ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The national call to defund police departments that has emerged from the protests following George Floyd's death came to St. Petersburg last weekend.

Mayor Rick Kriseman says he does not support the notion but is open to “re-imagining” how police departments perform all of their functions.

What You Need To Know

“Which is really all about looking about how you’re doing things, and saying ‘is there another way to do it that gives you even better results, and if there are, let’s be open to that,'” he said during an interview Thursday.

In his proposed FY 2021 budget, Kriseman has set aside nearly 51 percent (or $153 million) for police and fire rescue. That funding includes adding more officers to the SPPD.

What "defunding" means to activists

At a press conference last Saturday across the street from City Hall organized by the Tampa chapter of Dream Defenders, activists called on Kriseman and the city council to consider reallocating resources from public safety to other departments.

“What we’re asking for is not anything scary,” said Richie Floyd with the Pinellas chapter of Democratic Socialists for America. “It’s just for a re-prioritization and an ask from 'we the people.' We want housing. We want community service. We want things that solve problems before problems arise.”

Kayla Nembhard, a St. Petersburg-based licensed child and family therapist, talked about how the war on drugs has disproportionately affected not just black men, but also women of color.

“About 80 percent of jailed or incarcerated women also meet the criteria of having at least one mental health disorder or one substance abuse disorder,” she said. “Think about that. Eighty percent of the women in jail or that are incarcerated should be receiving mental health services."

"We know that this is practically non-existent in those systems, and if they are, they’re not effective," she went on. "So clearly our priorities need to shift when we’re talking about social services funneled into the community vs. for the police.”

What does "reimagining public safety" look like?

One city that is reconsidering how to divide police operations from other social services is the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. There, the mayor announced the creation earlier this week of a new department of first responders to go along with police and fire rescue.

Albuquerque Community Safety will include trained professionals such as social workers, housing and homelessness specialists, violence prevention and diversion experts. The department will give 911 dispatch an option when a community safety response is more appropriate than a paramedic, fire-fighter or armed police officer, according to the city of Albuquerque’s website.

Kriseman said he is aware of that program, which took two years to assemble. He says that the SPPD does have programs that are doing some of this work, such as PATH (Police Assisting the Homeless) which has social workers going out with the police, and “Not My Son,” where police officers and pastors in the community go door-to-door talking about non-violence for solving problems.

“We haven’t done a very good job of educating the public in how we’ve spent our resources and the investments that we’ve made in the community," Kriseman explained. "And I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people, because I don’t think that people really completely understand what we have done and the millions of dollars in programs and the work and the effort.” 

He added those efforts do not mean that there isn’t more to do. He says his staff is working on compiling a list of those programs to distribute to the public soon.

Polls say defunding unpopular

National polls show that the idea of defunding the police is unpopular with a majority of Americans.

By a nearly 2-to-1 margin, more voters oppose the movement (57 percent) than support it (29 percent) according to a Morning Consult/Politico survey released this week.

However, when asked if they supported proposals to move some money currently going to public budgets into better officer training, local programs for homelessness, mental health assistance and domestic violence, 76 percent supported the idea, while only 22 percent opposed, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll.

In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times last week, Tampa Mayor and former Police Chief Jane Castor acknowledged that police officers are being asked to do too much.

“We take funding away from other areas: education, mental health, from workforce development, transportation, all of those issues fall in the lap of our police force,” Castor said.

Kriseman agrees, referring to what he experienced in a ride-along with SPPD officers.

“They were being social workers,” he says. “It’s really a difficult position to put them in, because it’s not what their training was specifically for, and for a lot of officers, that’s not necessarily the profession that they thought they were entering into.”

"Defunding police" = "soft on crime"?

Many Democrats, including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, have rejected the defund the police movement. Biden says if elected he intends to add $300 million to “reinvigorate community policing.” 

A majority of the Minneapolis City Council pledged earlier this month to end the Minneapolis Police Department. That body is made up of 12 Democrats and one Green Party member.

Their actions have aided President Trump and some congressional Republicans to accuse the entire Democratic Party as supporting the concept.

Kriseman says “it’s unfortunate” that some Republicans are using the phrase to paint Democrats nationally as being soft on crime.

“That’s not what we’re standing for,” he says of himself and the Democrats that he says he knows. “What we do stand for is trying to make sure that we spend our resources that are very limited as effectively as possible to impact our community in the most positive way we can.”