(TNS) — Nowhere on Bethlehem City Council’s Tuesday agenda did the words “defund the police” appear.
Several council members emphasized they’re not thinking about doing it early in the meeting.
But that didn’t stop a flood of callers during a six hour marathon meeting. It was a meeting of contrasts.
Many expressed support for the Bethlehem Police Department, urging council to not cut funding to the department or abolish it. Others flagged concerns about stats in the police department’s use of force report, police conduct and systemic racism. Outside of Bethlehem City Hall, the Lehigh Valley Tea Party held a Back the Blue rally during the meeting. Some council members donning masks ventured into Town Hall while others tuned in virtually from home.
The council public safety committee was convened to review the department’s use of force report and policies and to discuss a community engagement initiative involving residents, the department, education officials, nonprofits and social justice groups.
Cities across the nation are examining their policing policies in the wake of the death of George Floyd, who died May 25 in Minneapolis after then-police officer Derek Chauvin allegedly pressed a knee on his neck until he stopped breathing. Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests, including thousands who marched peacefully across the Lehigh Valley.
When council voted to create the ongoing public forum July 7, they were told by many residents they needed bolder police reforms and to defund the department. Tuesday night they heard from folks in stark opposition to that idea.
The idea of reallocating money away from police departments -- dubbed defunding -- to other social service agencies to tackle the root causes of crime has been gaining momentum and prominence in the wake of Floyd’s death. Some take it further and advocate for abolition of police.
A Change.org petition to defund the Bethlehem police and put money towards housing, educational programs and healthcare has gained nearly 10,000 signatures.
Protesters outside of Bethlehem’s Town Hall Tuesday showed up to declare their opposition to any defunding.
A competing Change.org petition titled “Defend the Bethlehem Police Department” has garnered nearly 6,000 signatures. It calls on citizens to protect and defend the department from recent attacks by “political activists who intend to defund, dismantle and completely abolish our police.”
It warns Bethlehem is in danger of experiencing skyrocketing “chaos, violences and lawlessness” plaguing other cities like Philadelphia, New York City and Portland.
“Right now, the activists’ agenda is ringing in our city council’s ears. It’s the only voice they hear and many council members are actively agreeing to implement their radical agenda,” the petition states. “It is vitally important for law-abiding citizens to send a strong message that we support fair and honest policing and we expect our city council members to support our police as they preserve our quality of life in Bethlehem.”
At the start of the meeting, Councilman Michael Colon, who chairs the public safety committee, sought to debunk the idea that the community initiative was about defunding the police.
He noted the committee was not voting on anything and the planned discussion did not touch on abolishing or defunding the police. He reminded everyone that defunding the police can mean very different things to many people.
“I really hope as a council, as a police department, as an administration and as a community we could really set an example in terms of listening to each other and trying to understand where different points of view are coming from,” Colon said.
Council President Adam Waldron said his inbox was flooded with more than 50 emails echoing the concern, he replied assuring all of the writers no one on council called for abolishing or defunding of the police department.
“Clearly there is a lot of misinformation going around,” Waldron said. “What we are trying to do is have a conversation.”
Councilwoman Grace Crampsie Smith, who proposed the initiative with Councilman J. William Reynolds, said the body is being falsely accused of trying to eliminate the department.
Council revised its use of force policy to comply with the 8 Can’t Wait guidelines and is having ongoing discussions about the need for officer training in mental health, addiction and other issues, Smith, who is the daughter of a police chief and a counselor, said
This community engagement initiative is about creating a vehicle where systemic change can be discussed and achieved, Reynolds said. The city is looking at an official city forum run by the city and a second run by community groups where participants feel they can be heard.
As a teacher at William Allen High School, Reynolds says he sees firsthand how his students and their families do not have the same experiences in many of the institutions, which members of council personally trust. It is important for people to say they believe that systemic racism exists, that Black and brown lives matter, he said.
“And people in authority have the responsibility to listen and try to effect change to these systems,” he said.
Much of the actual meeting centered on police department leaders detailing the department’s use of force policies and sharing the data in its use-of-force report.
Councilwoman Olga Negron praised the department for its transparency in releasing the stats and the willingness to have tough conversations about what it shows.
The department has 154 members. The vast majority are white men. There are five Black male officers, 12 Hispanic and two middle eastern male officers. There are nine white female officers and one Asian woman on the force.
The residents of Bethlehem are 60 percent white, 29 percent Hispanic, 7 percent Black, 3 percent Asian and 5.8 percent “other”, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Bethlehem police require cops to a submit a report anytime someone is taken to the ground during a police interaction, regardless of injury.
City officers used force on average 125 times a year from 2014 until 2016. Officers applied force 143 times last year -- largely described as taking someone to the ground -- resulting in 118 arrests.
Over the past five years, the department has used force in 4.6 percent of its total 13,650 arrests. The majority of the time officers use force to make an arrest, not defend themselves, the report indicates.
Lehigh University Professor Holona Ochs offered up her team of experts, who have conducted a major study of Lehigh Valley policing, to the department. With work to address issues we’ve inherited, Bethlehem could be the best department in the Valley and among the top in the nation, she said.
“What we are talking about is just having more conversations about how we can do better,” Ochs said.
It is actually statistically rare for Valley departments to use force and her research looks for patterns into that rarity, she said. These are interactions that affect people’s lives and livelihood, Ochs said.
“We are talking about the lives of our neighbors,” she said.
Council pressed the department’s top brass on why people of color make up to 60 percent to 80 percent of all use-of-force incidents in the report, yet they make up 44 percent of the resident population.
Capt. Michelle Kott, head of the department’s professional standards division, said there is no easy answer for the racial disparities in the use of force. It is something law enforcement agencies and citizens across the country are demanding answers for and she thinks it is a holistic issue.
“I think there is so much at play here,” Kott said.
Police Chief Mark DiLuzio said officers are largely responding to calls. Neighborhoods with a high volume of calls leads to more police interactions, he said. There are many things to look at the density of a neighborhood and its socioeconomics, the chief said.
Reynolds emphasized much of this is not about police, but systemic racism. The department could do everything right, but our economic structures, housing and zoning codes and public education funding are all causing inequities, he said.
Many protesters are not mad at the police, Reynolds said.
“It is the failure of society to do something about those systems that at the end of the day ends up with a call to the police department,” he said.
DiLuzio said systemic racism in embedded in the criminal justice system, housing and many other things in America. He and members of council were afforded certain life opportunities -- stable housing, a good education, access to healthcare and financial stability -- that all contributed to them sitting in Town Hall Tuesday night in places of power.
“I understand the anger of people of color out there,” DiLuzio said. “They feel they are not getting their part of the American Dream.”
Young children deserve all the opportunities inherent in that dream, but in reality many kids face lots of hurdles, he said.
“I don’t know how we change the whole system,” DiLuzio said. “We can maybe change a little piece at a time in the city here.”
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