time officers and one civilian support staffer, the budget has increased by 52% in the past decade, from $2.2 million to $3.3 million. While general fund spending has also increased, police’s slice of the general fund is up from 18.1% to 19.6%.

Although Lebanon’s $6.3 million-a-year police department is taking up a smaller percentage of the overall city budget than it did in 2010, City Manager Shaun Mulholland, a former police chief in Allenstown, N.H., attributes that to jumps in other areas, such as Public Works, pointing to costs related to an ongoing $75 million combined sewer overflow project.

Spending sizable chunks of taxpayer dollars on police budgets is not uncommon. A recent analysis by NHPR found that towns with populations over 3,000 spent significantly more on police and fire departments than other services, and a New York Times assessment of 150 major cities across the country showed that the amount in general expenditures going to police has risen, on average, 1.2% since the 1970s, even as crime decreased.

Police chiefs say the primary reason for rising budgets has been the increased cost of personnel, including health care costs and salaries, though most police departments have the same number of officers they did 10 years ago.

Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten said he’s focused on finding quality — and therefore, more expensive — cops over his past five years as head of the department. Part of that focus has been on bringing in more officers of color and more officers with college degrees.

“It’s very difficult to hire a good law enforcement officer, and even more of a challenge when we’re trying to recruit with goals,” Kasten said. “We want quality personnel, but we also want those that mirror the racial, ethnic and socio-economic background of our community.”

Unlike some others, his police department has decreased by two full-time positions in the last five years that Kasten has been on the force, he said.

Starting hourly pay has risen by about $5 in Hartford and Claremont over the past decade, partly in a bid to stay competitive, according to their respective chiefs.

Other expenses can also add up. Hanover Town Manager Julia Griffin said the police budget has increased in the past decade as the town’s dispatch center, which costs around $700,000 for this fiscal year, has taken on additional towns like Enfield and Canaan, resulting in an increase in dispatch staff.

In Norwich, Police Chief Jennifer Frank said police combining their facility with the fire department led to increased costs in electricity and plumbing, among other operating costs. Kasten also pointed to repairs to his department’s 30-year-old building.

Calls increase, spending creeps

On top of the rising salary and maintenance costs, police chiefs say their departments are seeing an uptick in “social service calls.”

The term broadly applies to responding to non-criminal events, such as a person suffering a mental or physical health issue, the exchange of children in a custody arrangement, a neighborly dispute or — especially in rural areas — livestock on the loose.

“Neighbors don’t talk to neighbors anymore, but we get a lot of people calling on their neighbor and not knowing who their neighbor is,” Chase said.

Though all departments reported an increase in those types of calls, most could to give specific numbers on the increases because police calls are not categorized in terms of mental health or other social service issues.

Kasten attributes at least some of the rise in social service — and more specifically, mental health — calls to an economic downturn in the early 2000s and the 2008 recession. As mental health programs saw their funding cut, police began to take on a larger role in responding to mental health crises, he said.

“Police essentially become the customer service arm of local government,” he said.

Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis said that adds costs: More training for police officers in how to handle mental health crises and in de-escalation tactics adds to overtime and travel costs.

Several town officials said they haven’t tried to inflate police budgets over the last 10 years, but worked to meet an increasing need.

“I don’t think we ever thought, ‘Let’s increase the police department’s budget,’ ” said Lebanon City Councilor Sue Prentiss. “The growth in (the police) budget is reflective of the city as a regional hub.”

Griffin said the growth of police budgets and adding more military equipment for police — often at no cost to local taxpayers through federal hand-me-down programs — picked up after 9/11, which prompted a focus on police responses, even at a local level.

“There was increasing pressure on the part of the general American public to increase the size of police departments and outfit the departments,” Griffin said.

Assessing the future

As the national movement shines a spotlight on police spending at a local level, Upper Valley activists and some city officials say it’s time to consider alternatives to enhance public safety and to fund social service programs.

“Police are instruments of the state; they are not instruments of change,” said North Hartland resident Ed Taylor, who has helped organize Black Lives Matter protests in the Upper Valley this month following Floyd’s death. He added that the institution of policing is “deeply rooted in racism and slavery.”

It’s difficult, Taylor said, for local communities to see police departments get yearly increases while funding for things like education and infrastructure projects suffer.

“It shows that these communities aren’t valued. ... You are prioritizing the agent of the state instead of putting money into agents of change,” Taylor said. He suggests diverting funds from police departments to programs that deal with mental health care and education.

His sentiments were shared by other activists around the Upper Valley, including Kelly Green, a criminal defense attorney and Randolph resident, who said that in the past it was considered “unpatriotic” to question police spending. But now, amid the call for defunding, Green points to results in her own town. She served on a commission two years ago that halved the police department budget, and says crime didn’t spike and a sense of safety didn’t plummet.

“No one batted an eye,” she said, and Randolph now has money to put toward repairing roads or resources like a swimming pool and a well that many town residents use.

“Cut the budget,” Green said of her advice to other towns grappling with the idea of police budgets. “You can always increase it again. See if the sky falls, but I guarantee you it won’t.”

Others, like Elhuni, the Hartford activist who favors abolishing police, argue Upper Valley communities should go further than just reducing budgets.

“Police aren’t safe for everyone,” she said. “There’s a group or demographic of people who may feel safe, but our Black siblings, our brown siblings, are the most targeted.”

Elhuni argued that if police budgets are increasing alongside an uptick in social-service calls, those funds — and calls — should be diverted to other community resources, including health care and education. She contended that armed officers can have a negative, intimidating effect in non-criminal situations where people need help.

“We need less training, fewer officers, and we need to invest in other solutions. Enough of the violence,” she said.

Some local officials agree that there’s a problem with police officers responding to mental health and other social service calls, but differ on how to address it.

“You keep thinking, ‘Police are not the people who should be responding (to mental health calls),’ ” Griffin said, but added, “We don’t have enough alternative sources that are funded.”

Both Griffin, in Hanover, and Godfrey, in Hartford, argue that funding for social service programs needs to come from the state, rather than local taxpayers. Only once those programs are adequately funded can local municipalities begin addressing the question of cutting police budgets, Griffin said.

In Lebanon, Prentiss said she is open to a critical examination of how the police department spends its money.

“We’re at a juncture where we’re given the gift of looking at law enforcement and how they do their job,” Prentiss said. “Can the job be done differently? Can money be redeployed in a system to be part of how we create peace?”

On Wednesday, Mulholland is expected to make a presentation to the council on how law enforcement operates in the city. From there, Prentiss said, she hopes the council will start discussing ways the police department and social service departments can better serve the public.

“I don’t know what the answer is until we look at it,” Prentiss said. “Do we have the (mental health) services? Do we shift some of the budget?”

In Norwich, Selectboard member Roger Arnold has an idea of what that answer might look like. It starts with hearing from the community about what’s needed in terms of public safety and social service programs, he said.

“What we’re hearing from Black, Indigenous communities is that (the police department) does not make them feel safer,” Arnold said. He added that the town needs to start looking at how to use funding in a way that supports the community as a whole, and ensures that “all material needs are met.”

He suggested hiring a social worker who could respond to mental health crises calls, and paying them the salary and benefits that a police officer receives; or creating a team of public health professionals or public health officers. He also suggested investing more funds each year into an affordable housing fund and a citizen assistance fund.

But the discussion on how to best serve the public need, and whether the funding for social service programs should come from police departments or other means has to start at a local level, Arnold said.

“Part of the work is having community conversations on what this should look like,” he added. “The infrastructure is in place. It’s about imagining alternatives.”

Anna Merriman can be reached at amerriman@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.




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