Even before the Fresno City Council discussed the police budget Monday, more than three dozen comments arrived opposed to more spending or calling for reduced funding.
Those commenting live during the meeting echoed similar sentiments.
Fresno Police Chief Andrew Hall listened in as commenters advocated for defunding — and even abolishing — the department following George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police last month.
Public Comments: Defund and Reinvest
More than 50 people spoke to the council, nearly all in favor of some form of defunding.
Several of the speakers cited demands made by the Fresno State NAACP last week. They included reducing the police budget from its current 49.1% of the general fund to 45%, banning techniques such as the carotid restraint hold, and increasing accountability and transparency.
Mariah Thompson, director of the Central Valley chapter of the National Lawyers Guild called for defunding police. She wasn’t sold that community policing was the answer.
“Having more cops on the ground means more individual and cop contact, which means more opportunities for people to become in contact with the cartel-state and get arrested and get cited,” Thompson said. “And this is all resource-intensive. So this means more money.”
Arambula Participates in Meeting
Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno) called in, highlighting bills he has supported in Sacramento, including standards for using deadly force and allowing voters to remove the state’s ban on affirmative action.
“It is now time for us to consider more expansive, systemic change,” Arambula said via Zoom. “We see and hear the cry for it all across America, and its time has come as you and we deliberate local and state budget priorities.”
Fresno resident Yenifer Gallegos-Mejia had a request for police: “Stop investing in the deaths of our community members and start protecting our lives.”
Calls for Advance Peace Made
Rev. Simon Biasell of the Woven Community asked for funding for the Advance Peace program, which encourages gang members to give up their lifestyles. Funding for the program in last year’s budget was cut by Mayor Lee Brand, who was backed by then-police chief Jerry Dyer.
Councilman Nelson Esparza made a motion to spend $300,000 on Advance Peace. He proposed to use savings from department vacancies on the motion.
City Manager Wilma Quan countered that such savings were already accounted for in the budget, and wouldn’t be available for such a program.
Chief Hall said Mayor Lee Brand is working on a “Fresno-specific version of Advance Peace,” but did not release specifics.
Hall Wants to Keep Chokehold for Emergencies
Councilmembers had to wait until after 5:30 p.m. to ask Hall questions.
He said his department has met all the criteria in the #8CantWait campaign — eight police reform measures called for by the Fresno State NAACP and other groups.
Hall said he has temporarily banned chokeholds and carotid restraint holds. He says, though, he feels it is proper to use it to save the life of a police officer or a citizen.
On Thursday, the council will hear a motion to ban it altogether. Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra have called for its removal as a police tactic.
Easing Up on Police Services
Councilwoman Esmeralda Soira asked Hall about police servicing calls for things like mental health and homeless problems.
“We would like to be out of the social work business. We would like to be out of the homeless business,” Hall responded.
Toward the end of the police budget hearing, which lasted longer than six hours, councilmembers made motions to take mental health and homeless enforcement calls away from police.
Bredefeld, Karbassi Support Police Budget
Councilmen Garry Bredefeld and Mike Karbassi objected to cutting the police budget.
“I don’t think the solution is to eradicate our police department. That’s no solution. That would just wreak more problems for our community,” Bredefeld said.
“Defunding Fresno P.D. is really is a blind solution to a greater problem. It actually sends a message — not only did we fail, we don’t want to do anything about it when it comes to public safety in Fresno. Failure just can’t be an option on the table,” Karbassi said.
Karbassi estimated that if the budget was reduced to 45% of the general fund, that would be $14 million.
“If we cut $14 million, we’re cutting cops,” Hall said. “When you start cutting the budget, there will be consequences.”
Both Bredefeld and Karbassi said they look forward to the meetings and recommendations of the recently formed Commission on Police Reform.
Police and the Budget
Brand has asked the council to extend last year’s budget to at least the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2021 because COVID-19 has made financial forecasts unclear until at least September.
In last year’s budget, the city spent $184 million of its general fund, or nearly half, on police. Several officers are assigned to areas other than general policing, such as Fresno Unified School District and the city bus system.
Hall said the department is authorized for 826 sworn officers but has 27 vacancies. Another 66 are out on long-term leave.
Ten years ago, there were nearly 850 sworn officers.
Hall’s four deputy chiefs gave an overview of the various duties and stats from the police department.
Deputy Chief Michael Reid told the council that Fresno police handled 911 calls within 15 seconds 78-90% of the time. The state goal is 95%.
Reid said hiring 45 more dispatchers would help.
Last year, dispatchers handled more than 900,000 calls, both emergency and non-emergency.
Despite Precautions, Zoombombers Invade
Despite measures taken to prevent “interruptions,” the first two public commenters at the meeting used the N-word before being cut off.
Many councilmembers condemned their language. And, Soria asked the city’s technology department to share the disruptive users’ digital information with police.
Arias operated the Zoom meeting differently than he had previously. Participants had to provide a name and email, unlike before.
Only those authorized to have an on camera presence, namely councilmembers and city staff, appeared on the screen. In past meetings, all participants had a tile on the Zoom screen.