Norman council reduces police budget as cities confront calls to cut PD spending

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Norman City Councilman Stephen Holman, left, asks a question of Police Chief Kevin Foster at a council meeting on June 16, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Norman’s city council cut its police budget by $865,000, responding to pleas from residents who have urged a reduction in police spending, pressure elected officials in Oklahoma’s largest cities have felt for weeks.

Tuesday’s nearly 12-hour meeting began with a proposal to cut the department’s budget in half.  

“While I don’t expect it to pass I do expect it to start a conversation,” said Councilwoman Alexandra Scott, who proposed a $4.5 million decrease to police salaries and benefits, which would cut 64 positions. 

Norman resident Allison Williams has been a consistent voice at recent council meetings and supported Scott’s initial proposal to cut 64 police department staff and wondered why one of those positions couldn’t be Jacob McDonough, a Norman poliace officer who was recently investigated for sharing a racist email

“Why can’t one of these 64 jobs … be the person who spouts hate (in) an email?” Williams asked. “Instead you are still putting money in his pocket.” 

The council eventually agreed to take $865,000 out of the next fiscal year’s police budget and divert it to community outreach programs. 

The budget vote came after weeks of Norman residents packing council meetings to demand a reduction of police spending. On Tuesday, passionate calls for defunding the police returned, but so did dozens of others who wore “I Back the Blue” stickers and spoke in favor of fully funding the police department. 

Norman residents filled the city hall lobby before a meeting on June 16, 2020. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Calls to “defund the police” have increased in many major cities, including in Minneapolis where the death of George Floyd while in police custody last month set off a wave of national protests. 

Police spending and policy has drawn the attention of national politics but is largely a local issue with major decisions left to city councilors and mayors. 

Oklahoma City’s council has also received calls to reduce police spending with the last few council meetings turning into daylong affairs as numerous residents spoke out against police brutality and urged for at least some of the department’s funding be redirected to other social services. 

Earlier on Tuesday, the Oklahoma City council voted to approve the next fiscal year budget, which included a 2.65 percent reduction for police due to the coronavirus-fueled economic decline. The reduction had already been proposed before recent protests but was not at the amount some members of the council had sought. 

Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon voted against the new fiscal year budget and council members Nikki Nice and James Cooper abstained. 

“My absent votes was because there was things I wanted to see changed in that budget,” Nice said. 

“(Cities) are looking at their police departments to ask what can we do differently? I really hope our police department is doing the same of (asking) what can we do differently?” 

Similar calls to reduce police spending have been made in Tulsa but none of the city’s elected officials have expressed support for a decrease.

“I would not support taking money away from the Police Department,” Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum told the Tulsa World. “I am of the exact opposite opinion — I think we need to be putting more in to get the right number of officers.”

Cities have been in the final stages of finalizing budgets the past few weeks and were already dealing with reductions in sales tax revenue, which accounts for the entire general revenue of Oklahoma cities and towns. 

A person attending a Norman city council meeting on June 16, 2020, wears a sticker in support of local police. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

Councilwoman Kate Bierman said she wanted to spend the next year reevaluating the police budget.

“I don’t think taking a hatchet to the police budget right now … actually solves the problem that so many people right here are wanting us to solve,” Bierman said. 

On Tuesday, the Norman council also heard a presentation from Police Chief Kevin Foster about the work of his department before spending nearly an hour asking him about involvement in the community and bias within the department. 

Councilman Stephen Holman asked Foster how many officers report concerns about another officer’s conduct each year. 

“I couldn’t tell you a number,” Foster said. 

But Foster said he believes there are people in the department who speak up when they see wrongdoing by another officer, “when 20 years ago I don’t think you would have seen that.”

Foster was also asked about use of force policies and whether the tactics used by Minneapolis police in the killing of Floyd would be used in Norman. 

“That was just totally crazy,” Foster said about the Floyd case. “It’s strongly preached (here) to stay off the neck and stay off the spine. I think that situation would have been different here.”

Foster was also asked about the recent shooting of Rayshard Brooks, who was shot in the back by an Atlanta police officer after grabbing the officer’s taser. 

“When you are in the heat of a battle and you hear that pop you are thinking somebody shot at you,” Foster said. 

Councilwoman Bierman took issue with Foster’s language, accusing him of adding to the narrative of a militarized police force. 

“I think it really speaks to the concern of some in this community when they talk about demilitarizing police, I think a perfect example of that is … when terms are used like ‘in the heat of battle,’” Bierman said. “But it’s not a battle, it very rarely is,” Bierman said. “I think that leads to a different sense of what the police department is and should be.”

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Ben Felder

Based in Oklahoma City, Ben Felder joined The Frontier in 2019 and covers education and politics. He previously covered education and government as an investigative reporter at The Oklahoman before becoming the newspaper’s news director. Felder can be reached at ben@readfrontier.com. Follow him on Twitter @benfelder_okc
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