After a 7.5-hour Chattanooga City Council meeting with more than 140 speakers, all calling for the city to defund or divest from the police department, officials are considering if and how to amend the city's upcoming annual budget.
The residents were taking part in their 11th night of anti-police brutality activism following the killing of George Floyd - whose death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer spurred worldwide protests.
The 149 Chattanoogans, representing all nine city council districts, flooded the annual budget hearing to demand their representatives cut down on the city's nearly $72 million police budget.
They asked the council to reinvest that money into social programs like care for the city's homeless population, after-school and other youth and family development programs, public transportation and other parts of the budget that benefit people of color and low-income communities.
With the council's first of two votes on the budget, which was presented nearly a month ago by Mayor Andy Berke and staff, planned for Tuesday and the budget due under state law by the end of June, elected officials must quickly decide how to address the wave of citizens calling for dramatic financial reform of the police department.
It was clear Wednesday that the council members do not all agree on if or how to amend the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget.
District 1 Councilman Chip Henderson did not commit to any action, but says he heard the anguish in speakers' voices Tuesday as they discussed the fear some communities have of law enforcement, and that he's happy to hear constituents out.
"I've done a lot of thinking about what my response should be to the tragedy of George Floyd," he said. "And over the weekend I really decided it should be two things: One, I just need to listen. And then, the second is to follow the words of the Apostle Paul in scripture. He said to weep with them who weep."
Henderson said the views shared by speakers at the marathon meeting do not inherently reflect his district.
"What I try to do is keep things in perspective. And in our last election, we had around 2,000 that voted. Last night, I heard from 10 in District 1," he said, comparing that to his trips to neighborhood associations with more attendees. "And at all of these neighborhood associations, and the [homeowners' associations], one thing that always comes up is increased police presence. In my district, we have concerns with speeding and car break-ins ... so I have to balance that, and I have to weigh that."
Issues involving the county jail, Hamilton County Schools and a recent incident where county sheriff’s deputies tear gassed protesters came up several times throughout the meeting, but do not fall under the city’s jurisdiction or relate to its budget.Some citizens made their pleas a second time to the County Commission Wednesday morning after three commissioners vocalized their concerns about Floyd’s killing and the behavior of local law enforcement.The commission called a virtual meeting of its corrections and safety committee meeting for June 19 at 10 a.m. where the sheriff and other relevant officials of the county will be invited to discuss reform at the county level.
District 2 Councilman Jerry Mitchell did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
District 3 Councilman Ken Smith did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
District 4 Councilman Darrin Ledford did not commit to reconsidering the police budget, rather defending the department from some of the citizens' remarks, but he did say he supports funding some of the other initiatives that residents suggested.
"The public hearing on the budget was a very well organized advocacy effort. I will be talking with CPD this week to verify some of the statistical claims made last night. Mental health and homelessness are two very important discussions that need the right solutions," Ledford said by email. "During the recent tornado that ripped through East Brainerd, our Chattanooga Police Department was there immediately and showed extraordinary dedication and commitment to the people of our city. I disagree strongly with comments made last night that police 'have no place in our community.'"
"During the budget process, I will continue to speak with the people of District 4," he added.
District 5 Councilman Russell Gilbert did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
District 6 Councilwoman Carol Berz said that, as budget and finance chair, she's hopeful that the council will come to a consensus this week in its budget workshop now that it has heard from the public. But, she said, reforming the police department goes deeper than the budget.
"My goal with this meeting is to get people to thoughtfully talk about the police budget," she said. "I think that the budget hearing got everybody aware of the multitude of issues that are there, and I do think they involve how we spend our money. But mostly, as I said last night, they involve policy. No matter what, or how much money we give any department, it's how they spend it."
District 7 Councilman Erskine Oglesby said he's eager to hear from Police Chief David Roddy during Tuesday's budget workshop and will use that information to make a decision on how to proceed with the budget, but said he believes in police reform and investing in social issues posed by citizens.
"We can reform the police department, and we can find the resources to reinvest in the community," Oglesby said. "There's a way to make that happen while maintaining public safety through police reforms that can transition into all of those things - mental health and social programs - that help make us a stronger community."
Oglesby also highlighted the importance of providing a platform like Tuesday's hearing for the community during the fallout of what happened in Minneapolis.
"I thought it went great," Oglesby said. "There was a lot of energy, a lot of passion and a lot of people got the opportunity for their voices to be heard, which is important given the climate we're in."
District 8 Councilman Anthony Byrd said that while he and other council members have advocated for a lot of other changes including the formation of a police oversight board and a new youth and family development center in Avondale, he can't help but consider changing the police budget after hearing the passion of the citizens who spoke out.
"I'm going to have to talk to the mayor and to the staff and see how they're willing to move forward with it ... but you'd be an idiot or you'd be crazy not to listen to the people when they're this passionate," Byrd said. "I understand that a lot of this is sparked by what happened in Minnesota, but Chattanooga's not perfect. We have blood on our hands."
District 9 Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod called the meeting "amazing," adding that she will reach out to the mayor's office to address budgetary problems posed in the meeting, adding specifically that she supports moving some social services currently funded under the police department.
"I am most definitely going to work with Mayor Berke and his administration on solutions. This demonstrates even more why the mayor and council should work on the budget together," Coonrod wrote. "Public safety is broad. It's not limited to just the police department. I do agree we should take a deeper look at removing social services from under the police department budget and place under another priority area."
WHAT ABOUT THE MAYOR?
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, who with his administration formed the proposed budget in question, has vocalized his support for protesters responding to Floyd's death, but stayed virtually silent on the issue of defunding or divesting from the police.
When the newspaper asked the mayor's office what Berke's stance on the issue was, Chief of Staff Kerry Hayes responded.
"We were glad to see so many Chattanoogans last night make their voices heard about these deep and systemic issues. Any time people from our community get engaged on shaping our budget and policies, we end up with better outcomes, and I'm sure that will be the case this time," Hayes said by email. "All of us share the goal of wanting Chattanooga to be the safest community possible, and the administration looks forward to continuing those discussions in the weeks ahead as the city council moves through the approval process for the FY21 budget."
Contact Sarah Grace Taylor at email@example.com or 423-757-6416. Follow her on Twitter @_sarahgtaylor.