Sheriff’s deputies have a very difficult job. And no matter what justice system reform measures we support, we should honor them.
The work of our law enforcement personnel is dangerous but essential. Their responsibilities are intense even in normal times. But these are not normal times. Now add the additional risk of a global health crisis and the increased scrutiny of outraged citizens.
I believe we can value the lives of black Americans and make needed improvements to our justice system without stripping needed equipment and resources from our law enforcement officers.
It’s terrible we’ve reached a point where that sentence even needs to be written, but some see this as an either-or question. I respectfully disagree.
Shelby County Commissioners are hearing some of the same messages you see across the nation. We’re receiving calls to “defund the police” and to support budget amendments that would strip 5-10% from the Sheriff’s office and shift those funds elsewhere.
In other words, activists are asking us to prove that black lives matter by withdrawing support from the county’s first black Sheriff.
Some of us on the Shelby County Commission are not going to do that. In our regular meeting on Monday, the Republicans were the five no votes who came to the defense of a Democratic sheriff.
A previous vote on a similar amendment in an earlier, special-called meeting drew even larger, bi-partisan opposition (I was not available to participate in that meeting).
Those who want to defund law enforcement altogether are shocked that Commissioners did not strip the department of just a percentage, which to them seems like a modest and reasonable step.
Some have asked why I voted no. Let me explain.
First, because of this year’s budget pressures, the Sheriff’s budget has already been cut and will likely be cut even more.
If you’re asking me why I won’t cut the Sheriff’s budget – I already have.
In fact, the Sheriff’s budget would have been cut even more under an across-the-board cut of 6% that earned four Republican yes votes and the support of no other commissioners.
Six percent would have been devastating for the Sheriff. But that cut was considered because revenues are expected to drop and will come in way below previous spending levels.
Unless commissioners wish to raise taxes in the midst of a recession, severe job losses and business closures, we have to cut significantly from the general fund budget. And because the Sheriff’s office is about 40% of the general fund, there are larger dollar amounts to be found there.
If we exempt the Sheriff’s office entirely from the budget cutting process, the other departments would have to be cut back in an even more drastic way, vital county functions would suffer, and employees would lose their jobs.
Second, the Sheriff is being asked to do more with less.
Because certain Memphis communities have been de-annexed recently and will lose Memphis Police Department protection this year, the Sheriff’s department has to expand to cover more territory.
It’s harder to cut a budget when you’re asking the department to do more.
Third, you might ask, if you supported the 6% cut, why not support the 5% cut?
Great question. Here’s the answer: There was a good reason for the 6% cut: to balance the budget.
In my opinion, there is no good reason to cut an additional 5-10% from the Sheriff’s budget, only to shift those funds elsewhere with absolutely no plan in place.
Under the amendment, half of those funds literally would have gone to a “contingency” account controlled by commissioners, and the other half would have shifted to the Community Services division, toward no specific expense.
So instead of asking me why I don’t support a non-specific, ambiguous amendment, perhaps you should ask its supporters why they didn’t approve the previous motion to cut 6%.
Finally, there is the question of priorities. How can we continue to put so much into law enforcement and so little into education?
Another good question. Thank you for asking.
There are zero dollars for education in the general fund.
That’s right. And that’s because education has its own fund, which consumes about 50% of the county’s revenues. And despite suggestions otherwise, this fund has not been cut, in part because it can’t be cut. State law requires the county to maintain or increase the level of funding for education.
Education also gets a large portion of the county’s capital improvement project (CIP) budget, which is millions more.
So the suggestion that we’re supporting law enforcement at the expense of education is just flatly incorrect.
Both are important.
All of that said, I believe more criminal justice reforms are coming, and I will probably support some of them if they are meaningful, thoughtful, responsible and appropriate.
I imagine the Sheriff’s office will also support and welcome some of those measures, as getting justice right is literally their job.
I will commit to working with law enforcement leadership to continually improve their practices and policies, to safeguard citizens, and to restore a sense of peace and justice to our nation.