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After Years Of Increased Police Spending, Activist Say It's Time To Change Course

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Activist Brandi Fisher says "we need to rely less on police and over-incarceration"

As protests nationwide and across Western Pennsylvania call out police brutality, a collective of activists on Monday presented their list of demands for police reform to city and Allegheny County officials. Among their demands: Reduce a years-long trend of increased police spending.
Calls to "defund the police" are echoing nationwide. But while some people interpret that to mean "abolish police," says Brandi Fisher with the Alliance for Police Accountability, Pittsburghers are taking a more pragmatic approach.

Fisher said defunding means not putting as much money “into policing as the solution to these public health crises.” 

“Abolishing the police tomorrow is not ideal," she said. And while she isn’t sure what would be a workable budget for police – that’s something she said would emerge from talks with the city -- "we do believe that we need to rely less on police and over-incarceration. For someone with mental health illnesses to be incarcerated instead of helped, that’s sad … it’s never going stop until you fix that problem.”

The City of Pittsburgh was budgeted to spend nearly $115 million on police this year. Since 2013, the year before Peduto took office, the budget has increased by more than 50 percent, up from $71.5 million.

Part of the reason for that increase is because more officers have been hired, as the city's improved financial health allowed it to fill unfunded positions in its budget. In 2013, the police bureau had 886 officers, according to annual reports. In 2019, the bureau reported a force of 1,004.

“The Peduto administration has taken a more aggressive stance in sticking to the budget and allotment of police officers,” City Controller Michael Lamb said. “So, they’ve been bringing in significantly more classes into the academy to fill out all of those positions.”

Another reason for rising costs is a contract that included salary increases. According to the Fraternal Order of Police’s contract with the city, officers will receive two salary increases a year, through 2022.

Lamb said that equipment purchases, like body cameras and new technology, also add to the budget, but the purchases are less significant than the increased personnel costs.

Some defunding was possible even before activists began seeking reductions to police spending. The city has been preparing for budget cuts due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the damage it has done to municipal finances. Lamb predicted in April that layoffs could be a potential result of the pandemic, and budgets in multiple departments would be cut. The city has already implemented a hiring freeze across all departments, including police.

“The prioritization of that spending will now be affected by this move toward police reform,” Lamb predicted. “Overall spending was likely to be cut, even without the police-reform movement." Any job cuts, he said, "certainly will affect police more than anybody else, with police being one of our bigger departments.”

Peduto has signalled that he is open to reforms -- he convened a task force on the subject this week -- but he has also said that addressing concerns in Pittsburgh requires action on the state level.

“Currently under Pennsylvania law, city leaders can fire or otherwise discipline police officers for misbehavior only to have the discipline overturned by arbitrators, and officers can only be de-certified for misconduct if they are found guilty of criminal charges,” Peduto said in astatement. 

Peduto has specifically called for amendments to Act 111 of 1968. The measure establishes ground rules for contract talks between public-safety unions and local governments -- talks which dictate the terms of everything from salary ranges to disciplinary procedures. 

Peduto's statement urged that Act 111 be changed to “limit the scope of bargaining over disciplinary procedures or ... limit a labor arbitrator's authority to modify disciplinary penalties.”

Fisher, who sits on Peduto's 17-mebmer task force, acknowledged that reforms are needed at the state level. And she said it's time for a broader rethinking of the role of police.

“Police don’t want to be mental health professionals, they’re not even trained to do all of that," she said. "They want to go and do their job, and their job is not to do all of that. Yes they should have sensitivity and de-escalation training, but we should not mandate them to be professionals who we’ve had go to school for years and become experts. We should just hire the experts instead. That’s what defunding the police means.”