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Budget Sent To St. Louis Board Of Aldermen Cuts Police Spending, Directs Money To Social Services

St. Louis Metropolitan Police establish a perimeter around a demonstration at the intersection of Tucker Boulevard and Market Street in downtown, St. Louis on April 20, 2021.
David Kovaluk
St. Louis Public Radio
The budget sent to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen on Thursday cuts 98 vacant positions from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

The $4 million in savings would be directed toward victims services, affordable housing, homeless services and a legal department to prosecute civil rights violations.

Updated at 1:50 p.m., April 29, with comments from the St. Louis Police Officers Union representative

The board that oversees the St. Louis budget has voted to cut nearly 100 vacant positions from the police department and direct the money elsewhere.

Mayor Tishaura Jones and Comptroller Darlene Green supported the changes at the Board of Estimate and Apportionment on Thursday. Board of Aldermen President Lewis Reed voted against the plan, citing concerns with overtime costs.

Jones, who took office nine days ago, said the action helps fulfill her campaign promises.

“Today you saw a proposed budget amendment that reflects more of my priorities, and to address the root causes of crime and support victims of crime, as well as those who have been underserved and underrepresented,” Jones said.

The spending plan, now on its way to the Board of Aldermen, cuts 98 positions — six lieutenants, 25 sergeants and 67 police officers — from the department. The $4 million in savings is directed to affordable housing, more support for the city’s homeless community, services for victims of crime and a new unit in the city’s legal department that would allow the Civil Rights Enforcement Agency to prosecute violations.

The budget also eliminates funding for the north St. Louis jail known as the Workhouse. That money is directed instead toward additional services for those leaving jail and boosting the capacity of the current civilian oversight board to look into the jail. There is also funding to pay other counties to take individuals who may not be able to be safely housed at the Criminal Justice Center downtown.

Jones said she discussed the police position reductions with Chief John Hayden, who told members of E&A that the changes would not affect the way the department operates.

“It’s a theoretical group of people,” Hayden said. “It wouldn’t affect current operations at all because there are people that I don’t have. I support the possibility of doing other things with that potential pool of money.”

Reed thanked Jones and the staff in the budget office for “working to put money into some important services that we need to provide for St. Louis and the residents to operate more efficiently and effectively.” But said he voted no over concerns about the impact that cutting vacant positions would have on the department’s overtime budget.

The police department has routinely spent more on overtime than was allocated since 2012. But it has managed to stay within its overall budget by spending the salaries meant for the vacant positions on overtime instead.

“When the bill makes it over to the Board of Aldermen, we will continue to work to meet all of our goals that the amendment brings,” Reed said.

Hayden acknowledged the department would have to watch its overtime budget closely. And he pushed back on a narrative that had taken hold on social media that the cuts amounted to a hiring freeze.

“It wouldn’t prevent us from hiring more officers,” he said. “We need to hire more officers to keep up with attrition. That’s all we’ve been able to do in the last 3½ years.”

In a statement released Wednesday, the Ethical Society of Police, which advocates for minority officers in the department, said it strongly supported Jones’ efforts to boost funding for long-term solutions.

“However, positive gains will be difficult to realize if police are unable to switch from being simply responsive to being proactive,” the group said. “To do so requires proper staffing. Hopefully, with the influx of $500 million in federal aid, city officials can figure out how to do all of the above.”

Jane Dueker, a representative for the St. Louis Police Officers Association, said the union agreed with the Ethical Society that the department needed proper staffing. And she echoed Reed’s concern about the overtime budget situation.

“That is a huge concern to us,” she said. “The current services are being done with overtime officers, and the services are already substandard. We believe that taking more officers off the street would be unsafe.”

The city’s Ways and Means Committee will start hearing testimony from different departments in the coming weeks. The city’s charter says the budget must be balanced, so aldermen who want to boost spending in one area have to cut it in another area. E&A would then have to approve any changes the aldermen make. A spending plan must be approved by June 30.

The budget relies on $17.3 million in expected federal pandemic recovery funds to close a deficit driven by increases in expenses like pensions and revenue sources that still have not recovered from the effect of COVID-19 closures. But it does not include plans for the remaining $500 million in federal aid.

Jones’ Stimulus Advisory Board is holding its first meeting on Saturday.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.