Hundreds Ask Fresno City Council To Defund Police Department, And Prioritize Mental Health

Jun 16, 2020

Nearly a hundred people made public comments Monday afternoon during the Fresno City Council’s budget hearing on the city’s police department. 

Most called for the council to defund the police and redirect the money to other services like mental health. Council President Miguel Arias said thousands more residents expressed their opinions via email. 

After the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, demonstrations across the nation and in Fresno have called for police departments to be defunded and monies to go back into communities. Last week, the Fresno State chapter of the NAACP presented a list of demands to the city council, one of which called for reducing the police budget, and asked city and police leadership to actively be aware of racial and ethnic bias.

About 53 percent of the city’s general fund goes to the police department, which is nearly $185 million. During public comment, some called for no more than 40 percent of the general fund contributing to police. 

Monday’s budget hearing regarding the police department opened with an explanation from Fresno’s deputy police chiefs explaining the different teams and responsibilities within the department. 

The presentation was followed by nearly a hundred comments from residents. Even Assemblymember Dr. Joaquin Arambula chimed in. 

“While I do not think that defunding our police department is wise, I do think a constant re-examination into how half our city’s budget is spent is a correct course of action,” said Arambula. “Do all Fresno neighborhoods feel safer? Do all Fresno neighborhoods feel protected?”

Others called for prioritizing parks, housing, and arts.

“Every year we see 53 percent of the city’s budget given to the city’s police department but little or no investment in communities of color,” said Kimberly McCoy, project director for Fresno Building Healthy Communities, or BHC, 

BHC backed the failed Measure P in 2018, which would have added a sales tax to fund parks, arts and trails. Opponents forged a debate between parks and public safety, with Mayor Lee Brand proposing his own sales tax measure that split funds between parks and law enforcement. 

Other citizens asked the council to fund Advance Peace, a gun violence prevention program that Brand vetoed funding last year.

“We know the victim of gun violence unequally affects the black community,” said Rev. Simon Biacell. “With this in mind, we’ve been budgeting millions of dollars for the death of black lives, but have not been budgeting enough to save black lives.” 

Even more people asked why police officers, instead of mental health professionals, are tasked with handling mental health crises.

“We are asking the police to basically take their resources and do jobs that they have not been trained for,” said Dr. Venise Curry. “We’re asking people who aren’t trained to be surgeons to go in and do a surgical incision. Completely ridiculous, and doesn’t rely on the fact that they have no training.”

After two and half hours of public comments, the council members asked Police Chief Andrew Hall questions. Many asked about the collaboration between the department and mental health providers from Fresno County Behavioral Health. Hall said that between the hours of 8 a.m. and 10 p.m. some officers are partnered with a behavioral health professional from the county to respond to calls for assistance regarding mental health.

Councilmember Luis Chavez asked if the department could contract with another mental health provider to increase the availability of mental health experts

Hall said that the council would have to ask the County’s Behavioral Health Department, which handles mental health in the city as well. 

Both Council President Miguel Arias and member Esmeralda Soria made motions to remove officers from tasks that aren’t strictly law enforcement. Soria made a motion to remove officers from the department’s homeless task force and Arias made a motion to eliminate the recycling task force, a group within the homeless task force.  

Earlier in the hearing, a deputy chief said that out of all contacts between the task force and individuals who are homeless, only 1.6 percent resulted in the person accepting assistance to find housing. 

“While I appreciate the work, some of the positives out of the homeless task force, I think that the 1.6 percent rate, success rate of trying to house folks tells me that we’re not focused on the right issue,” said Soria. “We need to figure out investments so that we can provide the drug addiction, the mental health and temporary housing for folks and maybe give that job to someone else so our officers can focus on the real polic[ing], the criminals.”

After six hours of comments, the council closed the hearing. The motions will be revisited in a meeting on June 22. 

Right now, Mayor Brand has proposed a continuing resolution to keep funding city departments at the same level prescribed in last year’s budget until later this summer when the city can assess lost revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.