Hundreds ask San Jose lawmakers to defund police ahead of budget vote
A protester calls for disarming police during a march from the San Jose Police Department to City Hall during protest earlier this year. File photo by Katie Lauer.

On the eve of San Jose lawmakers’ vote on the city’s annual budget, hundreds logged into a virtual public hearing Monday, most with a singular message: defund the police.

Residents and advocates got 60 seconds each to make a case to councilmembers on what changes should be reflected in the $4.1 billion budget for the coming year. Some showed up angry, others crying and many dangled the promise of votes for councilmembers willing to reallocate police funding to other efforts, like community programs, counseling, education and the arts.

“I have had to run from tear gas, flashbangs and rubber bullets at the protest myself. I have multiple friends injured by rubber bullets and tear gas,” resident Jessica Matthew said Monday. “It is clear that SJPD does not understand the difference between real threats and regular citizens peacefully protesting. We don’t want reform. We want a process that works towards defunding the police.”

Even so, a few who spoke Monday told councilmembers they don’t want to defund the San Jose Police Department.

“I can’t imagine being in need of help, calling 911 and being directed to a social worker or library,” said one speaker who did not identify himself during the public meeting.

The calls to shift funding away from police departments have grown and reverberated across the country, following the death of George Floyd, a black Minneapolis man killed while bystanders recorded a white police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Floyd’s death has sparked weeks of protests and a national reckoning about racism and police brutality — as well as whether police officers should be responsible for handling certain types of calls, including mental health crises and nonviolent crime.

Some lawmakers have been persuaded by the arguments. In Minneapolis, a veto-busting majority of the City Council this month announced support for “defunding police,” or drastically reallocating funding from police budgets to other programs.

San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said he doesn’t support a major reallocation of police funding.

Liccardo’s June budget message released last week focused in large part on inequity and police reforms. He called for the city manager and independent police auditor to review “use of force” policies, reallocating $150,000 in police overtime wages to the auditor for that work.

The proposal also calls for expanding the city’s racial equity work by hiring a new full time staff member in the city manager’s office to address structural racism through a partnership with the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

Liccardo said in his budget message he agrees with those who interpret ‘defund’ to mean a discussion on reducing  police involvement in social problems for which they may be “poorly equipped or trained.”

Some residents Monday said that wasn’t enough.

“I’d ask that you begin to listen and hear the voices of black and brown communities and communities of color here in San Jose, respectfully, sir,” resident Matt Cohen told Liccardo. “You have been very out of touch in the last few weeks, and I think your insistence that you will not defund the police is is clearly communicating that you are not listening.”

Councilmembers didn’t offer their own thoughts Monday, which is typical during public hearings where lawmakers’ jobs is to listen.

Elected officials on Tuesday will take up the topic again before a vote on the budget, which also includes new money for small businesses, in-home child care providers and additional support for some nonprofits — elements that some residents praised Monday.

“The proposed $1.5 million investment to stabilize family childcare home providers in the mayor’s message is a strong step in the right direction,” said Jolene Smith, chief executive officer of FIRST 5 Santa Clara County, adding that without those funds, “67 percent of our providers will close.”

The vote Tuesday comes as city faces a potential $110 million shortfall this year and next, due to the coronavirus pandemic and the economically devastating shelter-in-place order aimed at reducing infections, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus.

San Jose’s fiscal year 2020-2021 budget proposes about $449 million for the San Jose Police Department, down by about $15 million from the current year, according to city documents.

Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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