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How Richmond Steered Public Money Away From Police to Human Needs

Shifting police budgets to social programs was the key demand after the George Floyd protests. Progressives in Richmond, California, have actually done it. Two organizers explain how.

Richmond police converge on a home during a shooting investigation in 2009. (Michael Macor / San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Since the George Floyd uprising, discussion of how to shift public resources away from police budgets and toward human needs has been on the lips of millions. Few of those millions, however, are aware of what’s happened in Richmond, California.

Over the past year, the city has quietly implemented one of the most important police budget reallocations in the country. Richmond is leading the way on shifting public resources away from more and more policing and toward social programs that can achieve real public safety.

The landscape of Richmond crime posed a particular challenge for this work. Throughout the aughts, the FBI regularly ranked Richmond as one of the most dangerous cities in the United States. Gun violence dominated public perception of the area. Marked reductions in homicide and overall crime rates were narrowly attributed to police chief Chris Magnus, who helmed Richmond Police Department (RPD) efforts at community relations. We are a city that has long understood itself to love and need a whole lot more of the police.

This despite the RPD’s high-profile scandals. In 2014, twenty-four-year-old Richard “Pedie” Perez was shot and killed by police officer Wallace Jensen. Perez was unarmed, posed no threat to others, and had committed no criminal act. The DA declined to prosecute Jensen.

Richmond police also participated in the sexual exploitation of Celeste Guap, a teenage sex worker who testified that on-duty officers from multiple Bay Area law enforcement agencies, including RPD, both sexted and hired her while she was underage. RPD leadership abetted the cover-up of the case, and no criminal charges were ever filed against the nine participating officers. Six were issued written reprimands while three were fired.

These scandals made no real dent in the city’s embrace of police as the cornerstone of public safety. Before this year, roughly 40 percent of Richmond’s general fund went to policing, while only 7 percent total to such community services as libraries and parks and recreation. Police salaries make up the bulk of the $67.2 million RPD budget: the average annual cost of a sworn, armed officer is over $300,000.

True energy to reform RPD erupted after the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd. As in the rest of the country, organized protests took place across the city. One month later, the Richmond City Council set up an official Reimagining Public Safety Community Task Force to study the issue, aiming to transition away from the RPD’s “event response” model and exorbitant budget consumption.

The official task force represented both an opportunity and a danger. Discussions about redefining public safety were given new legitimacy. But, subject to constrictive city procedures and appointments hostile to reform (including the head of the police union), the new committee could have also been the cemetery where progressive public safety ideas went to die.

What saved the project was a combination of long-term electoral efforts by the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) and the sustained campaigning of a new community group now known as Reimagine Richmond.

The RPA and Reimagine Richmond

Since its incorporation in 1905, Richmond has been a largely working-class, ethnically diverse city. Situated on thirty-two miles of Bay Area shoreline, its longtime economic engine was heavy industry and shipping; in recent decades, the city has become a virtual company town for the Chevron oil refinery it houses.

Established in 2004, the RPA initially came together to challenge the domination of city politics by Chevron and the corrupt police and fire union political machine. Although Richmond elections are nonpartisan, the RPA began to function as its own quasi–political party, coordinating candidate campaigns and providing ongoing support when its candidates were elected. It succeeded in electing a council member, then mayor (an RPA cofounder), then more council members. In 2014, Chevron made a multimillion-dollar effort to win a friendly council; the oil giant was defeated decisively by the RPA slate, which openly refused all corporate contributions.

During the early response to the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the RPA held two of the seven council positions. After the November election, the RPA secured four seats with occasional support from a fifth, non-RPA-affiliated member. The RPA’s protracted emphasis on developing leftist candidates and achieving electoral power would fuel the task force proposals to come.

But the progressive majority needed actual policy to implement. The full campaign designing and messaging about a robust alternative to policing came directly from Reimagine Richmond, a grassroots group aiming to create a responsive safety system through community-centered, non-law-enforcement solutions. A collective vision emerged, despite the new coalition’s internal range of views on public safety.

Stances toward policing ranged from prison abolitionists to reformists who believed police a necessary social force requiring more oversight. These tensions should be expected when building policy on new political terrain, particularly around such life-and-death issues as policing. Nor did these ideological tensions make the work impossible. Reimagine Richmond prioritized addressing the root causes of crime and poverty, and that laser focus made ideological disagreements secondary to building effective programs.

Early discussions, for instance, yielded a decision to not use the phrase “defunding the police.” The consensus was that it required too much explanation and fed into conservative narratives about punishing police.

This decision did not mean the slogan’s proponents were forced to acknowledge its general ineffectiveness or reject the “defund” sentiment altogether. The rhetorical concentration, we determined, should remain on the positive project: Richmond must achieve a public-safety system for all.

Reimagine Richmond created subcommittees to conduct both external research — what other cities had done or are doing — and Richmond-specific conditions, such as how many 911 calls actually required an armed response. The task force then put some of that research into play. After a year, it presented its four key programs, all to be funded by police budget funds.

The first builds out the Office of Neighborhood Safety (ONS) with $1.6 million of reallocation funds. ONS is an established city-run department centered on interrupting gun violence via street outreach and retaliation prevention. Developed in 2007, when Richmond was still ranked the ninth-most-dangerous city in the country, ONS uses multidisciplinary research methods to assess which residents are most likely to either shoot someone or be shot themselves. The department does not share information with RPD and has helped reduce gun violence and the financial burden of shootings on the city.

The second recommendation establishes a Community Crisis Response Program using $1 million in reallocation funds. Similar to the CAHOOTS system in Eugene, Oregon, a three-person team with mental health and medical expertise will be dispatched to the scene of certain mental health emergencies and, gradually, domestic conflicts and noise complaints.

The third prong of our proposal expands support for unhoused people by approximately $1.8 million in reallocation funds. Safe Organized Spaces (SOS!) Richmond, the community group primarily responsible for this dimension, will use funding to improve hygiene and sanitation options for unsheltered people and provide jobs and job training, reducing police interference at encampments.

Finally, the city’s YouthWORKS program will receive approximately $1.93 million in additional support. YouthWORKS assists young people, aged 14–24, in job training and placement. Departmental capacity will thus grow from serving 125 Richmond youth annually to 500.

These interventions are tailored to the local characteristics and needs of our city. Simultaneously, a larger structural analysis is at play here: this slate of proposals recognizes that policing exacerbates the social issues it claims to fix.

Underpinning these programs is the clear conviction that economic disempowerment and poverty contribute to crime and make residents more vulnerable to violence; that our economic system withholds supportive structures to treat mental illness and forces people into committing desperate acts just to survive; and that racial justice must be braced by policy that reduces interactions with armed police.

Attacks That Didn’t Stick

Bad-faith criticism of the work has been a major obstacle. The police union and Mayor Tom Butt, a centrist Democrat particularly cozy with real estate developers and the RPD union, have gleefully seized upon the pandemic crime wave narrative. Police budget cuts would cause incalculable harm to the department, we were told.

Longtime councilmember Nat Bates, a former probation officer and vocal opponent, demanded the police chief provide detailed crime reports at virtually every council meeting. After a shooting at a private party, the mayor actually blamed the RPA for the violence, insisting criminals felt emboldened because the police budget may be cut at some future time.

Another favorite talking point was that RPD is different from other police forces, as it does not have military-grade weapons, does not cooperate with ICE, and has flirted with community policing. (It is worth noting that current municipal restraints on police resulted from prior organizing done by the RPA and other community groups).

Otherwise, however, there was little resistance to the actual programs developed by the task force — skeptics just did not want to reduce the police budget by even a small amount.

In response, we pointed out that large sections of the Richmond community did not feel safe from police presence, that RPD is not devoid of the problems embedded within law enforcement culture, and that Richmond absolutely could not continue to cut all other services to sustain RPD’s bloated costs.

These narrative challenges are only two examples of many. But the pushback proved instructive: Reimagine Richmond began to keep closer watch on messaging, which evolved to include a greater understanding of why some sections of the community feared police budget cuts.

Emphasis on racial justice did not always prove effective, particularly as we experienced the stark generational divide defining supporters versus opponents. And it was not merely white, retired property owners who expressed fear; older generations of people of color also expressed the very real memory of police unresponsiveness in their neighborhoods. Reducing the police budget summoned past ghosts of racial injustice for this demographic.

Organizers learned to pivot quickly and flexibly in our messaging; became willing to expand responses based on audience without ceding ground on our key principles; and, perhaps most importantly for maintaining cohesion among left coalition-building, recognized that the multiplicity of ideologies in Reimagine Richmond helped metabolize our responses to various community concerns.

A Budget That Reduces Interactions With Police

In the end, the RPA city council majority withstood exceptional pressure from coordinated police support. Reimagine Richmond organizers knew to begin with an ambitious ask, certain the figures would be whittled down during negotiations with opponents. The task force initially proposed the police budget be reduced by $10.6M (about 15 percent) to fully fund the proposed new public safety projects.

After lengthy debates during city council meetings, the final approved budget cut the police’s by about 5 percent in the first year, providing about $3 million for the programs and another $3.4 million from other unexpected revenue for the city. The new programs were to be phased in; another 5 percent budget reduction will occur next year.

In the coming year, our focus will be ensuring the implementation of our work. Outsourcing services is to be avoided, for one. By integrating these programs into the structure of municipal government, our coalition now necessarily includes local unions representing city workers. Opponents hoping to reverse these policies will have to do more than simply terminate a contract with external consulting firms. Our primary challenge here is that Richmond city staffing, like that of virtually every city across the United States, has been cut down to minimum levels in the name of fiscal sustainability and efficiency.

Organizers have thus had to shift focus from crafting policy to educating themselves on the unglamorous but imperative nuances of department line budgets, city board procedures, and success metrics. These efforts yield their own new advantage for building progressive power: developing a core of community members who intimately understand the bureaucratic obstacles and opportunities available to them, and who are committed to building alliances with the city workers who actually implement our services.

Our campaign provides a positive program toward reenvisioning public safety. Recognition of police abuses and social inequality form the foundation of the work, but it isn’t enough for our current context. Police and safety are deeply entwined in the American psyche; reallocating funds away from RPD without offering robust alternatives would have likely made the fight all the more difficult.

So our main message is that true public safety reverses the social inequalities that encourage crime. We believe that our programs will shift tasks for which police are not trained away from them and reduce situations where police presence provokes violence. We have successfully pushed the city council to adopt a budget to begin the programs we need. Now our work is really beginning.