Monday, March 1, 2021
March 1, 2021

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In Our View: Police funding must be tied to requisite reform

The Columbian

In an ideal world, nobody would steal, physical abuse would be nonexistent, and murder would not occur. Alas, we do not live in that world, meaning that we rely on police to help keep us safe, investigate crimes and lock up perpetrators.

The necessity of a robust police force is reflected in the city of Vancouver’s proposed budget for the 2021-22 biennium. City councilors took a look at the proposal this week, beginning deliberations on a plan to increase two-year funding for the Vancouver Police Department by $3 million over the previous budget.

The proposal comes amid coronavirus-induced constraints that have resulted in a 3.25 percent reduction to the overall budget. It also comes amid calls for cities to rethink policing. “As a city resident, taxpayer and community leader for some of our most vulnerable voices, I would like to see more intentional investment, such as providing direct intentional services for crisis intervention scenarios, mental health support situations and homelessness,” Carmen McKibben told councilors.

That is the impetus behind calls to “defund the police,” a mantra that has been distorted by critics claiming that activists desire to eliminate police departments. Instead, there must be serious discussions about what cities expect from police officers and how departments are funded. After widespread protests of police brutality and racial inequities following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, it would be unconscionable for municipalities to ignore the concerns of disenfranchised populations.

The United States has a problem with policing that has led to well-earned mistrust from minority communities. Eschewing that mistrust or proceeding as if changes are not necessary will exacerbate that problem, not mitigate it.

Such an approach also will do little to help law enforcement officers perform their jobs. American society increasingly is asking police to serve as mental health counselors, domestic counselors and social workers — duties that distract from their mission of preventing and solving crimes. As the headline on a article in July explained: “We train police to be warriors — and then send them out to be social workers.”

Any increase to police funding in Vancouver must be attached to requisite changes, particularly in officer training and community input. To its credit, the city of Vancouver includes details about officer training on its website, allowing the public to better evaluate concerns and provide informed feedback.

As the city moves forward with its budget proposal, police funding is certain to draw the most attention. One notable item calls for the allocation of $1.5 million for a task force to study the cost and application of body-worn cameras for police. That seems like a lot of money, and councilors may want to ask questions about what they’re getting in exchange, but now is the time for local police to move toward body cameras. The devices do not always answer all the questions regarding the use of police force, but they often protect officers and the public alike when questions do arise.

As much as any other city service, police departments are a reflection of what the public demands from local government. They are designed to protect and serve, and a majority of officers perform those duties with aplomb.

But there always is room for improvement, and we have reached a crossroads of American policing. A second reading of the budget will take place Monday, followed by a public hearing. To make Vancouver the kind of city we desire, citizens must get involved.