'Defunding' Metro Nashville Police presents its own challenges

Posted at 10:15 PM, Jun 08, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-08 23:36:38-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — There are multiple ways to understand the word defund: some say they want to cut back on police spending, while others want all the funding removed from the Metro Nashville Police Department.

The Nashville People’s Budget Coalition is working to help neighbors understand just how much is at stake. In recent days, they’ve coordinated talking points for those advocating in favor of defunding MNPD and redirecting the money to programs supporting mental health resources, affordable housing and education.

Their website details how Mayor John Cooper’s budget plan disproportionately offers funding to law enforcement, meanwhile making cuts to social programs that the coalition believes could help reduce crime across the city.

Mayor Cooper’s latest budget has roughly $362 million allocated for a combination between police and the courts.

As the coalition explains, that’s just shy of $70 million more than health care, social services, affordable housing, transit, infrastructure and parks combined.

“That misses the point for some of our young people. They want the money to be used to help people, not further separate the police department from the community,” said State Sen. Brenda Gilmore of District 19.

Defunding police is a relatively new approach for Gilmore who says in past years, the focus has been on getting body armor and other protections for officers. Gilmore herself helped sponsor legislation to obtain body cameras, which was meant to help with accountability between officers and the public. The difference is in what the equipment is used for. Whereas body cameras build trust, body armor may promote a sense of fear.

“When we call police, we should be thinking immediately that they are there to protect us. If it takes transferring some of their funds to get that message over, then I’m in favor of it,” said Gilmore.

Gilmore believes MNPD still has a place in Nashville, as long as there’s more transparency to detail how their money is being spent.

Cities like Los Angeles and Minneapolis are already planning to cut millions from their law enforcement budgets, following mounting pressure to respond to the death of George Floyd.

When you explain some of the logic behind the "defunding" movement to officer James Smallwood, president of the Fraternal Order of Police in Nashville, he says it doesn’t stand to reason.

Why go to such great lengths to defund or even disband police, like Minneapolis is considering? While no major metropolitan city has gone that far yet, some have proposed a reimagining of public safety as an extension of your neighborhood.

Instead of traditional cops, neighbors watching out for each other and EMS or mental health experts are ready to help if needed.

Smallwood says it likely means fewer officers and for the communities who say they need a faster police presence, these proposals could make it impossible.

“We are not the crux of all the socio-economic problems that exist in our society today. I think it’s important to realize that. We should make sure our community has all the resources they need, but taking from the police to fund them is like robbing Peter to pay Paul. It doesn’t solve the problem,” said Smallwood.

According to MNPD, 90 percent of their funding pays for staffing. They’re already down 112 officers from being at full staff and more cuts mean less money to offer.

MNPD administrators say they received two letters of resignation Monday morning. One from a retiring officer and another from someone relocating to a city where the pay is substantially higher.

Smallwood says it’s a concern police departments across the country are beginning to face, but in Nashville, we may be closer than we realize.

Losing out on the money to pay recruits, could have a profound impact on hiring for months to come. In Minneapolis, the police have already lost out on several contracts where officers were once offered security detail. Money most officers used to supplement their salaries.

For Smallwood, he says we need to find ways to address the symptoms of any heavy-handed police action, rather than take away from the officers who could make a difference.

“As fragile as our society is, we don’t need to be looking for solutions that make the problem worse right now. We need to come together, share our perspectives and find a way for our community to discover a balance,” said Smallwood.