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Monday, May 18, 2020

Police Budget Cuts Are Deep

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Belt-tightening efforts have citizens concerned about public safety

Shreveport Mayor Adrian Perkins and Shreveport Police Chief Ben Raymond are fighting a battle on two fronts: Cutting a proposed $4.5 million from the police department’s 2020 budget on one side, and combatting public opinion that the cuts will put public safety at risk on the other.

“COVID-19 has brought about an unprecedented fiscal crisis for cities around the country,” Perkins said. “The city of Shreveport heavily relies upon sales tax and gaming revenue, both of which have been impacted severely by the stay-at-home order.”

Perkins said Sherricka Fields Jones, the city’s chief financial officer, estimated the losses would be about $25 million if the stay-at-home order stayed in effect through May 15, which it did. Each department was asked to eliminate all non-essential, non-mission critical spending to offset the projected losses. These proposed cuts are only for the remainder of the 2020 budget year.

A spreadsheet of the proposed budget cuts details the cuts within the police department. They include $222,840 in decreased funding for vacant positions, $331,600 for vacant classified positions and $3,162,468 in decreased funding for 56 base officer positions. The cuts also include a total of $282,429 in overtime pay. The proposal also includes $459,600 in cuts for equipment, vehicles and improvements.

Raymond said the police department’s original budget for 2020 was $60.58 million. The $4.5 million represents a 7% cut to that budget. Raymond was asked to submit proposals for what a 2%, a 5% and a 10% reduction would look like for the department.

 

“All of the proposed cuts came from our amended budgets,” he said. “What’s important to know is we weren’t asked; we were told specifically to show what 2, 5 and 10 percent cuts would look like. Although I recommended them, I didn’t want to cut it from the budget. We cut everywhere we could to keep from laying off employees, specifically officers.”

The proposal has faced criticism among the citizenry. Many have taken to social media to express their concerns about the cuts. Elliott Stonecipher and Cassie Castaneda, the wife of a Shreveport police officer, are among those who have expressed their opinions publicly.

“For now, we wait to see how the city council will respond to the news that Shreveport’s crime problem is no biggie … that we don’t need the force we thought we had … that there is nothing to worry about in Shreveport’s ability to keep criminals off the streets,” Stonecipher wrote May 7.

“During all of this, these men and women still go to work every day and rarely complain,” Castaneda wrote on Facebook. “They are there to do the job they swore to do, and when they made that decision, they took it very seriously, as their lives are on the line if they don’t. So where is the support that was promised them? Didn’t the city officials also swear to do what they promised as well? Why do they not have any accountability?” Grayson Boucher, Shreveport City Council District D representative, expressed his concerns about all of the proposed budget cuts, include those for the police department.

“My biggest takeaway is Shreveport has been in trouble for quite some time,” he said. “The pandemic has escalated our fiscal decline. I do not want the majority of these cuts and belt-tightening to be on the members of our public safety officers and our citizens. Our No. 1 goal as elected officials is keeping citizens safe.”

Perkins said the cuts would not impact public safety.

“This isn’t a cut to public safety,” Perkins said. “Our administration has remained consistent, and public safety remains our top priority. The Shreveport fire and police departments are essential to public safety, and I support all of our first responders. That’s why I fought so hard for a bond package in 2019, which was heavy on public safety. It would have improved their working conditions and provided them with much-needed equipment. I’ll remind you that several of the council members opposed to these budget cuts fought against that bond package.”

Raymond said the cuts will not take any current officers off the streets.

“The full-force plan is 580 officers,” Raymond said. “We have never gotten to that. We are budgeted for 566. That’s what we’d like to have. That’s something that is possible and sustainable. We had 536 at the start of the year. We could have gotten to 566. We recruited 40 cadets and graduated 30. We are down to 520 officers, with three pending resignations.

And we only have 11 cadets. We’re not getting near 566 officers. We are sending back $2.5 million simply because we can’t fill the roster with qualified candidates.”

Raymond said the public likely will not notice the cuts. He said the department already is moving officers from specialized units, such as warrants and DARE officers, to patrol units to keep patrols at current levels without overtime.

Michael Carter, president of the Shreveport Police Officers Association, said the cuts to the equipment budget also are a concern.

“This department is in critical need of marked patrol units,” Carter said. “The Ford Explorers were purchased in 2016 and are averaging 80,000-plus miles at this time. They are chronically red-lined and in the garage for service. The SPOA requested the units to be assigned to individual officers for home storage units, but the previous administration refused. Now they are all but gone. The city will spend $3 million to $5 million to replace them, and that will be soon. These cars are not holding up to continuous three shifts per day operation. This impacts officers’ ability to get in service at the beginning of their shift and to operate an entire shift without car failures.”

Perkins and Raymond both said recruiting and retention of officers were issues before the pandemic impacted the budget. They are problems both plan to address at the appropriate time.

“The public reaction isn’t accurate,” Raymond said. “The conversation is, what do we need to do to attract qualified applicants? Raises. We’ve talked about it for years. We want to be equitable with neighboring agencies. But we can’t talk about that now. The reality is if you don’t cut us, other departments will have to cut. Take it from police and fire or furlough other employees. There will be negative consequences going through this pandemic.”

“This isn’t a cut to public safety,” Perkins said. “It does not cut existing officers or impact future recruiting. It cuts funded vacancies that would not have been filled even if there was no pandemic. Most of the funds proposed to be cut from SPD’s budget were going to be returned to the General Fund at the end of the year due to difficulty recruiting new officers. In other words, most of the proposed cut isn’t a cut because it would not have been spent even under normal circumstances.”

Perkins added that citizens can play a role in resolving these issues moving forward.

“The only space between government and citizens is what we allow,” he said. “If citizens are as concerned about public safety as we are, I ask that they please join us by encouraging friends and family members to serve with the Shreveport Police Department. Filling our vacancies would make our community safer, but to accomplish that, we need community participation, which includes everything from reporting crimes to signing up to serve.”

The proposed cuts are for the 2020 budget only. Perkins said he hopes the final impact will be less than estimated.

“Our hope is that our numbers will trend down, and the recovery will be swift, but we will have to wait and see,” he said. “That will be somewhat dependent upon the degree to which citizens and businesses comply with the guidance provided by medical experts.”

He said city officials are watching Congress, too. Senators Bill Cassidy, Louisiana, and Bob Menendez, New Jersey, have proposed a $500 billion stabilization fund for cities larger than 50,000 people. That fund would help Shreveport replenish some of, or perhaps all of, the cuts made. “We obviously support this bill, and it also has a lot of bipartisan support around the country,” he said. “So we will be watching that closely.”

Perkins added that it is too soon to consider the impact on the 2021 budget.

“We need to focus on what we can control,” he said. “This is an infectious and deadly virus for which there is no treatment or vaccine. The only thing we can control is our behavior. We need to continue practicing social distancing, wearing masks in public, washing hands, and staying home if we are sick or at high risk. Those are the things everyone can do to speed up Shreveport’s economic recovery.”

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