Editorial: Defund police? Yes, but let's not confuse the stage
In principle, we’re in favor of the protests around the country calling to review and restrain police budgets that have been ramped up over the past decade or more as the nation has seemingly adopted a more militaristic approach to police work. The initiative, however, has taken on the unfortunate moniker of “defunding the police,” nor are all police departments equally at fault. Differences must be debated and understood.
To be generous, if the effort were to simply review unreasonable budget increases over the past 20 years — to be sure personnel haven’t increased beyond normal standards of growth in regards to the surrounding population, and weapons expenses were held in check — and bring those in line with other municipal departments, that would be a healthy start.
We do believe there are communities across the nation that have been swept up in a nationalist fever over the past 25 years, and have militarized their local police forces beyond what is reasonable or prudent.
That said, the Middlebury Police Department has not been part of that movement.
Let’s consider the facts:
• For the past six years, like most of the years under Police Chief Tom Hanley, Middlebury’s police budget has grown at about 3.5 percent. Considering most of the expense is personnel and health care increases are at double or triple inflation coupled with slight annual wage increases, the department’s real growth in other expenses would be flat.
• Middlebury’s Police force has 1.8 officers per 1,000 population, compared to the average staffing ratio for communities of up to 10,000 citizens of 3.5 officers per 1,000 people.
• And even though Middlebury and Vermont, like the rest of the nation, has seen an uptick in mental health issues over the past 30 years of Hanley’s tenure, an increase in drug use, and increased immigrant work force on area farms, his police force has stayed relatively stable.
• Furthermore, Chief Hanley has refused to accept military style equipment through the federal government’s 1033 program that has given away $5 billion worth of military equipment to local police departments between 1990 and 2014. Some of that equipment, such as the Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles at $658,000 each, gas masks and riot protection gear, seem overly provocative when countering peaceful protestors in America’s cities, let alone when used in a show of force in small-town America.
The federal program has its genesis in the nation’s gluttonous defense budget. The largess given to local police forces is due to surplus military weapons, equipment and, reportedly, more than 13,000 MRAP vehicles, many of which were seen driving on city streets recently as police confront those protesting the death of George Floyd while in policy custody.
And therein lies part of the problem. When police departments are given military-style equipment and trained how to use that equipment “to defend” their communities, the police are hard-pressed not to adopt a war-like mindset — an “us” versus “them” mentality that dehumanizes “the other.” It is how a policeman in a demonstration event can push down a 75-year-old unarmed man (as happened a few weeks ago and caught on video by another citizen) who then hits his head on the asphalt and begins bleeding, and even though police officers notice the hurt man none stop to help. If that seems so odd, so out of line that it in no way resembles what you thought the police were supposed to be doing in protecting the public, it’s because it is an outrage, it is because those police are out of control — but it’s because the officers in that moment are at war with the other —who in this case happen to be fellow Americans demonstrating their public right to peaceably assemble and voice their grievances.
But, again, Chief Hanley has deliberately refused to be part of that program and militarize local police in that manner. (The program under President Obama, by the way, was curtailed with numerous restrictions — all of which were undone by Trump in 2017.)
So, we say, fine… let’s champion reasonable police budgets. Let’s review them each year as we do in our annual town meetings, and let’s fully fund our social service agencies to the best of our ability — all of which Middlebury residents do each year. In fact, Middlebury voters approved a bump of $73,720 in social service requests in last year’s budget — a jump of 30 percent. (The irony, of course, is that if the police department’s budget had jumped that high, Middlebury residents would have stormed town hall demanding severe cuts.)
Lastly, of course, local calls to reverse the increase of $46,234 in the budget passed last March can’t be undone by the selectboard. The voters approve the budget, and only the voters can reverse it. They will have that opportunity next March, if they so choose.
Importantly, let's not confuse the local situation with the national one.
Significant problems abound in various police departments throughout the nation. The nation and all American citizens are right to call for action to stop systemic racism, to reform those police departments at fault, to offer better training and to and demonstrate for change.
Police Chief Hanley has refuted the misconduct of those officers and departments in powerful and eloquent public letters and has explained his different approach to police protection — and especially his devotion to hiring officers that agree with the department’s principles. For 30 years that has made a huge difference.
While advocating for reform at the national level, let’s be aware of the difference locally and be grateful for it.