MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - While calls to defund and demilitarize police departments across the country are growing louder, so is the confusion and outrage surrounding those statements.
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On Wednesday, Black Lives Matter Memphis and other local activists tried to set the record straight by saying take some money the police department receives from taxpayers and put it elsewhere.
“Crime would go down and it’d be a deterrent if you actually fund the real root cause of crime," said activists Amber Sherman. "Which is social and economic inequality, food deserts, and not having a good education.”
The 2021 budget approved by Memphis City Council on June 2 is not yet publicly available. The WMC Action News 5 Investigators requested a copy but was told it would not be ready until July.
That’s more than any other City department.
Most of the money, roughly $251 million, pays personnel. The remaining funds would pay for materials and supplies, capital outlay and grants and subsidies.
“What do you say to protesters who want to defund, abolish or demilitarize the police department,” asked The Investigators.
“When you talk about defunding the police department, I ask people, what does that mean,” said Memphis Police Director Mike Rallings.
In our exclusive interview, Director Rallings painted a picture of what he thinks defunding his department would look like.
“People say they want more community policing. If you defund the police department, I can’t do more community policing. I can’t build more websites and have more transparency if you do that,” he said.
For Fiscal Year 2020, which ends June 30, the City allocated more than $161 million to pay MPD’s full-time salaries, and an additional $26 million for overtime.
Budget forecasts show only $121 will be used for full-time salaries this fiscal year.
That leaves a gap of $40 million. We asked about the remaining money and have yet to hear back.
Still, $163 million has been proposed to MPD full-time salary pay next fiscal year.
The Department of Justice recently doled out federal funds to seven of the most violent cities in the United States, including Memphis.
The Memphis Police Department received more of that money than any other city. It received $9.8 million to hire over 50 new police officers over the next three years. That averages out to be about $196,000 per office.
Mike Dunavant, Attorney General for the Western District of the Tennessee, estimates that money will pay for salaries, insurance, benefits, training, recruiting and equipment.
“Do you now think that we can take $10 million from the police department and put it elsewhere?” The Investigators asked Dunavant.
“No I really don’t,” he said. “If you rob Peter to pay Paul you’re going to ultimately pay the price in higher violent crime rates.”
Dunavant provided a graph from the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, which he says shows an increase in officers on the streets results in a decrease in violent crime.
Director Rallings agrees with the correlation.
“Staffing matters. Staffing matters when you’re at Walmart, staffing matters when you at Chik-Fil-A, staffing especially matters when you’re responding to 925,000 calls,” he said.
There are also calls to demilitarize police departments, especially after officers showed up wearing riot gear to several of the Memphis protests.
“We rarely deploy any type of riot gear,” said Dir. Rallings. “My officers have been escorting protesters in regular uniform. Riot gear is necessary, it’s protective gear.”
Through the federal 1033 Program, which transfers military equipment to local police departments, the Memphis Police Department received a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle from the Department of Defense last August.
The vehicle, known as an MRAP, was free though the police department paid for shipping.
“You know what our MRAP is used mostly for? Kids play in it. We did an MRAP pool and we raised money for St. Jude," said Dir. Rallings.
Rallings said he is committed to listening to new ideas, as cities across the country work on police policy changes. However, he fears any loss of funding will create challenges to officer recruitment and retention.
MPD will soon have 2,100 officers on the street, as soon as the current class in training graduates.