LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WAVE) - A popular demand among demonstrators is to defund the police to fund other social programs to shift how cities respond to public safety.
In light of recent local unrest, some community activists in Louisville’s West End imagined what defunding the police could look like.
Hours after the West End Kroger was boarded up and looted this month, Shauntrice Martin launched Feed The West, a nutritional lifeline to residents in the city’s biggest food desert. Two weeks later, at the Boys and Girls Club in the Parkland neighborhood, she is still at it, distributing food and essentials to 900 people a day.
“About two thirds of our stuff comes from donors,” Martin said.
It costs about $9,000 a day just to keep going. Donations are good, but Martin said she could always use more. She was asked what she would do with $1 million.
“We would open a grocery store location that is permanent, that was big enough for people to come in,” Martin said. “You would have it to where they could volunteer if they don’t have money to pay.”
Martin has strong opinions on where the money should come from. Demonstrators demanding change after the March 13 death of Breonna Taylor have called for defunding the police, while spending more tax dollars on improving quality of life and attacking the root causes of poverty.
“Defunding the police means revitalizing my community in a way that doesn’t displace us,” Martin said. “It means that we can have grocery stores with fresh food at any time of the day. It means that our students have a healthier learning environment. So it means health and wellness across the board ... I don’t think it’s taking it from the police. I think it’s rerouting it to what their purpose is, which is to protect and serve. If I had it my way, I would have at least half of that. At least.”
In looking at the numbers, the LMPD budget seems like an easy target. Police expenses in Fiscal Year 2019 topped $229 million. That’s $15 million more than expenses for economic development, Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, Parks and Recreation, Community Services, Public Health and Wellness and Public Libraries ... combined.
“If the majority of your budget is being spent on things that do not improve the community, that do not enhance our opportunities, then there’s not going to be a positive outcome,” Martin said.
A defunded LMPD would have to keep the peace with fewer officers, less equipment and potentially less responsibility if calls involving domestic violence, mental health and homelessness were handled by other professionals. But doesn’t less spending on police also mean less public safety? When questioned in December about the city’s escalating number of homicides, then-LMPD Chief Steve Conrad said LMPD “took a $5,500,000 cut in our budget this year. That’s the police department alone. We’re looking to take a similar or another sizeable cut next year. Less resources for law enforcement will lead to increases in crime, and that’s just a reality.”
Community investment specialist Jeana Dunlap offered a different view.
“You put more officers on the street, they’re going to find more crime,” she said.
Dunlap spent a decade working in redevelopment for Louisville Metro. She pointed to the Parkland neighborhood, the corner of 38th and Dumesnil, for a brief history lesson. The once-thriving business district was hit by looters during deadly race riots in 1968. Investment stopped and the community never recovered.
“People didn’t even have the voice (then) to suggest defunding police,” she said. “Black people were not even empowered to raise those types of questions.”
If the Parkland neighborhood would have received some of the funding set aside for law enforcement, it would look different today, Dunlap said.
“Especially if the people themselves were given the opportunity to manage and administer the funds,” she said.
Since the 2003 merger, LMPD expenses appear to have been relatively constant, ranging from a low 19.7 percent of total city expenses in 2006, to a high of 23.9 percent in 2017. But the actual dollar amounts tell another story. After the merger, LMPD expenses amassed a 16-year total of $2,587,265,271.
“That’s a lot of commas,” Dunlap said. “That’s a lot of money. And to think of what we could do with that level of investment in West Louisville. We would absolutely see significant change here.”
A recent nationwide poll by Morning Consult found 43 percent of registered voters are in favor of redirecting police funding to communities.