Phoenix Council OKs budget with $3 million for new police review office

Protesters last week called on the Phoenix City Council to slash police funding in next year’s budget, but council members Monday voted to keep the overall department budget at $745 million while sharply increasing funding for a new police oversight board. (Photo courtesy of Poder in Action)

PHOENIX – The City Council approved a sharp increase in funding for a new police oversight office Monday, after first making sure that the extra funds would not cut into a planned 1% pay raise for city workers.

The 7-2 vote raised funding for the new Office of Accountability and Transparency from the original $400,000 to $3 million in the fiscal 2021 budget. At the same time, council members rejected calls from speakers at a hearing last week to slash police funding, as protests over the deaths of George Floyd and Dion Johnson in police custody raged.

Councilmember Carlos Garcia criticized the police department’s $745 million budget, which he called “historically disproportionate” to other parts of the government. While police see $20 million increases in their budget, Garcia said, only $68 million is allocated to community services.

“Our community is asking us to reconsider how we invest in them – let’s look at this moving forward,” Garcia said. “We have the opportunity now to change the way we’ve been doing things. What does it say about us leaders when we continue to ignore what the community is asking for?”

But Councilmember Sal DiCiccio apologized to police as he cast his vote, calling the oversight funding “completely unnecessary” for a force he considers “exceptional.”

“I’m sorry what’s happening today, my apologies to you,” DiCiccio said. “I’m just sorry that you’re being treated the way you are. It’s completely unnecessary, you’ve done everything right.”

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DiCiccio and Councilmember Jim Waring were the only members to vote against the budget. Garcia, Mayor Kate Gallego, Vice Mayor Betty Guardado and members Laura Pastor, Thelda Williams, Michael Nowakowski and Debra Stark voted for it.

Nowakowski, Stark and Williams had voted against the increased funding for the oversight office during a six-hour budget hearing last week that heard testimony from close to 200 witnesses, many of them calling for sharp reductions to the police budget.

But council members were swayed Monday after being assured that funds to boost the accountability office will come from remaining federal COVID-19 savings and would not affect the 1% pay raise for city workers included in the fiscal 2021 budget.

“I’ll be the first one on your ass if you guys come back and say we don’t have enough money and we’re going to have to renegotiate furloughs and talk about layoffs,” Nowakowski said at the meeting.

Joe Clure, executive director of the Arizona Police Association, said Monday that civilian oversight is “not unheard of” in Arizona, pointing to a Tucson oversight board that’s been in place for three decades.

But he said he does worry that the Phoenix board could develop into a situation where “officers are likely to be persecuted and prosecuted based on political agendas and most likely will result in a loss of their due process.”

Protesters at last week’s hearing had demanded that the police budget be cut by 25%, with the savings distributed to other community programs and services. Except for Garcia’s remarks, the council brushed past those demands in Monday’s hearing, devoting most of the hearing to expanded funding for the oversight office.

Protesters face off with a line of police officers in downtown Phoenix on Thursday, May 28, the first of several days of protests over the deaths of black men in police custody around the country. (Photo by Aung N. Soe/Special to Cronkite News)

Still, Viri Hernandez, the executive director of Poder in Action, credited Monday’s vote to the work of black and brown community organizers, who she said have spent years pushing for an oversight board and holding police accountable.

“At the same time we know that this is not enough,” she said. “We know that civilian oversight is not going to stop the killing of black people and the abuse that we’re seeing in communities of color.”

Hernandez said the fight isn’t over yet, and she and other community organizers will continue to advocate for defunding the police and demand that the city reallocate money to programs that keep communities of color “healthy and safe.”

Andre Miller, a pastor at New Beginnings Christian Church, said he does “not necessarily agree with” the call for defunding police departments. But he said he hopes the new civilian review board can change police culture and encourage officers to use de-escalation techniques instead of aggressive policing tactics.

“When you look at civilian oversight, my hope is that it actually will have teeth, where they can actually bite down at some things and actually change or help change the culture of the Phoenix Police Department,” Miller said.

The Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also issued a statement calling Monday’s final budget vote a testament to the work of such organizations as Poder in Action, adding that “police violence and brutality against black and brown communities must end.”

“By reducing funding to police departments and reinvesting those funds into black and brown communities, state leaders can take these much needed steps to prevent further harm and to restore the promise of our Constitution for all people,” the statement read.

– Cronkite News reporters Lisa Diethelm and Isabella Martillaro contributed to this report.

Politics Reporter, Phoenix

Farah Eltohamy expects to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in spring 2021 and a master’s degree in spring 2022. As a digital reporter for Cronkite News, she focuses primarily on how politics and public policy affect marginalized communities.