At a public hearing last week, a young Black mother was among more than 30 people who stood in line at the podium to protest a nearly $8 million budget increase proposed for the Raleigh Police Department. Nique Williams carried her young daughter in her arms as she waited to give her two cents on the city’s annual budget.

“In the last five years, the Raleigh Police Department has brutalized hundreds of people,” Williams said. “Murder and violence against my community is common for the Raleigh PD. As a Black woman, it is extremely painful to see the unwarranted vendetta police have against Black and brown people.”

“As this body increases the police budget by the millions year after year, it becomes apparent that the city council members have a high tolerance for police violence and a reckless disregard for the safety of me and my loved ones,” Williams continued.

Williams’s one minute of speaking time quickly ran out, but her daughter got the last word before the two departed council chambers: “I want to be safe,” the girl, wearing a pink scrunchie in her hair, said.

The sincere plea from Williams and her daughter didn’t change the minds of council members, though. They passed the city’s $1.1 billion budget Monday, complete with the funding increase for RPD, in a 6-2 vote despite vehement protest from community activists and police officers. Council members David Cox and Patrick Buffkin were the two dissenters.

Cox said the budget didn’t do enough for public safety workers and spent too much on projects like the new city hall and community engagement bus. Buffkin said the pay raises for law enforcement “don’t meet the needs of the moment.”

In the fight over the Raleigh police budget, there were two camps. First, the community activists, many of whom are Black and brown, who argued RPD’s budget should be cut to make room for a mental health crisis response unit and a raise for other city workers. Refund Raleigh, a local community group, led the effort in demanding the city divest from police and invest in community safety.

Second, there’s the Raleigh police and firefighter associations, who demanded pay increases amid severe staff shortages. In RPD, there are currently 168 vacancies, about 20 percent of the total force, according to Matthew Cooper, president of the Raleigh Police Protective Association (RPPA). The department has lost about 77 officers, 30 of them senior, since 2020, Cooper wrote in a letter to the city.

“Neighboring municipalities have prioritized funding for public safety, offering substantial raises and benefits to prospective applicants, while Raleigh has fallen further behind with no tangible commitments for compensation,” Cooper said during the public hearing. “Raleigh officers have left our department to these neighboring departments.”

The heart of the struggle was over how to keep people safe in Raleigh: with police or without police.

Police Chief Estella Patterson, who replaced former chief Cassandra Deck-Brown in August, wrote in a statement that “an investment in police services is necessary in keeping Raleigh safe for all.”

“[RPD] is committed to working in partnership with the community to reduce crime and build trust with all who live, work, learn, and play in our city,” Patterson said. “The divesting of funds from the police may limit these efforts and impact services for those who need it most, specifically in areas where there have been increases in crime.”

Police Violence

The police department has undergone some reforms since 2020, including instituting a ban on chokeholds and strangleholds and creating the ACORNS unit—Addressing Crisis Through Outreach, Referrals, Networking, and Service—which is made up of six law enforcement officers and three social workers.

Unlike some other nonpolice teams, however, the unit responds to people in crisis only after they have interacted with traditional, armed police officers. After an interaction on the street, an officer may call in the unit to help someone connect with resources like shelter and counseling.

With such modest reforms, it’s unsurprising police violence has continued. Three years after Raleigh police shot and killed Soheil Mojarrad, a man with mental health challenges, officers shot and killed Daniel Turcios, a man who was walking away from a rollover traffic accident.

Just four months later, in May, officers shot and killed another man, Reuel Rodriguez-Nunez, after he threw flammable objects at police vehicles. Body camera footage shows Master Officer P.W. Coates shouting “Do it! Do it!” at Rodriguez-Nunez, who may have been attempting suicide by cop.

Rodriguez-Nunez’s brother, Jasiel Rodriguez-Nunez, said Friday his brother was experiencing a mental health crisis and officers failed to handle it appropriately. He and local activists—including Dawn Blagrove and Kerwin Pittman of Emancipate NC—called for RPD to fire Coates, revoke his law enforcement certification, and remove his pay while he is placed on administative leave.

“Individuals were de-escalating the situation, but yet he chose to escalate the situation and essentially provoke and bully somebody having a mental health crisis,” Pittman said during the news conference Friday. “If someone who was having a mental health crisis and standing on the ledge of a bridge about to jump, this was akin to this officer running over there and telling him, ‘Jump, jump! Go ahead, do it! Jump, go ahead, do it!’”

Emancipate NC is also demanding that every RPD officer undergo de-escalation, crisis intervention, and character training. Blagrove also joined Refund Raleigh’s calls to defund the police and establish a nonpolice crisis response team.

“Master Officer P.W. Coates … lusted for any pretext to murder a mentally unstable man with suicidal ideations. ‘Give me the go-ahead,’ he said. This murderer is now on leave with pay from Raleigh Police Department,” Blagrove said during the public hearing.

“Instead of paying killer cops and increasing the city police budget, which is the single largest budget allocation, choose to invest in real safety. You have done what is easy, now do what is right.”

Following the recent uptick in police violence, the department is now considering a new policy to de-escalate situations before officers resort to use of force. The policy would include more training for officers with the goal of reducing the frequency and amount of force used by police.

But activist Ajamu Dillahunt, who’s been keeping a close eye on the two fatal shootings carried out by the RPD this year, argues that the city needs to cut ties with a broken police department and look for other solutions.

“The police cannot be a container for the things we need in order for our communities to thrive,” Dillahunt says. “The de-escalation that has (supposedly) been attempted is just not adequate. The institution is deeply flawed and has a history of racist and brutalizing tactics.”

Refund Raleigh’s demands

Refund Raleigh proposed the city council invest in a crisis response program similar to Denver’s Support Team Assisted Response (STAR) program, which responds to nonviolent 911 calls instead of police officers. In the two years since the STAR unit started, mental health clinicians and paramedics have responded to more than 2,700 calls, The Denver Post reported.

They’ve helped people experiencing homelessness, people who are suicidal, those who have mental health illnesses, and people using drugs. They’ve connected people with shelter, food, and resources, all with zero arrests and no police violence. In light of the program’s success, Denver city officials are now expanding the program with hopes they can respond to more than 10,000 calls a year.

“Denver’s program has been so successful because it’s independent, it’s been able to go directly to people in crisis,” Dillahunt says. “The way ACORNS functions is that it has to get approval from the police and it’s coordinated through them. So the police have the final say. We believe [an independent crisis response unit] will keep our communities much safer.”

Refund Raleigh also proposed the city raise wages for city workers to $22 an hour, citing studies that show raising the minimum wage reduces crime. A 2016 White House study by the Council of Economic Advisers found “higher wages for low-skilled workers reduce both property and violent crime, as well as crime among adolescents.”

Raleigh’s current minimum wage for workers is $13.76 an hour, $4.60 below the city’s living wage for an adult with no children, which is $18.36, according to calculations by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For a single adult with one child, the hourly wage they need to live normally climbs to nearly $36.

Economic justice is a key factor in reducing crime and violence, Dillahunt says. Much crime happens because people are doing what they can to survive in a world where they don’t have the resources to support themselves or their family, he says.

“When people don’t have what they need to survive, then they will do things to get what they need. When people have what they need to survive, that prevents crime,” Dillahunt says. “The city is constantly getting more expensive to live in, but the wages for people are not changing. When people have housing, jobs, quality education, and quality health care, the world is a better place.”

Higher wages for city workers will also help improve neighborhoods, parks, and infrastructure, and help grow programs like summer youth camps and afterschool tutoring, Refund Raleigh argues.

The Raleigh Police Protective Association’s demands

Meanwhile, Cooper and other police officers argued the only way to keep Raleigh residents safe is to keep the police department fully funded and staffed, with additional funding this year to help attract qualified law enforcement officers.

“The rise in violent crime in our city is becoming impossible to ignore,” Cooper said during the public hearing. “Raleigh is running neck and neck with Durham in the number of homicides this year. Staffing shortages make patrol operations nearly unmanageable. The department is being forced to pull resources from other areas to supplement voids in service. When this happens, everyone suffers. The problem is not going away.”

Since the start of this year, 20 homicides have been reported in Durham, only one more than the 19 homicides reported in Raleigh.

The Raleigh City Council has steadily increased the police department’s budget over the last five years, from $97 million in fiscal year 2016–17 to $117 million in fiscal year 2021–22, to $124.5 million this year. That’s an increase of nearly $8 million, or about 7 percent over last year.

The budget includes $545,600 for police cars and the replacement of aging equipment, $300,000 for a new digital evidence storage and tracking system, $295,000 for improvements to police vehicles, and $275,625 for a onetime boost to contractual services for the department’s promotional process.”

The budget also includes $100,000 for the Raleigh Youth Summit and $6,000 for training on crime prevention through environmental design.

The biggest chunk of funding, however—about $5.5 million—is going to a 2 percent cost-of-living raise for all full-time department employees, a 3-5 percent increase in merit pay, and 18-51 percent increase in starting pay for police, depending on the position. Rick Armstrong, of the RPPA, has said the city’s plan overlooks experienced officers.

Armstrong and others instead asked for a 10 percent raise for officers across the board, including detectives and sergeants, plus a 3-5 percent raise for lieutenants, captains, and majors. Police also asked for the ability to be paid overtime instead of earning days off, to help with staffing shortages.

The association’s proposed pay raises would cost between $5.3 million and $5.5 million, about the same amount of money the city is currently proposing to spend on raises, city staff wrote in a memo. The association’s proposal for overtime pay would cost the city an additional $3.3 million, according to the memo.

The council ultimately didn’t meet officers’ demands. Buffkin brought a motion on Monday to further increase law enforcement pay by raising the tax rate by an additional half cent, to 2.5 cents total. The motion failed with only Buffkin and David Knight voting in favor. Knight said Monday that Refund Raleigh’s public comments were “inaccurate and inappropriate.”

“They were egregious and they were over the line and I apologize to our public safety workers and first responders for not speaking out [during the public hearing],” Knight said.

It’s notable that during this year’s budget process, the council considered the RPPA’s demand and ignored Refund Raleigh’s proposal. Although the council didn’t further raise officer pay, officers entering the department this year will receive higher wages than ever. Council members also voted to put excess money in the budget towards officer raises next year, to ensure they a receive a minimum 10 percent increase over a two-year period.

But will better-trained, better-equipped, and better-paid police officers really keep Black and brown people safe? History suggests not. Even if the RPD were to adopt more aggressive reforms, there’s been little evidence in other cities and towns that anti-bias training, community policing initiatives, or de-escalation policies work to reduce police violence.

Raleigh’s own history of violence and reform is itself a record of failure. A new police chief hasn’t helped. The police advisory board, created two years ago, lacks the power to make real change and is now completely symbolic after two members resigned last year. Shootings keep happening.

“We’re in a unique time,” Dillahunt says. “The tide is shifting and people are seeing it for themselves … why money should be taken away from the bloated police budget put into social programs.”

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