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What does defunding the police mean for DeKalb County?

While the death of 46-year-old George Floyd has spurred local and national protests calling for reform and for the defunding of police agencies across the country, police in DeKalb County say it may not be that simple.

What does “defund the police” mean? It’s not necessarily about gutting police department budgets.

Supporters of the defund police rhetoric say it’s more about the reallocation of funds, to prioritize social services over tactics that might lead to excessive use of force, and how to better serve community needs such as resources for the mentally ill, homeless, education or drug addiction rehabilitation. During Tuesday’s Human Relations Commission meeting hosted by the city of DeKalb, Eric Ogi, a pastor at the Federated Church of Sycamore, said municipal budgets that include police departments should take a hard look at how the budgets are prioritized.

“I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that budgets are moral documents, and they tell us where we place our value,” Ogi said. “Instead of all of these categories falling under the police and just training de-escalation, see the police as one piece that falls under a larger umbrella of how we distribute resources throughout the community, so that the police are not the core center of where we put our funding. It’s a fundamental reimagining.”

DeKalb acting Police Chief Bob Redel said he is not in support of defunding police agencies, at least not until more ideas of what that would look like become known.

“To me, defunding is moving money or allocations from the police department elsewhere,” Redel said. “I’m against it, and the main reason why is communities across the nation, even our own, they’re asking for change but we don’t know what that change is going to be. Change costs money, new training costs money.”

Budget breakdown

State and local governments spent $115 billion on policing in 2017, according to data compiled by the Urban Institute.

The DeKalb Police Department’s fiscal 2020 budget is $28.9 million (28.4% of the city’s $101.8 million budget), with 80 full-time staff and 16 part-timers, documents show. Redel said 80-90% of the department’s budget goes to pay personnel salaries. DeKalb’s police union, the DeKalb Police Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 115, had a new three-year contract approved in March that included wage increases for patrol officers through sergeants.

Other police agency leaders say defunding can be tricky.

Sycamore Police Chief Jim Winters said his department already operates on a “lean” staffing level, but said there’s work yet to be done. In the Sycamore’s fiscal 2021 $17 million budget, 27% of funds are allocated to the police department for a budget of $4.7 million.

“I think right now it would be really detrimental to what we’re all trying to accomplish, defunding the police,” Winter said. “If anything, all the social services that have been defunded over the years, they need to be given more attention, because unfortunately a lot of those things fall in police’s lap. Whether it be mental health, homelessness, the opioid epidemic. When we start restricting funding or defunding those social services, then who does all that fall to?”

For other agencies, such as the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office, staff oversee the DeKalb County Jail, the DeKalb County communications division, which operates countywide police and fire dispatch for multiple agencies, and patrol officers.

Sheriff Roger Scott said that to him, defunding would mean a reduction in personnel, and an increased inability to staff the three arms of his office. He said expected additional budget shortfalls from the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will further worsen budget woes.

To date, Scott said the patrol division in his department has 25 positions for 24/7 coverage for the entire 630 square miles of DeKalb County. There are 33 deputies who staff the DeKalb County Jail, and 23 telecommunicators for the county communications division, which serves 23 police and fire agencies, he said.

“When you’re in a budget such as ours, which is pretty basic, we don’t have a lot of fluff areas that you could take money away from,” Scott said. “Training is one of the items that they might want to take money away from, yet people demand more training.”

He said he agrees that his department wants more training, but that also costs money, including in instruction fees and paying officers to attend.

“Training is an area which [defunding] would be counterproductive to what the goals of improving policing are,” Scott said.

If not defunding, then what?

Proponents of defunding police agencies argue, however, that removing funding from police agencies who would use it for extra patrols, mental health training and other programs would free up funds to go to needed social services, and remove extra responsibility from police, whose protocols often dictate responding to nonviolent or noncriminal matters.

Both Redel and Scott spoke to how people still call the police if they’re experiencing or witnessing a mental health crisis, if their car is in a ditch or their neighbor’s radio is too loud.

Scott said that adding more counselors on 911 calls could help, though.

“That would reduce our workload,” Scott said. “But our whole goal is helping people in distress and that’s why we go.”

In Tuesday’s forum, Shrestha Singh said reallocating taxpayer dollars to social services only aids the community’s safety.

“What I’m inviting us into is imagining a city in which instead of tens of millions of dollars being spent on police, that actually being spent on meeting folks’ needs on improving health care, safety, education, mental health resources, after school programs. Those are the things that actually create a safe community, if we’re talking about protecting and serving.”

Police say calls for noncriminal issues, such as someone in a mental health crisis, or traffic-related calls, still require trained officers, though.

“We definitely have to put more money towards those social services,” Redel said. “But taking the money from the police or manpower away from the police isn’t necessarily going to solve the funding of the other agencies.”

Redel also said he supports continuing to have officers in public schools and cited the 2018 shooting at Dixon High School, in which a shooter was stopped by an SRO before opening fire on a graduation.

“If we were to find counselors to respond to these sorts of things that would be perfect,” Redel said. “But at the same time, there’s certain calls where you know this person has a propensity for being violent because they’ve been violent with their own family or neighbors.”

Winters said he supports investing in more training on use-of-force incidents or responding to crises, and encouraged protest leaders, whom he said he’s met with in recent days, to get involved in city government, ask for an officer ride-a-long or enroll in a citizens police academy.

“There are some amazing people that are voicing their opinions now and I’d like to see some of them take the next step and get involved,” Winters said. “If they think they can make a difference in the community, get involved in city government, consider joining a police department.”

Supporters of the defund movement say the crux of the issue is removing responsibility from police and placing the burden of service on those who are better trained.

“People are going to ask, ‘So what happens when someone breaks into my house?’ “ Ogi said. “I’m not saying we just abolish the police. I think the true measures of any society is how it treats those that its structures have made the most vulnerable.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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