SALT LAKE CITY — The city council has delayed a final vote on the budget to deliberate whether to fund an increase in the police department's budget, as protesters now push to "defund the police."
The proposed budget calls for a $2 million increase in the police budget. In recent days, community activists have pushed people to flood Mayor Erin Mendenhall and the Salt Lake City Council with messages calling to reduce funding to the Salt Lake City Police Department.
"We want to take the money that we’re putting into the police force and put it into different areas that are lacking," Will Kemner, a co-founder of the Salt Lake Equal Rights Movement, said in an interview Tuesday with FOX 13.
Kemner said that by "defund the police," his group would like to see money spent on things like housing, mental health, education and street repair instead of increased policing efforts. Roughly a quarter of the city's entire $331 million budget covers policing (this year, it's budgeted at about $84 million), he said.
"We want to take the money that we’re putting into the police force and put it into different areas that are lacking," Kemner said.
Salt Lake City Council Chair Chris Wharton told FOX 13 he has received emails almost every minute from people in his district, across the state and even across the country. He said he has also heard from some who live in Salt Lake City districts who feel there aren't enough police officers on the streets and response times to calls take too long.
"They want to see more community policing, they want to see an officer in their neighborhood they know and recognize," he said. "That feedback is just as valid from the other residents."
Legally, the council must pass a budget and under state law, the city must fund a police department.
But the council delayed its final budget vote until June 16 to hear more public comment on the police department's budget. Tuesday's council meeting is expected to get even more public comment. Council member Wharton told FOX 13 they may approve a budget next week -- but hold some money for police in reserve.
"What the council is looking at is whether some funds might be held in order to continue these dialogues we’re having," he said.
COVID-19 has already significantly impacted Salt Lake City's budget for every department. But among the budget proposals lately, there's an idea to remove police officers from parks and instead have "park rangers." There are also discussions that if there are funding increases -- it would be for de-escalation training, hiring and recruitment of minority officers and implicit bias training, Wharton said.
In response to the budget discussions, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown said in a statement to FOX 13: "Now is not the time for knee-jerk reactions. Now is the time to listen, learn, and bring all parties to the table in order to ensure equity of change."
Chief Brown signed on to an open letter alongside other major city police chiefs calling for discourse on race relations, policing and reform. The letter also raised concerns about contracts and labor laws that make it difficult for police management to weed out problems within their departments.
Kemner said SLERM and other groups would continue to push for their goals of defunding and ultimately disbanding the police department, with resources going elsewhere to respond to community needs.
"We do expect them to start with this budget to decrease the police budget. I know we’re not going to see a massive decrease," he said. "We’re not going to see the decrease we want in the end goal, but this is a process that will take a long time."