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After Other Cities Cut Police Spending Amid Defund Movement, CMPD Budget Will Likely Grow By $10M

Protesters walk the streets of Charlotte in 2020.
Steve Harrison
Protesters walk the streets of Charlotte in 2020.

After last year’s protests over the killing of George Floyd, several cities across the country reduced the amount of money budgeted for the police — cities such as Seattle, Atlanta and Austin, Texas.

In June 2020, the Charlotte City Council took a vote that was in the spirit of the defund movement.

Council members voted 9-2 to prohibit the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department from buying chemical agents for one year — a move that came after protesters and some council members criticized CMPD for using tear gas against protesters uptown.

Soon after that vote, Johnny Jennings replaced Kerr Putney as Charlotte-Mecklenburg police chief. In his nearly 30 years working for CMPD, Jennings said he had never seen a City Council get so involved in how the department does its job.

“I didn’t know what direction we were going in,” Jennings said. “I knew there was a lot of upset people and people in influential positions that really was upset with the police, and not just across the county but the police here in Charlotte.”

He said he worried the tear gas vote might lead to more votes like it.

“There was a fear that the budget would be decreased, and we would lose funding,” Jennings said.

But after that vote against tear gas, Charlotte is going in the opposite direction.

The proposed CMPD budget for the next fiscal year would increase by more than $10 million — a 3.7% increase — to $301 million.

The city spent $274 million on policing three years ago.

Council members are scheduled to vote on the budget Monday.

'He's Built A Lot Of Trust In A Short Amount Of Time'

At-large council member Larken Egleston chairs the council committee that oversees the police. He credits Jennings with keeping an open dialogue with council. He said that snuffed out any talk about defunding CMPD.

“If you trust the leadership of the department or an organization, that goes a long way,” Egleston said.

“Every time we have gone to talk to him — 'Can we look at this? Can we try to align with best practices?' — he’s never been unwilling to have those conversations or do that analysis. He’s built a lot of trust in a short amount of time.”

Jennings has walked a tightrope between trying to satisfy people who want reforms, while also protecting how much money his department gets.

Soon after that vote to prohibit CMPD from buying tear gas for a year, Jennings said he would no longer use chemical-based tear gas as a form of crowd control.

But in an interview with WFAE, he said his department can still use regular tear gas when someone has barricaded themselves in a house. And he said CMPD will still use a plant-based tear gas as crowd control, along with plant-based pepper balls.

Jennings has also agreed to make the department compliant with "Eight Can’t Wait," a list of police reforms such as requiring de-escalation and not shooting at moving vehicles. A year ago, CMPD said it was already doing that, but the department agreed to strengthen language requiring officers to intervene if a colleague is using excess force.

Activists Feel Heard

Robert Dawkins with Action NC said he’s OK with more money for CMPD because the chief is listening to activists like himself.

“People are using to hearing me say, ‘Police don’t do this, (they are) bad, bad, bad,” Dawkins said. “What I can say in this example is that Chief Jennings has been a man of his word in saying, 'Show me what (police duties) can be replaced and if it makes sense, I will do it.'”

Most of CMPD’s budget increase is for pay raises.

The department also has nearly 200 empty positions — a long-running problem due to a high number of retirements and difficulty finding people who want to be cops. Rather than eliminate those jobs and shift the money to social services, the proposed budget has money to fill those spots.

Jennings said he will spend $775,000 to double the number of crisis response teams, also known as CRTs, from six to 12.

CRTs are clinicians who can be paired with officers to help on calls where someone is believed to have mental health issues.

Jennings said they will mostly be used for follow-up calls — not primarily in 911 response. Even after doubling the number of mental health clinicians, there won’t be nearly enough CRTs to regularly respond to emergency calls.

“They also do check-ins to make sure they are taking their medication, that they are provided every resource out there to make sure we aren’t going back to have calls at that person’s location,” Jennings said.

A Change In Policing

Jennings also said he wants to study having someone other than police officers handle routine traffic accidents.

“Officers are basically writing traffic accident reports for insurance companies,” he said.

Long before Jennings became chief, CMPD had pulled back significantly in terms of how it interacts with the public. The department made half as many arrests in 2019 as it did in 2009. And Jennings is pushing for that to continue: Arrests dropped nearly 30% in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the same time period a year earlier.

Dawkins of Action NC said he’s concerned that an increase in homicides will cause the city to spend even more on policing. The city’s homicide rate is on track this year to be the highest since the late 1990s. Charlotte recorded its 46th homicide of 2021 last weekend; it had 37 at the same time last year.

“We’re going to have to show violence reduction, or you are in the situation like California and Minneapolis — cities that refund the police,” Dawkins said.

In Minneapolis, the City Council this year voted to spend new money hiring police officers, after moving to defund the department in 2020.

In Raleigh, the city’s new budget increased public safety spending by a little more than 4% , to $198 million. That’s 37% of the city’s general fund – slightly less than Charlotte’s 40% police share.

In Asheville, City Manager Debra Campbell last year said she was moving to defund the police — at least slightly.

City Council approved trimming the public safety budget by $775,000, or nearly 3%.

A year later, the Asheville police have listed a number of crimes they won’t respond to in person, such as thefts under $1,000. The city said it’s short-staffed after 84 officers retired in the last year. The city said it has 70 vacancies out of 238 positions.

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.