The Mountain View City Council approved a $44.8 million budget for the city's police department Tuesday, holding firm on law enforcement spending following hours of impassioned calls to divert money from cops to social services.
City leaders spent most of the approval of the 2020-21 city budget -- typically an uncontroversial process -- talking about anything but line-item expenditures. Instead, they grappled with the best way to address issues like racism, unconscious bias and rethinking policing and public safety. Residents have hammered the city in recent weeks with demands to defund the police department, and say changes to the annual budget are the first and best ways the council can show it takes seriously the problem of racial injustice.
The regional groundswell for change in local law enforcement comes directly on the heels of numerous large-scale protests throughout the Bay Area -- including Mountain View and Palo Alto -- in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Residents were galvanized to take part in the public demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, which has sparked international protests against systemic racism.
Seeking to turn the protest into policy change, numerous residents have called on the Mountain View City Council to create a citizen-led commission to review existing police department policies and make changes aimed at preventing unnecessary police violence, particularly against people of color. They also called for the "demilitarization" of the police department and a complete revamp in the way the city responds to emergency calls related to nonviolent incidents, including homelessness, drug abuse and mental health crises.
While council members said they were largely sympathetic to the cause throughout the June 23 meeting -- passing a resolution supporting Black Lives Matter earlier in the evening -- they were reluctant to make significant changes to the police department's budget. The budget takes months to draft and was set to pass following a public hearing earlier this month, and they argued it would be hard to make strategic cuts on such short notice.
Mayor Margaret Abe-Koga said the change residents are seeking cannot happen overnight, and that the end result won't look like a wholesale disbandment of the police department either. She said this month marks the beginning of a longer conversation about how the city spends its resources on mental health, policing in schools, health care and responding to the city's growing homeless population.
"To me, frankly, tonight I don't feel comfortable saying let's cut positions, let's freeze positions," Abe-Koga said. "I think we just have to look at the model as a whole and figure out what's most effective."
Councilman John McAlister said it feels like speakers have attempted to "bully" the council into making a quick decision on police spending over the last two weeks, yet were silent on the policing issues in Mountain View for years -- something he said has been part of the problem. Expecting immediate shifts in the way the police department functions does a disservice to the public process, he said.
"You don't just defund a police department," he said.
Many of the speakers slammed the council for taking what they described as a milquetoast approach to a serious problem, and said that the plan for soliciting public input doesn't inspire a lot of confidence. Facing calls for a citizen-led commission, the city is planning to convene a council subcommittee on "race, equity and inclusion" as well as a civility roundtable discussion on "unconscious bias," and it's unclear to what extent residents will be able to make recommendations of their own.
"You're going to do a civility roundtable on unconscious bias?" one speaker asked. "You think George Floyd would still be alive if Derek Chauvin had gone to a civility roundtable on unconscious bias?"
Resident Dana Pede said it was disappointing to see the council steer away from a citizen-led committee on policing during, of all things, an item on the 2020-21 city budget. She worries that a council subcommittee puts the city on track to protect people in power, and said the public has no reason to trust council members to lead the conversation.
"This city looks cowardly," she said. "It doesn't look like you're taking the time to get it right, it looks like you're taking the time to stall and wait for the public outrage to die down and hope that we don't come back as strong after the summer break, so that you can host a couple of events and call it a job well done."
Some council members pointed to small changes in the police department budget as a good-faith effort that the city is taking the public's concerns seriously. Originally proposed by Councilwoman Alison Hicks earlier this month, the city dropped plans to spend $125,000 on parking enforcement, vehicle towing, police drones and the purchase of 30 patrol rifles.
Hicks suggested that the city could take it a step further and freeze hiring for the police department, holding off on filling vacant positions until the city holds a public process on policy and budget changes for the Mountain View Police Department. The proposal didn't gain traction among other members of the council.
The changes so far amount to a rounding error, and show the council isn't listening to its residents, said Kelsey Josund. She said the budget process has "failed" if it cannot respond to the changing political climate, and that the proposed police department budget is bloated for a smaller suburban city.
"There is no conscionable reason for the police, in a city the size of Mountain View, to have a budget of $44 million," she said.
While Mountain View appears to be on track for a larger, more nebulous approach to policing and how it relates to racism, other agencies in the Bay Area are taking a more narrow approach. Santa Clara County's Board of Supervisors backed a plan Tuesday to reform the sheriff's department and its use of force policies, including a restructuring of the emergency response system so that officers aren't responding to calls related to mental health emergencies or homeless people.
The city of Palo Alto also signaled its support for adopting police use of force policies consistent with the "8 Can't Wait" campaign, as well as a possible longer-term goal of merging its police and fire agencies into a single department of public safety.
Mountain View police officials have insisted in recent weeks that the department largely follows "the spirit" of policies advocated by the 8 Can't Wait campaign, and that the department recently banned the use of chokeholds in order to better align with those goals.
In a town hall meeting earlier this month, Police Chief Max Bosel said he is open to the idea of civilian oversight when it comes to police accountability and organizational discipline, but that it's a fairly new idea that hasn't come up in the past. Regardless, Bosel said the department does hold its officers accountable, and noted that "internal" complaints had been investigated and led to the separation of two police officers.
"The challenging and difficult job of enforcing the law means we need to have the highest standards," Bosel said. "We are very open to ensuring that we make the necessary changes to secure the trust and support of our community."