Calls to defund police departments can be heard across the nation in the wake of the death of George Floyd while in Minneapolis Police custody.
Those in support of such measures believe monies that would typically go to paying for officers, equipment, and police training would be better used to pay for mental health counselors and for programs to improve essential services, including affordable housing for homeless residents.
That discussion is now playing out in San Diego. And while the mayor and council look to boost funding for the city’s police force, they have also joined forces with the police union to come up with creative ways to remove some responsibilities from police officers.
Changing the duties of the traditional police force have already occurred in some cities across America.
In Camden, New Jersey, that city’s police force transformed seven years ago amid allegations of widespread corruption.
Captain Zsakhiem James works with the Camden Police Department. James says the department disbanded its patrol division in order to become more directly involved in the community. Since doing so, James said crime in the city has decreased, all while improving the relationship with the community.
“There was always this black and white, us versus them, mentality,” said James in an interview with NBC 7 Investigates. “But, now it’s more like, ‘How can I help you?”
James said the changes were a long time coming. “There has to be change in policing. It has to grow, it has to get to a point where the police are the people and the people are the police. Sometimes, some things are so messed up you can’t fix them. You have to start fresh.”
Dissolving the patrol division does not appear likely in San Diego.
Here, the phrase ‘defunding the police’ has a different meaning. While some cities look to strip police departments of operating money, San Diego city officials have decided to tilt the budgetary scales in the other direction with a proposal to increase police funding by $27 million for next fiscal year. Instead, their version of defunding would mean to remove some of the responsibilities that the city’s police force is tasked with performing.
“It would be awesome to have a whole lot of social worker type people that could then once you know that it’s safe, you guys do what you do, because having a cop coming up to some people and saying we have beds available for you, it’s maybe coming from the wrong angle for some,” said Detective Jack Schaeffer, President of San Diego Police Officers Association.
Schaeffer agrees that city officials in San Diego and elsewhere should take a long hard look at the role of police officers in the community.
“We shouldn’t be the ones that are leading the charge when it comes to trying to help people with homelessness issues or even mental health issues,” said Schaeffer.
Most notable, says Schaeffer, is the role of police in responding to, and treating those in the grips of mental health crises.
“We do have a really big mental health crisis in San Diego that I think it needs to be looked into and address maybe a little bit differently,” added Schaeffer. “Certain people if they see a uniform come at them, they have a different reaction than somebody who is clinician’s clothing or whatever.”
Earlier this week, city officials added to the discussion. At a San Diego City Council meeting, councilmembers discussed having other agencies or departments deal with low-level offenses, such as illegal lodging, disturbing the peace, and other non-violent infractions.
And while Schaeffer says police officers should be present during many of those calls to ensure the safety of those responding, they likely should not take the lead.
Added Schaeffer, “I think the conversation needs to be had because there are a lot of things that are currently on the books that could be altered.”