ESCONDIDO – Amid ongoing nationwide protests and a growing movement to defund the police, Escondido City Council received almost 400 public comments at its June 10 budget meeting, regarding the city’s $45.6 million police department budget.
The council opened a public hearing on its fiscal year 2020-21 budget proposal, which received so many comments that Mayor Paul McNamara had to recess the meeting and reconvene it the following day.
Funding for the police department makes up 43% of the city’s overall budget, although it was noted that the city cut $1.8 million from the police department budget this year compared to last year.
The majority of comments from Escondido residents criticized the need for such a large police budget and called for defunding the department.
The defunding campaign is a movement that has been around for decades but was reignited after recent incidents of police brutality. It supports divesting funds from police departments and reallocating them to non-police forms of public safety, such as social services and other community resources.
Escondido Chief of Police Ed Varso, who was at the council meeting, pointed out that the Escondido Police Department was one of the first agencies in the county to participate in the Psychological Emergency Response Team (PERT), a program that partners police officers with psychiatric clinicians to work together to assess mentally ill individuals.
“When we’re responding to calls in our community, we have more than just a law enforcement response, we also have a clinical response that works in partnership with us so that we’re not only able to provide the safety element, but also the resources and services necessary to help that person that’s in crisis,” Varso said.
He added that the department is working toward getting all of its police officers through additional training in crisis-intervention techniques.
The overwhelming push from residents to defund the police reflects a nationwide outcry sparked by the recent deaths of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and Breonna Taylor at the hands of Louisville police. Protests and demonstrations in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement continue in cities across the U.S., including Escondido.
Residents also called for the police department to adopt the “8 Can’t Wait” program, a list of eight policies that supporters believe can be implemented by police departments to avoid police brutality incidents during arrests.
Varso said the department has been involved in that type of training and policy direction for quite some time, and the only policy that they hadn’t adopted until recently was the ban on the carotid restraint.
The council discussed several ideas such as police training, community engagement and budget transparency after the public comments were read before agreeing to discuss these items on future agendas.
Councilmember Olga Diaz and Mayor McNamara both said they had never seen a public response like this at a council meeting and urged future community input.
Deputy Mayor Consuelo Martinez acknowledged that, although it may have been too late in the budget approval process to implement the changes suggested by the community, she thinks the issue is an important one.
“We do have, in our country, a structural racism problem, and if we don’t see it, that’s an issue,” Martinez said. “We are a diverse community, and we must acknowledge that not everyone in our community has a positive relationship with law enforcement. Some communities live in fear.”
Councilmember Mike Morasco agreed that further discussions for police reform should be had, but said that he was “offended” by some of the public comments and assertions.
“This cry of systemic racism and brutalization of the police, it very well could be valid in other areas, but that’s not what we are seeing here,” Morasco said. “I don’t believe it’s a true reflection of our police.”
The council approved the budget 4-0.