Wednesday, September 23, 2020
Sept. 23, 2020

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In Our View: Police reform starts with close look at budget

The Columbian

Any reasonable discussion about police funding and reform must begin with an understanding of the facts.

The 2020 budget for the Vancouver Police Department was $57.2 million. That is about 33 percent of the city’s general fund and an increase of 79 percent since 2010. That budget from a decade ago represented 24 percent of the general fund at a time when the Great Recession was causing belt-tightening in government budgets.

For the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, the other major law enforcement agency in the region, the 2020 budget of $65 million represented a 35 percent increase over a decade. That budget includes policing and operating the Clark County Jail.

Those numbers were presented in an article by Columbian reporter Jerzy Shedlock, and they provide a jumping-off point for discussions about the role of police officers and the demands we place upon them.

As the nation undergoes a reckoning over racial justice, advocates have urged a rethinking of law enforcement practices. “Defund the police” has become a rallying cry in some circles; it also has been seized by some people attempting to obfuscate the message and sow division, claiming that activists wish to abolish police departments.

But, as Shareefah Hoover of NAACP Vancouver said: “Law enforcement agencies are not sacrosanct; they are government entities that serve at the will of the people — not the other way around.”

That must be the focus of the discussion. Abolishing police departments is far different from making them work better, and local activists have not called for the more drastic and untenable step. Neither have Democratic leaders at a national level.

Instead, as Ed Hamilton Rosales, president of the local League of United Latin American Citizens, said: “We don’t want to defund the police department. We want to make sure that it’s funded effectively as possible to do the job they’re being asked to do. But that job requires that they open their minds to good policing for all of the citizenry, not just for certain individuals.”

That will require a rethinking of the job that is required of officers. Police are increasingly asked to address problems arising from homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse. As Kim Kapp of the Vancouver Police Department said, they also are asked to deal with “every other traditionally noncriminal social problem,” and members of the public “then blame the police for not handling those issues well.”

That is where police funding becomes important. If society continues to ask police to address those issues, additional training and additional officers specializing in those fields will be required, further increasing budgets.

A more thoughtful solution might be to redirect some funding to government departments designed to address social ills, leaving police to do what they do best — prevent and investigate crime. But any decision will require a robust community discussion.

In terms of officers per capita, the Clark County Sheriff’s Office is understaffed when compared with departments in Thurston and Spokane counties, as well as Washington County in suburban Portland. The Vancouver Police Department has fewer officers per capita than departments in Portland and Seattle.

That leads to questions about how budget cuts would impact the community. There are no simple answers to those questions, but a good place to start is to examine how much money is provided for local law enforcement and how that money is spent.