Bloomington public safety budget hearings: 3 fire stations need rebuilt; proposed reduction in sworn police a point of contention

Tuesday night’s round of departmental budget hearings in front of Bloomington’s city council featured two of the city’s most basic services: police and fire protection. Together those departments make up 42 percent ($24 million) of the proposed 2021 general fund budget.

A highlight from the fire department’s presentation was the fact that three out of the city’s five stations need to be replaced, at a ballpark price of $5.5 million apiece. A previously identified potential need is for a sixth fire station, somewhere in the southwest quadrant of the city. That translates into a $22 million future expenditure on new fire houses.

Fire chief Jason Moore delivered the proposed budget for the department.

Getting most of the council’s and the public’s attention in the police budget presentation was Bloomington mayor John Hamilton’s proposed reduction in authorized sworn police officers from 105 to 100. The proposal swaps out five sworn officers for two social workers, two neighborhood resource officers and a data analyst.

Chief of police Mike Diekhoff delivered the budget presentation for his department.

Bloomington city council budget hearings continue Wednesday and Thursday starting at 6 p.m. each day.

Proposed 2021 police department budget

Even if the 2021 budget proposal for the police department goes through, it would mean hiring five more sworn officers to get to the authorized level, because the current staffing level is just 95.

The city council takes straw polls after each budget presentation, which have no legal significance. The final budget doesn’t get presented until late September, with a vote on it by October.

But the straw polls give some indication of the council’s mood on a subject. On Tuesday night, only Dave Rollo indicated support for the police department budget proposal. Ron Smith and Susan Sandberg voted no. The rest abstained.

The hearings pushed towards midnight, as about 75 public commenters weighed in on the police proposal. Some people weighed with explicit support of the proposed reduction of sworn officers.

Some supported the department and police officers generally. They wanted sworn officer numbers maintained or increased. Of those, several also supported adding non-sworn officers—a “both-and” kind of approach.

Paul Post, who’s of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, said during public commentary: “The FOP has no opposition to these civilian positions, but would ask that they be made in addition to a fully staffed police department. The FOP strongly opposes any reduction to sworn personnel funding.”

That statement echoed a press release issued by the union last Friday  in response to a consultant’s study released the same day, which indicates the department is understaffed, by as many as 16 sworn officers, if proactive policing goals are to be met.

Some councilmembers last year were concerned that the two authorized officers added for this year, which increased authorized numbers from 103 to 105, was not enough. Four out of nine new faces on the city council this year could mean a change in that sentiment this year.

On Tuesday night, councilmembers seemed like they could become supportive of the additional civilian resources as an important complement to policing by sworn officers, but not necessarily as a replacement.

For example, councilmember Sue Sgambelluri said she was interested in learning more about the social services component provided by the new civilian positions. She added, “What I’m not yet convinced of, and I need to think more about, is whether or not it is wise to reduce the number of sworn officers in an agency that has already been pretty consistently described as short staffed among that group.”

Some family members of Bloomington police officers, as well as current officers themselves, weighed in during public commentary.

Based on public commentary, morale among BPD officers is poor. BPD officer Jeff Rodgers said BPD has lost nine officers this year already—and all nine now work at other police departments. Rodgers said, “I’ve spoken to 82 of our current officers, and 41 are actively seeking alternative employment, and 30 have submitted applications with other employers.”

Another common theme among public commenters was that BPD officers are overworked. A new financial transparency portal launched by Bloomington this week allows for overtime analysis for BPD employees.

A coarse analysis of the overtime that was paid out, as a percentage of total pay, shows a clear increase over the years, especially the last three. Last year’s total, which surpassed both of the previous two years, could stem from the extra staffing needed for security at the farmers market last year.

The drop this year, BPD chief of police Mike Diekhoff told The Square Beacon, was an impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lots of events were cancelled—for example Little 500. Three have also been fewer calls for service, Diekhoff said.

Table: Bloomington Police Department Overtime (2020 partial year)

2013 $6,735,189 $288,463 $289,403 $7,023,652 4.28%
2014 $7,117,615 $472,318 $206,216 $7,589,933 6.64%
2015 $7,419,781 $561,257 $256,781 $7,981,037 7.56%
2016 $7,464,763 $540,324 $198,162 $8,005,087 7.24%
2017 $8,043,101 $867,127 $204,535 $8,910,228 10.78%
2018 $8,301,983 $830,193 $237,152 $9,132,176 10.00%
2019 $8,507,230 $975,559 $276,345 $9,482,789 11.47%
2020 $5,880,907 $516,874 $116,087 $6,397,781 8.79%

A common thread through some of the commentary was the idea that national news of police misconduct, like the killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by Minneapolis police in late May, should not impact the way the Bloomington community views its local police department.

Gabriela Esquivel introduced herself as a Mexican-American female police officer with Bloomington’s police department. “I’ve been treated less than human due to being Mexican many times in my life. Here in Bloomington I’ve had plenty of racial slurs thrown at me, but never has it been from my fellow officers,” Esquivel said. She added, “They have welcomed my cultural knowledge in places that they may lack it. I would absolutely never work for a department that would do their job differently or less than effective depending on the race.”

About the killing of George Floyd, Esquivel said, “I know that every single police officer in the Bloomington Police Department was upset, disgraced and appalled at the actions of the Minneapolis police department. ”

Esquivel said, “I work alongside amazing officers here in Bloomington who go to work every day knowing it could be their last. Never have I doubted their ethical character out on the street. How can we as a city allow national media to punish our good officers by defunding them?”

Other commenters countered the idea that there is not a problem with racial equity and policing in Bloomington, by citing use-of-force data. The departments numbers shows that in about 25 percent of situations where BPD officers use force, it’s a Black person against whom force is used. Bloomington’s Black population is around 5 percent of the city’s population.

The disparate impact on Black people in the use-of-force data was a point made in the opening comment of the night, by Jada Bee, a member of the Black Lives Matter B-town core council.

Jada Bee had her audio cut off for going past the allotted time in her initial turn. The speaker’s time clock had been glitchy over the course of the evening, and it was not clear that Jada Bee’s overage was handled in the same way as for subsequent speakers. So towards the end of the two-and-half hours of commentary, councilmember Dave Rollo, who presided over the evening’s hearing, eventually exercised the chair’s discretion to allow Jada Bee another chance to talk.

In her second turn, Jada Bee said there’s a fundamental a misunderstanding about what defunding the police actually looks like. She told city councilmembers they “would be privy to thoroughly understanding that information, if you agreed to take the Black Lives Matter anti-racist policy training that was offered to you all.”

The two new proposed social workers in the 2021 budget proposal would join Melissa Stone, who was hired as a social worker in Bloomington’s police department last year. Stone addressed the city council during public during Tuesday’s hearing.

“First, I understand people being worried about social work values conflicting with police values,” Stone said. She added, “However, what I want people to know is that I definitely work very independently. I do my follow ups and meet with people solo, I have my own car.”

Stone described how sworn officers are sometimes not involved at all: “Sometimes people call me just directly at the police department and we can discuss something, before there’s any police intervention in general.” Stone wrapped by by saying, “So I understand some of these concerns, but I am a licensed professional, and I do understand following the code of ethics.”

In their closing commentary councilmembers expressed a lot of ambivalence about the proposal and what they’d heard during public commentary.

Susan Sandberg said, “This has been a very long evening. It’s been been instructional. As with all deliberations that we as councilmembers must make up here, I think the prudent thing to do is to sit and reflect on it. I’m not going to make any comments this evening.”

Matt Flaherty echoed some of the comments that Isabel Piedmont-Smith made earlier about common ground: “We need to agree on common goals. And I think broadly we do. People, again, want to feel safe, they want to feel secure. And I think it’s really important that that’s true for everyone in our community.”

About the numerous comments in support of the police department, Flaherty said, “We’ve heard about good things that police do, we’ve heard from people who have positive interactions with police officers, none of that is in dispute.” Balanced against that, Flaherty said, “The fact remains that that’s not true for everyone. And as long as that’s true, that people in our community…feel marginalized by the way we pursue policing and public safety, then we have a lot of work to do.”

Flaherty pointed to the kind of statistics that affect his thinking: “Our local Bloomington and Monroe County data show substantial racial disparities in use of force, arrest rates, jail stay lengths, sentencing lengths, etc. And because this is true, we have to keep working to change things to address those substantive racial injustices.”

Jim Sims said there’s a lot more discussion that need to happen, but made a concrete suggestion. Sims suggested that the non-sworn neighborhood resource officers not use vehicles labeled “Police” in large letters. “I think it would help substantially if we removed those letters off of our neighborhood resource officers vehicles,” Sims said. Those letters can escalate a situation when they are supposed to de-escalate things, Sims said.

Sims also said he’s excited about the new Stride Coalition’s crisis diversion center. The center is supposed to be a place where police officers can take someone who’s in crisis—a place that’s not the county jail or the emergency room. Sims said he supports “whatever we can do to keep Black people, and marginalized people from being arrested, out of jail or going to the emergency department.”

Sims wrapped up by saying, “There is no question that I do support our local law enforcement.”

Sims chairs the city council’s standing committee on public safety, which is supposed to meet next week to hold an additional hearing on the budget. The information has not yet been posted on the city’s website.

Proposed 2021 fire department budget

Not all of the focus of councilmember questions about the first department’s budget was on the topic of the current year’s expenditures. Some of their concerns were longer range.

A study showed that three out of five fire stations in the city have structural issues that mean they should be replaced. That was bit of news from fire chief Jason Moore’s presentation that drew councilmember Matt Flaherty’s attention. Flaherty said, “That sounds like a pretty significant…I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit more about the timeframe we’re talking about, and the trade offs of renovation versus replacement.”

Flaherty yielded to Moore for his answer by saying, “Maybe I heard you wrong, but that’s what I thought I heard.”

About the expense of re-building three stations, Moore said the department’s 10-year capital plan calls for more expenditures than is available. That will mean choices. The engineering firm that the fire department hired was asked to give a clear answer to the repair-versus-replace question. The engineering also made some recommendations for interim repairs.

The department is now following the plan that came from the engineering study, Moore said. He described it as “shocking news” that three of the stations need to be replaced. “That was not on anybody’s radar until that study was done,” Moore said. Considering that a potential recession is approaching, the plan for station replacement “has to match what our community’s expecting,” Moore said. He told Flaherty the station replacement plan is a coordinated effort, based on a lot of data.

Councilmember Dave Rollo asked Moore about the geographic proximity of fire stations. Rollo recalled that an additional station in the southwest quadrant of the city has been anticipated “for some time” in order to provide adequate fire protection coverage. Rollo wondered if that need is still there and if it is becoming acute.

Moore said the most recent GIS study on that was done in 2011, in connection with potential future annexations. Moore said that study needs to be refreshed to understand exactly where the response needs are. Moore said that the southwest side of Bloomington is a “growing concern” but stopped short of calling it “acute.” “It is something that we are keeping an eye on, Moore said.

Councilmember Jim Sims pushed Moore to explain what he meant by improving the diversity of the fire department. In his 2021 budget presentation, Moore had said improving diversity is now a written goal.

Sims wanted to know what improvement from a 2.2-percent to a 21.9-percent diversity profile means. What counts as diverse?

Moore said the the definition includes people of color, as well as gender. In the 2016 hiring process, there were 2.2 percent minority applications—which worked out to two applicants, Moore said. In the 2018 process, minority applications were around 22-percent, Moore said. The idea is to make sure that the applicant pool is diverse so that there are minority candidates in the hiring mix.

Sims responded, “So your diversity profile actually means your applicant pool.” The department’s current mix of gender, as of early 2019,  includes 5 out of 109 (4.6 percent) firefighters who are female. Two firefighters (1.8 percent) are Black.

During council question time, Matt Flaherty pushed Moore to respond to a comment from Jada Bee during public commentary—she had questioned the department’s effort to recruit non-binary-gendered firefighters. Flaherty said, “I appreciate you clarifying …the efforts you are putting forth on diversity inclusion. You mentioned cisgendered male and female firefighters. But has there been discussion and planning at all or recruitment efforts for gender non-binary folks? I think was kind of part of what Jada Bee’s question was going to.”

Moore responded in general terms. “Really, we’ve gotten a really good feel from a lot of the local experts on how can we be better at what we’re doing,” More said. “We want the best of whatever the world has to offer…to come here and work for us, which includes all these groups.” In the past, Moore said, the way jobs were advertised, in some cases by word-of-mouth, did not provide for any type of diversity.

Moore described the department’s current approach: “What we’re doing now is giving everybody a fair shot to try to get into our department. Again, this is an evolving process. We will learn from this and we’ll get better next time.” Flaherty told Moore he’d follow up on the topic by email.

Budget hearings continue Wednesday and Thursday. Information about accessing the city council’s budget hearings is available on the council’s meeting page.

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