Nearly 30 law enforcement officers stood as a backdrop to a protest on Tuesday that included people supporting the police and their current budget, and others looking to reform or defund the department.
Flagstaff has seen nearly two weeks of on-and-off protests. The multiple groups that converged on the city hall lawn did get heated at one point during a situation that involved shoving, but discussions mainly involved peaceful attempts to challenge people’s perspectives. Many protesting on the lawn acknowledged that the current system has problems, but the question revolved around whether the solution was a larger police budget or redistributing money from the police into education or social services.
Two separate protests shared the lawn on Tuesday. People protesting outside of city hall reflected the 386 public comments read for nearly seven hours during the Flagstaff City Council meeting that night. Protesters looking to defund the police were worried that the protestors waving the Blue Lives Matter flag were there to stop them from sharing their voice, while protesters supporting police felt they were being mischaracterized as racist.
More than 100 protesters came out to support the defund perspective while about 20 supported the police budget. Charles Hernandez, spokesman for the Flagstaff police, said the department deployed more officers Tuesday due to the possibility of conflict, but reduced the amount sent on Wednesday. The Coconino County Sheriff's Office and the Northern Arizona University Police Department both sent officers to assist.
Deputy police chief Dan Musselman said the police budget is structured on having the various resources and tools needed to respond to 911 calls, training to increase police effectiveness, building improvements and record keeping. He said the highest priority when organizing the budget is protecting and preserving life.
“We have met with some of the protesters prior to protests. We have explained to organizers we support their right to protest, and requested they do it peacefully while obeying the law and keeping all citizens safe,” Musselman said via email. “We have requested if they choose to march that they stay out of the street for their own safety (obstructing a public street is a violation of Arizona law), and ours.”
Making the shift
The defund protest organized by Arizona Students Association, Northern Arizona University Young Democrats, Flagstaff Democratic Socialists of America and Flagstaff Rent Strike supported a list of demands on social media over the weekend.
Becca Anne, a member of the Flagstaff Democratic Socialists of America, said the group had based their demands on the general #8toabolish guide shared widely online and tailored it to Flagstaff.
The group’s nine major tenets include many subcategories such as diverting police funds to healthcare, education and shelter for people who are homeless. There are various calls to reduce the police’s budget entirely by 2024. It also calls for the repeal of the City of Flagstaff’s camping ban, any laws that “allow, hide or excuse" use of force or misconduct by police, and removing police officers from school grounds.
Other calls include freeing people from jails, ending the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainers, and investing in neighborhood councils as representative bodies within municipal decision making.
Other local groups noted they are working to create their own demands of the City of Flagstaff in response to this national focus on police activity and budgeting. Anne said her group was in support of these demands, but is prepared for any outcome from the council.
"I would be surprised to see [it pass],” Anne said. “I’m not sure if this city council has a lot of members that are willing to show the political courage to go against kind of a pretty entrenched institution. It’s pretty likely we’ll be focused on voting some of these people out in August and November.”
She said if people are worried about crime increases and officer safety, she believes diverting funding from officers to other community services will help to decrease the causes of crime and provide the space for new solutions.
"We spend a tremendous amount of resources on policing," Anne said. "It’s shown to not be effective at reducing social ills in any way. Things like housing initiatives and addiction treatment and mental health and education and job placement programs have been shown to be way more effective at reducing issues."
She also believes that reform has been tried, and that has not stopped black and indigenous people of color around the country from dying due to police or realities in their own cities.
"Seeing how it is to be unsheltered in the pandemic, I can’t imagine that our first and foremost spending priority shouldn’t be safe and secure housing for everybody in Flagstaff,” Anne said. “That is the No. 1 thing that will affect health and safety and everything else. ... It’s absurd that the police budget is double what is planned to spend on all housing initiatives combined.”
Jimmy Kleinhenz helped organize the people protesting public demands and trying to give a voice for officers. Kleinhenz said he has family in law enforcement and believes their job helps the community.
Kleinhenz admitted that he believes racial injustices are occurring around the country. In his opinion, however, the solution is more funding and more reform, not less. He described cutting the police budget by 50% as “asinine.”
"We’re with Black Lives Matter, of course. We want to see the change. Get the bad out,” Kleinhenz said. “Bring in the funding to have more extensive training, bringing better quality type officers. In my mind, they gotta pick from the bottom of the barrel. Nobody wants that job. You’re getting spit on, abused; nobody wants that job.”