Commissioner Mariah Parker and Tim Denson’s plan to “reimagine public safety” evolved slowly over months before the death of George Floyd catapulted it to the forefront of civic consciousness in Athens.
Then, like a shooting star, it faded quickly, now seeming completely out of reach as part of this year’s budget.
In Athens, local government budgets are normally finalized by the first week of June with new fiscal years beginning in July. This year, the commission chose to extend budget talks as long as possible out of fear their best plans would be overcome by a coronavirus-induced recession. While that may still happen, most of this extra time has actually been taken up by a discussion of the 50/10 Plan.
What’s the 50/10 Plan?
Parker and Denson’s proposal is best known to the public as a plan to “defund the police,” although the word “defund” does not appear in the document. Briefly, this is what the 50/10 Plan contains:
- Develop a plan to transition 50% of policing resources into community health and safety over a ten year period
- Fund an additional Mental Health Co-Responder Team for ACCPD
- Make five current vacancies in ACCPD permanent
- Bring 911 dispatching under public control
- Fund an additional social work position in the Public Defender’s office
- Increase Public Defender salaries
Some view this plan as a modest first step to reforming our police department into an agency better suited to meet a variety of community needs. Others see it as a radical overreaction to national events having no bearing on our local situation.
Regardless of your perspective, it’s important to know that every year’s budget is negotiated individually — the current commission can’t hold their future counterparts to any decision they make. This means, in terms of real dollars and cents going to the police department, the 50/10 Plan does not defund the police at all. While item #3 does cut five (currently vacant) positions, item #4 adds ten positions.
The most controversial part is item #1, which would form a citizen committee tasked with examining how the police department might be downsized. The actual downsizing, if any, would be negotiated in another year’s budget. We’d have a year or more to digest and debate before the eventual decision, which would only apply during the following year. For example, the commission might decide to reduce police funding by 5% in 2021, but could always choose to restore that funding and more in 2022 if there were negative consequences.
Even so, the commission has decided not to move forward with this idea, which is the core of the 50/10 Plan. It will not make it into the budget currently being debated.
Why was the 50/10 Plan rejected?
The commission heard more than 100 comments from the public at the “taxpayer bill of rights” hearing on June 16, with a large majority in favor of the plan. They’ve likely received at least as many emails from constituents on the topic as well. Regardless, not enough commissioners supported the Parker-Denson proposal strongly enough to push it through.
Budgets must be passed by seven votes, making them always a conservative reflection of commissioner opinion. But that doesn’t fully answer the question.
The commission did meet for a work session on June 18 in an attempt to hash out their disagreements regarding the 50/10 Plan. The meeting began with a presentation by Commissioner Melissa Link, intended as a compromise.
In this compromise, Link proposed another committee, in some ways similar to the one proposed by Parker and Denson. It’s called the “Public Safety and Community-Building Task Force” and is much larger and better-funded than the one in Parker and Denson’s plan. Link’s initial proposal sets its budget at $350,000.
The task force “will conduct community outreach, review research and data, commission appropriate studies, and produce actionable recommendations and timelines for transforming policing,” according to the proposal.
At first, it might be unclear how this is a compromise at all. Aren’t Parker and Denson getting everything they asked for, and more? Link’s proposal has many interesting elements and does incorporate parts of the 50/10 Plan, with one big exception. The core of 50/10, the part from which it derives its name, was absent. This means 50/10 was already rejected before the meeting even started and was not seriously considered during it.
The final nail in its coffin must have been hammered days or even weeks earlier.
Even so, Parker and Denson did seem to like Link’s idea, which tasks the new committee with “evaluat[ing] appropriate funding levels for ACCPD” and “explor[ing] the reallocation of resources.” Parker then asked the group if they’d accept a slight amendment to the language to bring the core element from 50/10 back in:
“Explore options to shrink investments in armed police response by 50% and transition those cost savings into a broader spectrum of public health and safety interventions — including but not limited to investments in social workers, restorative justice mediators, and mental health professionals — over 10 years.”
This was rejected out of hand by the commission.
Then Commissioner Denson tried to broker a compromise, offering another, much smaller amendment. He wanted not only to have the committee evaluate ACCPD funding levels but also for it to explore ways to “significantly reduce” that funding.
This also was rejected.
While not adamant about any particular level of funding — Commissioner Mike Hamby quipped that, theoretically, he’d love to see a 100% reduction in police expenses — the commission is working from the assumption that police offer valuable services to the community. To be fair, that’s certainly a reasonable assumption, given that everyone reading this has probably had to call the police about something at least once in their lives. The police do indeed offer valuable, even essential, services that Athenians rely on every single day.
However, the commission seems unwilling or unable to challenge their assumptions to see the negative side of some resident-police interactions and of the funding that makes those interactions possible. They seem unwilling to be completely honest to their constituents, or perhaps even to themselves, about their true feelings for the 50/10 Plan.
That being said, we should realize commissioners are facing an extreme amount of pressure. They see disapproving, even disparaging, comments from their constituents and others in an almost constant barrage on social media. This is not a healthy environment conducive of honest discussion of a disagreement.
It’s much easier for commissioners to support the goals of the plan on the surface while actually shuffling it off to a committee who will almost certainly make the rejection final.
Throughout the work session, commissioners who support Link’s compromise downplayed the differences between her plan and the Parker / Denson proposal, saying that supporters of 50/10 were “splitting hairs.” This is not true. What was on the table, and has now been pushed off, was the raw, beating heart of the George Floyd protests.
Where we stand now
Looking at the Link plan with fresh eyes, a progressive time traveler from 2019 might see this as the most significant and remarkable piece of legislation to be passed by the ACC Commission in years:
- Create a body to analyze and evaluate the entirety of law enforcement in Athens.
- Add an additional mental health co-responder team to ACCPD.
- Bring 911 dispatching under public control.
- Raise Public Defender salaries and fund a second social worker position for their office.
- Develop a life-skills pilot program for school-age children and provides continued support for existing programs such as the Young Urban Builders.
Progressives should support, even celebrate, this plan while continuing to try to improve it. This was always going to be a decade-long effort, even under the original and complete 50/10 Plan.
We must continue to engage. But the best way to do that might be to make an effort to understand the situation the commission is facing. No amount of pressure or public shaming can get people who are resisting to change their perspective. The opposite may even be true — the more pressure is applied, the more tunnel vision might set in.
On the other hand, public outrage and pressure has been essential in bringing the 50/10 Plan to the table. It wouldn’t have happened without the protests. It wouldn’t have happened without you. Future change also will not happen without your continued involvement. But in the same way that we hope the commission will widen their perspective in coming years, it may be beneficial for protesters to step back as well and take a larger view.
How would you react to this level of public pressure? Would it convince you to do something you thought was not in the community’s best interests? Or would it only harden your resolve to oppose the demands being shoved at you?
Only public outrage and pressure could have gotten a proposal like this on the table at all. But I invite protesters to consider the possibility that only genuine engagement and discussion, without judgement and over a long period of time, can finally get it passed.
The fiscal year 2021 budget for Athens-Clarke County will be voted on in a meeting scheduled for this Thursday, June 25 at 6 pm.