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Speakers at budget hearing overwhelmingly favor defunding police

CITY HALL – If the sentiment expressed at a public hearing on the proposed 2021-2022 St. Louis budget matches public sentiment, the overwhelming majority of city residents favor big cuts to police spending.

Nineteen people spoke against the police spending plan during a webinar hearing on the city budget package on Saturday. Only one spoke in favor of that budget. The Board of Aldermen’s Ways and Means Committee held the hearing as part of this review of the proposed budget.

The opponents, many of whom represented activist groups that advocate police reform, generally favored cutting some police programs and using the money for social programs that they said get at the root causes of crime. 

“It’s imperative to divest from a failed system over policing and to reimagine a community that’s both safe and thriving,” said Christi Griffin, founder and president of the Ethics Project. ”For too many of us in St. Louis, it is anything but thriving.” 

Griffin said that the only effective way to protect the lives of citizens and visitors was to undo the damage that years of discrimination has done to the community.

‘My opposition is to over policing and to a system that has repeatedly failed to weed out bad police and to hold accountable those who have slipped through the cracks,” Griffin said.  “Let’s admit that we can never police our way to safety.”

John Chasnoff of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression said there was room in the police budget to find programs that are biased and need to be eliminated. 

He mentioned ShotSpotter, which detects the location of gunshots through a network of detectors. But Chasnoff said it had been ineffective

Also speaking in opposition was Erica Vogler, a social worker at a St. Louis agency that serves people with severe and persistent mental health issues and substance use disorders.

Vogler said her clients lacked access to resources they needed to live fulfilling lives, such as co-pays for medicine, bus passes to go to work and other appointments, and rent money in the neighborhoods where they want to live. 

Defunding the police and reallocating money to programs such as Vogler’s would benefit her clients, Vogler said.

The one person who spoke in favor of the police budget was 20th Ward resident Timothy Gartin. He said he supported increasing the police department budget. 

Gartin also spoke in favor of allocating money to social services that deal with mental health. And he favors more programs for children. 

Gartin also said he had personally seen the value of police.

 “I’ve had a number of times where I’ve needed assistance on a non-emergency basis,” he said. “I feel as though if there are any reductions in the budget of the police, that it is not in traffic stops and police on the beat that that’s going to happen, it’s going to be in those programs that directly affect the community because they’re the least urgent.”

One person who doesn’t have such a good opinion about police is Kevin Chestnut. Chestnut testified that he was walking in Tower Grove Park when he observed two traffic stops on Arsenal Street. He watch both closely to see what police would do.

Soon, two police cars approached him, one with lights flashing. They had him put his hands on his head. Then they handcuffed him and told him he would go downtown if he didn’t give his Social Security number. Eventually, he was released. 

Chestnut filed a complaint and a civil rights lawsuit.  Eventually, he won the suit. 

In years of working for the St. Louis Association of Community Organizations, Chestnut encouraged people to cooperate with police.

But, he said, “This incident shredded any further trust of the police, both from the officers’ officers behavior that day towards me, and also in the tedious deflecting manner of the investigations by [police] internal affairs.”

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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