Calls to ‘defund the police’ in Phoenix rejected by city council

By: - June 18, 2020 8:45 am

A protesters holds a sign that reads “Say their names” listing the names of people who have died around the country in interactions with police at a demonstration at City Council Chambers June 17, 2020. Photo by Madeline Ackley | Arizona Mirror

A little over a week ago, following pressure from advocates, the Phoenix City Council approved a measure to fully fund a civilian review board to oversee claims of misconduct against the Phoenix Police Department—the first of its kind to exist in the city of Phoenix. 

But for those gathered on the lawn outside Phoenix City Council Chambers Wednesday, a review board is simply not enough. As councilmembers voted to approve the annual budget, the mantra outside was “defund the Phoenix Police Department.”

A coalition of community groups set up tables and held discussions on what might replace a police force, should Phoenix ever follow suit with cities like Minneapolis, which voted recently to replace it’s police department with a community-led model. 

Organizers and attendees at the downtown Phoenix demonstration echoed the belief that the Phoenix Police Department is beyond reform and must be restructured, if not abolished entirely and re-envisioned. Protesters across the country have called on their city governments to restructure or entirely defund their police forces. 

“Today we are here to dream of a world without police,” Viridiana Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, told a crowd of about 100 people. “Reform is not enough… It is not possible. We ultimately need to abolish the system that exists and together create a new world.”

Advocates discussed shifting funds away from the police department and instead toward social services and education. 

Hernandez criticized the council as a whole for their response to the protests, particularly comments made by Mayor Kate Gallego at an event that brought together mothers against police brutality. 

“I come here not as a white woman, or as a mayor, but as a mother,” Gallego said to a crowd of about 100 people at a June 6 event hosted by Black Mother’s Forum. 

Gallego “clearly doesn’t understand that she is a white woman that is also a mayor” and will “never understand what systemic oppression is,” Hernandez told the crowd. 

Darold Bien-Aime showed up to the protest with a red MAGA-style shirt that read, “Make Racism Wrong Again.” The 30-year-old said he is supportive of the idea of defunding the Phoenix Police Department, but wanted to learn more about what alternative models to traditional policing might look like. 

“Any time you remove something, what are we going to put in its place?” Bien-Aime said. “To be honest, I don’t think I’ve really heard much rhetoric or conversation about what the alternative is.”

He said he thinks that there are situations where police are necessary, but advocates training in de-escalation, appropriate use of force, and increased awareness of marginalized communities and those with mental health issues.

He also thinks that the millions of dollars being appropriated to the police department would be better used elsewhere, like the education system.  

“Police officers can have some of the most state-of-the-art equipment, but some of our teachers can’t even have pencils and erasers,” he said.   

Bien-Aime acknowledged that police have a difficult job, but said the time for conversation has passed. 

“I’m frustrated, I’m tired. I’m just as tired as anyone else,” he said. 

A couple hundred people milled around the workshops, some focused on black liberation, LGBTQ issues, anti-colonialism and “food apartheid.” Organizers laid out a massive roll of white paper, where attendees could reimagine a city without the police, and what that could look like.

A paper altar decorated with fresh flowers and plastic candles displayed print-outs of men who had been killed by the Phoenix Police Department. 

La’Sharon McGinnis is a special education teacher, though she prefers to call herself an educator “for people with advanced needs.” An educator for more than 15 years, she’s used to instructing her students on how to behave—and how not to behave—around police. 

McGinnis has been to several protests against police brutality around Phoenix, Tempe and Goodyear in the last few weeks. When the demonstrations first began, she said she was tear-gassed by the Phoenix Police Department after the protest was declared an unlawful assembly. 

Phoenix police deployed tear gas on several occasions in the past few weeks to disperse crowds downtown. 

“I didn’t know what to do, because I never experienced that,” McGinnis said of her experience. 

Despite this, she is heartened that the movement to reform police is being led largely by the young. 

“The best and greatest thing to me is the majority of people who are out there are young people,” she said. 

Council passes annual budget with increase in police funding

For more than 20 days, downtown Phoenix has been the site of demonstrations of varying sizes following the killing of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, which triggered nationwide protests against police brutality. 

Phoenix City Council ultimately voted to approve the 2020-21 budget Wednesday, despite opposition from over 500 people who left public comments on the city website and more than 3,000 signatures on a petition to defund the department. The budget passed 6-3.  

It included $745 million for the Phoenix Police Department, but also $3 million for the newly formed Office of Accountability and Transparency, which narrowly passed the council back in February. 

Previously, the council was prepared to only partially fund the civilian review board with $400,000, but pressure from advocates and District 8 Councilman Carlos Garcia resulted in full funding. Councilmen Sal DiCiccio and Jim Waring were the only votes against fully funding the civilian review board.

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Madeline Ackley

Madeline Ackley is a journalist student at the ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication majoring in digital journalism. She is currently the arts and entertainment editor at the Downtown Devil, an independent digital publication run by Arizona State University students. She covers business, arts and local politics.