September 28, 2020
Defund the police: What does it mean, and how are Miami-Dade governments reacting?
 
 
By Joey Flechas, Linda Robertson, Maya Lora, and Charles Rabin
 

The phrase is appearing in large block letters on signs hoisted in South Florida streets, in social media hashtags and in citizen comments during government meetings: “Defund the police.” 

This slogan has gained greater prominence during the national conversation about taxpayers’ investment in policing after the killing of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

The phrase fueled calls to shift spending priorities in Miami-Dade County’s government, where police and jails receive 45 cents of every dollar raised from property taxes and other general funds. Even in the bedroom community of Miami Springs, some residents asked the city council to consider redirecting tax dollars from the police department to health and education programs.

While it may be a new and perhaps jarring concept to some, the idea of shifting public funding away from policing and into other programs is by no means novel, and it does not necessarily call for a complete elimination of police departments — although for some, complete abolition of policing is the goal. Advocates point out that modern policing in the American South is rooted in patrols tasked with catching runaway slaves.

Minority feminist groups have for years advocated for overhauling the criminal justice system to curb police violence, particularly against Black women and transgender people. The same themes of reinvestment in other social programs are now out on the forefront: Instead of investing public dollars in police patrols, invest in programs and education that address social ills such as a lack of affordable housing. Think fewer cops, more social workers and low-income apartments.

Among demonstrators in across South Florida, there’s a spectrum of ideas. It’s not monolithic.

Some want to see tax dollars rerouted from police to social services, mental health programs and early education. Some want to see police departments completely dismantled and public safety reimagined — a path that the Minneapolis City Council is pursuing. Some prefer more traditional police reform over defunding, with heavier investment in oversight and training within the department.

Without attention to the nuances of the term, politicians could blast or tout “defund the police” without discussing what it really means. The details, many say, will need to be reinforced often to get past the simplest interpretation of the phrase.

“Are we really putting money into mental health concerns? Are we putting enough money into the way we school our children? Are we teaching civics? Are we making sure certain policing practices are not upheld?” said Terrance Cribbs-Lorrant, the executive director of the Historic Black Police Precinct Courthouse Museum in Overtown.

The question of police funding comes at the intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement and unexpected budget shortfalls threatening local governments, the result of the economic downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when political leaders are looking for ways to absorb hits to revenues, protesters want to see police department budgets cut.

Police chiefs and unions in Miami-Dade bristle at the suggestion, often for differing reasons. Top cops say oversight and accountability cost money, and if civilians want reform, state laws and police union contracts should be reconsidered. Unions that fight for pay and benefits argue that cops need money for training.

Waves of advocacy are already reaching Miami’s halls of power. 

On Tuesday, a usually quiet meeting of Miami-Dade County’s Public Safety Committee was flooded with public comments calling for County Hall to shift spending priorities. At the county, police and jails receive 45 cents of every dollar raised from property taxes and other general funds. 

In Miami, where about 32 percent of the city’s roughly $800 million general fund budget goes to the police department, more than 75 people spoke out against the installation of 33 additional surveillance cameras and on license plate reader Wynwood, an $118,000 expense that would be funded by local business owners. Commissioners postponed the vote so Wynwood proprietors could explain that they want the cameras to prevent crime. Opponents said more surveillance cameras would contribute to overpolicing.

Miami’s government spends $5.7 million, or about 0.7%, of its general fund dollars on its department of human services, which includes homeless outreach. The city’s housing and community development department has a $2.2 million budget.

Activists have not made specific budget demands yet at the county or city, though many have been meeting in recent days to discuss budgets and advocacy. One specific reform scheduled for a vote: the revival of a civilian oversight panel for Miami-Dade County Police. The item will likely come up for a vote Tuesday.

WHERE SHOULD THE MONEY GO?

Ruban Roberts, president of the Miami-Dade branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said people want to defund the police because they’re exhausted.

“Folks are tired of losing their family members. Folks are tired of being railroaded where they’re spending years in prison, like the Exonerated Five, [because of] overly zealous police and detectives and people who have done things to really put a dent in the lives of … Black people,” Roberts said, referencing the five Black men who were wrongly convicted of assaulting and raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989. “I think we know that there’s a place for law enforcement, but we just don’t want the corrupt law enforcement.” 

Roberts said that the phrase “defund the police” is not the “optimum” choice of words, but he understands the call to mean the reallocation of funds from police departments towards underfunded social service departments. He said agencies related to education, public health and youth programs are all underfunded in Miami-Dade County, because police and corrections take the lion’s share.

Echoing many voices in the defund movement, he said when governments spend dollars on services that are not purely police-related — advocates often point to mental health and homeless outreach services — then the money should go to professionals that do provide that service full-time. Money spent on social work could even prevent incidents that require a large police response such as school shootings, he said, because troubled students would be identified and treated.

Two Miami-Dade County Commission candidates from a majority-Black district in North Miami-Dade see it differently. 

During a Zoom Q&A session sponsored by the Miami Foundation, candidates Oliver Gilbert and Sybrina Fulton gave their opinions on defunding police departments. They are running to represent District 1, which encompasses Carol City, Opa-locka and Miami Gardens, the largest majority-Black city in Florida.

Fulton’s 17-year-old son, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed in 2012 by a white neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, during a visit to Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges. Fulton, who attended George Floyd’s funeral in Houston on Tuesday, is one of a group of Black mothers seeking elected office after their children were killed. 

Fulton, whose father was a Miami-Dade cop, advocates reforming police departments, not slashing their budgets. She’s in favor of hiring more police who must follow higher standards of professional conduct.

“Defunding the police is a bit far,” she said. “There are other measures we can take. That should be the final step.”

Fulton said police should budget more for mental health treatment and training of officers, though she did agree that police officers should not double as social workers.

Gilbert, mayor of Miami Gardens, said cities and police departments should reallocate money. He does not favor abolition of police, but he said it’s worth looking at how funds have been diverted from other programs to the police.

“Budgets are the ultimate expression of our values. What about parks and recreation for our kids? Treatment for systemic mental illness?” he said. “Let’s find ways to fund our priorities that are not law enforcement priorities.”

Bad cops need to be identified, fired and not rehired elsewhere, he said.

One well-known Miami-Dade advocate wants to see police budgets grow with social work built into the police department. Tangela Sears, an anti-gun-violence activist who lost a son in a shooting, said placing non-sworn mental health experts in the department to work with officers would allow police to just be cops.

Police departments “need additional dollars in order to be able to do their job,” said Sears, who leads a group of grieving mothers who usually meet once a month. 

Sears has maintained a good relationship with police departments through her advocacy, and she said she’s watched police relations with Black communities evolve since her youth in Miami. Yet even for someone who always wants a cop to show up when she dials 911, she still understands the deeply ingrained mistrust of police.

“We’re still being mistreated. We’re still being hit. We’re still being yelled at. I’m still afraid of them,” she said. “Whenever I see lights, my heart skips a beat because I don’t know where it’s going to go.”

COPS WANT MORE FUNDING

A solution Sears offers: Revamp state law and union contracts to make it easier to take badges and guns away from bad cops. Sears doesn’t want to see police budgets cut. Neither do the unions, who hold sway in local political circles for their power to deliver votes and campaign donations. They argue more funding is in order.

Tommy Reyes, president of Miami’s Fraternal Order of Police said if the public wants better policing, then more money should go to departments.

“If you want more well-trained or better police, you need to train them,” said Reyes. “Guess what? Training costs money.”

Reyes said Miami’s police department already has multiple social programs for the homeless, the elderly and kids, like the Police Athletic League. He worries that if money is re-allocated, those would be the first programs to go. 

“I don’t have a problem with freeing up cops to work on calls and letting social workers cover the other things,” Reyes said. “But defunding the cops would hurt those aspects.” 

Coral Gables Police Chief Ed Hudak, who serves as district director of the Florida Chiefs of Police Association, said more funding is needed for social intervention and assistance in underserved communities. But where cops are handling social services well, they should be left alone.

“However, it should not come at the expense of police programming that is working in those communities,” he said. “So, is defunding punishment for police departments or a path to fix the issues we all agree exist?”

Defunding would be a huge mistake, said Steadman Stahl, president of Miami-Dade’s largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association. He rhetorically asked: Would private citizens with guns be left protecting the public?

He sees other money pits in the police department that keep cops from dedicating resources to the right programs, such as enforcement of nonviolent offenses including marijuana possession and not wearing a seatbelt.

“You can’t have a law and tell us not to enforce it,” he said. 

Police don’t have to arrest for minor pot offenses after State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced in mid-2019 that her office would not prosecute low-level marijuana cases. Still, Miami-Dade cops kept making arrests, as first reported by Miami New Times. The review showed the arrests mostly affected people of color.

On one point, though, it would seem Stahl actually agrees with a facet of the defunding argument: the difficulty of responding to a call related to a mentally ill person. Police can either take them to jail or transport them to the hospital, a dichotomy Stahl blamed on lack of funding for institutions for the mentally ill.

When the union head made the point during a the South Florida Roundup, a Friday news program on Miami Herald news partner WLRN, a local Black Lives Matter organizer said Stahl affirmed one of the movement’s assertions.

“Police are tasked with doing way too much, and it’s getting lumped under public safety when it should be someone else that is responding to a mentally ill person,” said organizer Jasmen Rogers-Shaw.

Roberts, the local NAACP president, echoed the sentiment in a separate interview with the Herald. He said he envisions situations where police could collaborate with social service professionals, such as having a licensed mental health professional with police officers when they’re called to a scene where a person is experiencing mental distress or instability. 

In 2016, Black behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey was shot in the leg while protecting an severely autistic patient who was sitting in the middle of the street playing with a toy truck that police said they mistook for a gun. The officer who shot Kinsey said it was an accident and that he was aiming at the patient. The North Miami officer was found guilty of negligence.

MIAMI-DADE CITIES DEMUR

Otis Wallace, who has been mayor of Florida City for 36 years and is a former public defender, said demands to defund police departments are misunderstood by many.

“Eliminating the function of protecting a community from crime — that simply cannot be done, and the hue and cry of ‘defunding police’ is misleading,” he said. “Minneapolis will still have police officers, but the city decided to turn that function over to another entity.”

Florida City’s police department runs on a tight budget of $5 million, which accounts for 15 percent of the city’s overall budget.

“Unlike other, bigger jurisdictions, we don’t have any fat that we can carve off and divert elsewhere,” he said. “We’re a small city that’s not going to go out and buy a helicopter.”

Most of Miami-Dade’s other municipalities have not had serious discussions about reducing and reallocating police budgets, focusing instead on reform if they have discussed policing at all.

In North Miami, Vice Mayor Alix Desulme floated the idea of a civilian oversight board. But he and Mayor Philippe Bien-Aime went out of their way to say they wouldn’t be taking any money away from the city’s police department.

“The idea of defunding the police department — I don’t share that idea,” Bien-Aime said. “Whoever has that intention better not come and spread it in the city of North Miami because I will go against it.”

Desulme agreed with the mayor, saying calls to defund the police are “very dangerous rhetoric,” and adding that he doesn’t think advocates literally mean defunding and should correct their language.

Meanwhile in Miami Springs, two speakers put the defunding message front and center at a city council meeting Monday, though they received no direct feedback from elected officials.

Resident Amanda Valdespino noted that a June 6 protest in Miami Springs drew about two dozen peaceful protesters and twice as many police. Valdespino said the police response contributed to her feeling unsafe. 

Valdespino asked the City Council to move some of the city’s police budget to health programs and other public services, to create a civilian review board to investigate complaints against officers, to make a public statement denouncing institutional racism and to work with her community group on racial justice issues.

Another speaker, Angélica Ruiz, echoed Valdespino’s calls for reallocation of funds to mental health response teams, substance abuse treatment and nonpolice community safety programs.

Ruiz also called for military equipment, including rifles and military armor, to be removed from the Miami Springs police department budget.

Councilman Bob Best condemned Floyd’s death but defended the large police presence last Saturday, saying police had no way of knowing how many people would show up.

He also seemed to downplay the seriousness of the nationwide civil unrest, comparing it to conditions decades ago. 

“And back in the day, in the ‘60s, in the Newark riots, in L.A. ... and Detroit, they burnt those cities to the ground, those folks. And they were predominantly African American folks that did it,” Best said. “But Dr. [Martin Luther] King looking down on us today, you know what he’d say? Thank God it’s a lot better now and you see a lot of white people out there and Hispanics walking with the Blacks in these demonstrations.”

In Miami Beach, a predominantly white resort city with a history of racial tensions between police and young Black visitors, the police spending per resident outstripped the largest city in the county, Miami.

The Beach’s police budget was $116.9 million this year. That means the city spends $1,315 per resident, more than double the $567 that the much larger city of Miami spends per resident. Miami has 467,963 residents, compared to 88,885 in Miami Beach.

About 75 percent of Miami Beach’s population is white, compared to 15 percent in Miami-Dade County. Miami Beach’s Black community makes up 4 percent of its population; about 17 percent of the county’s population is Black.

Miami Beach’s policing tactics, especially against Black spring breakers, have been called “racist” by the Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP. During spring break in March, Miami Beach cops tackled one spring breaker, punched two others and grabbed a young woman by the throat when she had already fallen onto Ocean Drive following a collision with an officer.

Since protesters in Miami joined the nationwide call for police reform and a reallocation of police funds nearly two weeks ago, demonstrators have been blocked from crossing the causeways into Miami Beach.

There have been more protests in Miami Beach demanding a reopening of public beaches following coronavirus closures than for justice in the death of George Floyd. Miami Beach’s first Floyd-related protest came on Tuesday. It was organized by a 13-year-old resident.

Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said he was opposed to reallocating police funds toward social safety net programs.

“No,” he said in an email. “While the current discussion is long overdue and we must improve and evolve, we can’t diminish the very critical work our police do to protect our residents and visitors.”

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez said he favors cultural reforms and renegotiated terms with unions more than shrinking the police budget. He said he’s looking to push implicit bias training, stronger disciplinary procedures and stricter supervision of police who rack up lots of excessive use of force complaints.

Thought he did not advocate for taking dollars away from the police, he said that spending in other areas can reduce the need for increased policing.

“A lot of it is about economic development,” he said.