#CHA City Budget Prioritizes Policing

On Tuesday, June 2, 2015 the Chattanooga City Council will have their second, and possibly last, work session on the City budget for Fiscal Year 2016. Mayor Berke and City Council members have been touting transparency and open government, but this budget process does not allow for real democratic oversight or input: community members and organizers have faced obstruction in determining the budget worksessions schedule ahead of time; the process has been squeezed into an extremely tight timeline; and there is no plan for meaningful community engagement and leadership. Concerned Citizens for Justice demands that City Council actively seek public comment, rather than act as a rubber stamp for Mayor Berke’s budget.

Concerned Citizens for Justice believes that the city’s priorities are misplaced and that, as a moral document, this budget is damning evidence of the City of Chattanooga’s oppressive relationship to Black communities. The Chattanooga Police Department receives vastly more funding than any other city agency. It is set to receive $60.7 million in this budget (a 9% or over $5 million dollar increase over last year), while the Department of Economic and Community Development will receive roughly one tenth of that, even with it’s primary focus on downtown, tourism, and gentrification. Youth and Family Development, which includes all of the operating expenses for all of the city recreation centers totals only $9 million, less than 15% of the amount given to the police. What our city government invests in bears fruit—if you invest in policing you get more arrestees, if you invest in youth and families, you get stronger communities.

The Mayor, Police Chief, and City Council attempt to justify this by pointing to the number of shootings and homicides. They say the CPD is an entirely new department based on “community policing”, but what they propose is the same “Broken Windows” policing strategy that communities across the country are organizing against. It’s troubling that with a police department where Black folks are arrested more than 2.2 times as often as Whites, the city is adopting a strategy that was a driving force of the even more extreme disparities in New York City’s infamous “Stop and Frisk” policies and practices. We know that the solutions to ending street violence will not be found in stepping up state violence through surveillance and incarceration. As CCJ has maintained: street violence is a symptom of state violence, and we need solutions that maintain and build communities, not tear them apart.

Under their version of “community policing,” Berke and Fletcher’s “new police department” is the same CPD simply reorganized with different equipment and feels very familiar to Chattanoogans being over-policed.

Whether they wear batons or body cameras, ride bikes or in squad cars, through this Broken Windows strategy, police are incentivised to ticket, arrest, and incarcerate community members. Fletcher’s current strategy of saturating predominantly Black communities with police increases already racially disparate search, arrest, and incarceration rates.

Meaningful change in policing requires structural change, not simply nicer cops with more equipment and technology.  Berke and Fletcher’s co-opted version of “community policing” is based on more bike cops with body-cameras and slightly more “sensitivity training.” In contrast, real community policing requires building grassroots solutions to violence that center alternatives to the violence of policing and incarceration. The city’s false solution to police misconduct, investing in more body cameras, is weak at best and can lead to further unaccountable surveillance of civilians when we do not have genuine community control of the police. We have seen time and time again that video evidence of police misconduct and brutality is not enough to secure justice: with Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray nationally, and the case of Officers Emmer and Cooley’s brutal beating of Adam Tatum here in Chattanooga.

The Mayor’s focus on blight reduction is another part of the “Broken Windows” strategy of policing in the aid of gentrification. This punitive policy targets many of those affected most by Chattanooga’s policy-induced housing crisis, by fining and evicting families unable to keep up maintenance. The police department will now be increasingly collaborating on code enforcement, which will increase surveillance of low-income neighborhoods and profile them as sources of violence. The newly vacant housing will be easy targets for housing speculation by wealthy developers and nonprofits, accelerating the already tremendous rate of gentrification. We also know that in other places, New York as an example, city code violations were made into misdemeanors and criminal offenses by local law makers, which increases the ability of the police to incarcerate even more of our people.

Chattanooga needs effective community control of policing, with investigatory and disciplinary powers. The existing Administrative Review Committee has very little meaningful power:

  • It is unstaffed, with the appointed civilian representative seats going long periods with multiple vacancies. Often the vacancies were seats to represent the most over-policed communities in our city. A few of those seats have since been filled after CCJ gave negative feedback about the vacancies. An effective board should be democratically elected, and composed of people who are most impacted by police surveillance, abuse and brutality.
  • The board is not community led, with police over-represented and retired law enforcement passing as civilian representation.
  • It only has the power to review Internal Affairs’ investigations, not the ability to subpoena evidence or do independent investigation. There should be a staffed, independent, investigator on the Civilian Oversight Board.
  • It only has advisory power with its rulings. An effective board needs disciplinary power, as we know that even in the few cases of Internal Affairs finding officers at fault, rarely is there ever any measure of justice.

Concerned Citizens for Justice believes in a community-led approach to governance. A portion of the money budgeted to the police should be put into a community controlled discretionary fund and distributed through a participatory budgeting process to implement concrete solutions. We commend County Commissioner Greg Beck for starting a process of participatory budgeting for County Commission District 5. This is a first step toward divesting from policing based “solutions” that our people know are not effective. Through a program like this, community members would decide how this money is spent in their district to address root causes of violence: funding transportation, job programs, cooperative development, affordable housing, youth and mental health programs.

We encourage all Chattanooga residents to take action and speak out against this harmful budget by being present at the upcoming budget worksession and city Council meeting on June 2nd, and by contacting their city council representatives before those dates. Tell your city representative what real solutions our tax dollars should fund. Demand that the third budget hearing be held, and include opportunities for public comment.