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In Bloomington, 'Defund Police' Slogan Stirs Bigger Conversation

Defund the Police sign
Matt York
Some are calling for changes to how police departments are funded in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis.

Bloomington City Council member Jenn Carrillo says her view of “defund police” is a lot more nuanced than the term implies—but now is the time for the discussion.

Carrillo, who is a founding member of a local Black Lives Matter group, said her city is spending too much money on policing. The Bloomington Police Department’s $21 million budget (excluding pensions and other costs) comprises about 19% of the city’s $110 million general fund budget each year. (There are separate funds for water, sewer, library, and other city services, not included in the general fund.)

“Defunding the police doesn’t mean we wake up tomorrow and BPD is gone. It means we start divesting in punitive systems and divesting in law enforcement,” Carrillo said. “Maybe our goal is to decrease it every year. Stop replacing officers who resign. And to start shrinking that apparatus, and as that (happens), we are investing. We start investing that money in other places that we as representatives determine in community, especially centering the people who have most been affected by a policing system that doesn’t work.”

Carrillo said that money could be reinvested instead into social priorities, such as housing, education, and jobs programs. The gap between what the city spends on social programs and its police is too wide, she said.

“How many people do know that, if given access to education, housing, and health care, would be out robbing people or burglarizing homes? I can’t think of anyone,” Carrillo said. “In our society, we think of crime as an individual action of bad behavior that has to be corrected by putting somebody in jail, when … usually it’s because they’ve been unable to meet their basic needs.”

Bloomington police car
Credit Amy Niebur / WGLT
The crime rate in Bloomington has generally declined since 2013, while the department’s number of full-time employees has stayed relatively unchanged at 144.

What about going in the other direction, and investing more in police, but earmarking that money for positions serving social work-type functions? After all, police officers are increasingly playing that role already, connecting those they encounter with disparate social services elsewhere in the community.

Carrillo was skeptical of that idea, pointing to police unions as one big barrier to reforms in the U.S.

“We’ve allowed police departments to become enormously powerful, to the point where even our city governments can’t hold them accountable,” she said.

Other city leaders point to accountability changes that already have taken place, including the creation of the Public Safety and Community Relations Board in 2017, and the rollout of body-worn cameras for all officers. The crime rate in Bloomington has generally declined since 2013, while the department’s number of full-time employees has stayed relatively unchanged at 144.

Reaction from Renner, Human Relations Commission

Carrillo conceded there is likely no political consensus on the council to move in this direction in the next city budget.

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner has been cool to the idea. He told WGLT he opposes any major funding cuts for the police department.

“The heavy burden would be on somebody, even if they said 10% (budget reduction),” Renner said. “I’m willing to listen to that. But where is that gonna come from? How is that surgical? What impact is that really going to have on our police force and our community, and what do you want to do with those funds?”

Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner and City Councilmember Jenn Carillo.
Credit Breanna Grow / WGLT
Mayor Tari Renner and council member Jenn Carrillo at a recent meeting.

He said “nobody said boo about this during the budgetary process” that city leaders just wrapped up, for the fiscal year that began May 1. Carrillo acknowledged she didn’t push the issue during that last budget process, saying it “just didn’t seem even politically possible to have the conversation.”

One group now interested in that conversation is the Bloomington Human Relations Commission, which agreed Wednesday to try and bring “interested parties” together to discuss the possibility of defunding the police. Commissioners said the mayor and council members would be invited to join those discussions.

“I think there’s a role that the (Human Relations Commission) could play in bringing disparate voices to the table to flesh out this issue and see if this something the community would support, or just to facilitate discussion,” said Ky Ajayi, a commissioner and also a leadership team member with Black Lives BloNo. “We won’t necessarily resolve the conflict. But I think it is a conflict in our community right now.”

The Human Relations Commission also approved a statement denouncing the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

“We sympathize with the anger and frustration brought on by decades of abuse, injury, death and the failed promises of incremental change, by those in power whose shameless perpetuation of grievous and inhumane treatment of black citizens is partly the reason for the creation of our human relations commission and other public bodies of similar purpose. We endorse the current protesters in their effort to effect change as the representative voice of those who have suffered or lost their lives, at the hand of some in law enforcement, as they proceed in a manner that is profound, efficacious and respectful of all who support this cause,” the statement read in part.

Meanwhile, Renner said he has signed a “commit to action” pledge on Obama.org, confirming his commitment to “review the use of police force” in Bloomington and “report the findings of his review,” among other things. Normal Mayor Chris Koos said he is still deciding whether to sign it.

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Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.
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