Survey shows Tacomans support cuts to police budget. City councilmembers aren’t convinced

VIDEO: Survey shows Tacomans support cuts to police budget

TACOMA, Wash. — Some Tacomans support cutting police funding to put towards other areas, like housing and social services, according to initial results from budget surveys sent out by the City of Tacoma in June.

While city staff said they received an “overwhelming” number of survey responses compared to previous years, some City Council members questioned whether the results of the survey represent the larger population.

“What I struggle with is when we take surveys like this and we claim that they’re representative of the Tacoma community at large,” Council member Conor McCarthy said during a discussion of the results on Aug. 18.

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The 2021-22 budget surveys collected feedback from the community during June and July during a time when protests were being held in Tacoma and across the state in support of Black Lives Matter in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. Tacoma also hit the national spotlight after a medical examiner’s report determined Manuel Ellis died after being restrained by police in March.

Hundreds have since written letters or spoken during public comment at city council meetings on the subject of “defunding” the police department and putting that funding toward other city services.

Those demands were also reflected in the budget survey results. City staff used one survey comment to represent a theme they saw show up the most:

“Invest in communities of color. Invest in South Tacoma. Stop giving so much money to the police force and re-invest that money into housing, food, healthcare and justice for all.”

THE RESULTS

The city put out seven surveys on safety, housing, racial equity and anti-racism, jobs, engagement, health and access and received 3,173 responses.

Of those, 72 percent identified as white, while 7 percent identified as Latinx, 6 percent identified as Black, 6 percent as Asian and 17 percent “would rather not say.” Additionally, 20 percent of respondents said they were from Central Tacoma and 14 percent said they were from the North End.

The city also put out a “Balancing Act” survey for the first time, which allows users to balance the city’s budget by making increases and cuts to services. The city recorded 853 responses. Of those, 63 percent identified as white, 6 percent Black, 4 percent Latinx, 3 percent Asian and 21 percent would “rather not say.”

In “Balancing Act,” respondents reduced police administration and operations by an average of 39 percent, from $83.6 million to $51 million, and reduced police patrol services by 37.9 percent, from $71.2 million to $44.2 million.

The funding was used not only to offset a $67 million budget deficit caused by COVID-19, but also to increase funding to other areas. Respondents increased spending to affordable housing by an average of 419 percent, from $698,000 to nearly $3 million. They also increased homeless services and the stability site shelter by an average of 74 percent, $5.4 million to $9.4 million.

The city spends two-thirds of its general fund budget on public safety, with $175 million allocated specifically to police in the 2019-20 budget. It’s natural people would gravitate toward the largest bucket when faced with funding cuts, said Reid Bennion, lead management and budget analyst for the city, at the Aug. 18 meeting.

“The takeaway here is that respondents made reductions across community safety with an emphasis on police and code compliance and the community that came out is willing to accept reductions to community safety spending,” Bennion said.

When asked if the survey results were reliable, city budget officer Katie Johnston said that in many ways, the surveys were aligned with results from a previous survey conducted in January 2020, pre-COVID-19, in that people supported increasing funding for homeless and social services and affordable housing.

“Given that the recent budget/priorities survey and balancing act exercise occurred during COVID 19 and nationwide discussions on Policing, we anticipated hearing new themes and feedback,” Johnston said in an email. “The survey and balancing act results provided more detailed information on what the community views as enhancing community safety (with a reduced focus and funding on Police patrol).”

Cuts to police spending a 'takeaway' of budget survey results in Tacoma

SKEPTICISM FROM CITY COUNCIL

Mayor Victoria Woodards said last week she wasn’t surprised by the results “because of the times that we’re in,” but suggested additional outreach be conducted.

“The request for additional input doesn’t negate the fact that they took the time to fill it out and we value their input,” Woodards added.

Other council members echoed the need for more outreach, particularly from areas that were underrepresented in the survey, like South Tacoma and older adults.

Council member Lillian Hunter pointed out that some respondents didn’t have Tacoma addresses. She added the dynamics about police “changed dramatically” a few months ago.

“I think (the survey) is a good start — I don’t think this should be the end-all, be-all of what we get from community input because I’m becoming more aware of people who were not aware of what the process was here,” she said.

McCarthy said he was “scratching his head” at the results, noting his criticism of surveys in general.

“I agree with my colleagues there’s a lot of good information there … but there’s also some major themes that, in two campaigns, I’ve knocked on thousands of doors across the city and I’ve never heard those themes,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy said there are other factors that needed to be considered, including city crime rates and a staffing study that was conducted earlier this year. The staffing study recommends increasing the number of officers dedicated to patrol from 175 to 187 to increase time spent engaging with the community, among other recommendations.

Council member Robert Thoms said a very small percentage of Tacoma’s 215,000 population responded to the survey. He highlighted a response from the presentation that said people felt there was too much of a police presence, but also that they wanted police to respond when called.

“If you think they’re unresponsive now, wait until we cut them,” Thoms said..

Whether or not the survey is representative of the larger community, Council member Chris Beale said, people are asking for the “recognition that Black and brown people are being harmed by traditional policing models” and want to see change.

“I think it’s very important to listen to those voices,” he said.

Council members reiterated that despite questions about the survey, they’re committed to police reform, including implementing body cameras on police officers.

A final report on the survey will be coming to the council at the end of September, prior to the proposed budget presentation.

Johnston said staff is working on options for continued public feedback over the next month, in addition to the planned outreach process on the proposed budget October through November. The council is slated to adopt a budget by the end of the year.