Our Opinion: Don't act in haste on city police budget

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It wasn't that long ago — as recently as the last Pittsfield budget session before the City Council a year ago — that the case was made for more police department funding, in large part for more protection in the city's West Side, whose residents were alarmed by an increase in gun violence on their streets.

A year later the case is being made to cut and shift funding from the department. This reflects a sea change nationally in attitudes toward police departments but local decisions about police funding should reflect local realities.

At a contentious budget hearing on Monday night, the City Council voted 8-3 to shift $85,000 from the department's patrol line item to sign contracts with two more crisis clinicians. ("Pittsfield City Council OKs $100K cut to police budget; other funds shifted," Eagle, June 17.) The crisis clinicians will likely prove to be beneficial and will not adversely affect the city's relationship with the Brien Center, but the proposal evidently caught Chief of Police Michael Wynn off guard. The department has been trying to maintain patrols in response to the concerns of inner city residents.

There is logic to some cuts made in the Police Department budget, such as in the overtime account for special events at a time when special events have been cancelled or postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The economic hit of the pandemic means that Mayor Tyer and the City Council must come up with as lean a budget as possible. But the deeper cuts put forth by Councilor Helen Moon, including $275,000 to the department's overtime account, were excessive.

Councilor Moon said that the "black and brown community" has asked the City Council to reallocate police department funds to serve the most vulnerable, but it is that specific community that has demanded increased police protection in light of gun violence that has marred their neighborhoods. When her proposals were rejected, Ms. Moon accused councilors of a lack of courage in not living up to "what they're saying, that black lives matter," an unfair assessment that Earl Persip III, the only African-American on the City Council, said he found insulting.

The brutal killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer sparked national outrage and a demand for an end to police brutality targeted at black men. Other incidents, such as the shooting of Rayshard Brooks by an Atlanta police officer, have stoked this justifiable outrage. It has led to peaceful protest matches and rallies and unhappily some looting and destruction.

This outrage, unfortunately, has also triggered a movement to defund the police, which would be counterproductive and fail address the core problems. Reform is necessary,and should emerge along the lines of the measures proposed by N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo that increase accountability and address institutional racism.

If city officials believe that the Pittsfield Police Department needs reform they should offer the appropriate measures. But they should be careful not to respond to understandable national anger about police brutality with budget cuts that will only hinder the department's ability to protect and serve the city.

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