An unusually large and impassioned crowd packed City Hall Tuesday to oppose additional funding for 15 new police officers.
Police Chief Tammy Hooper has said the officers, who would cost around $1 million, are necessary to deal with a 17 percent increase in violent crime, much of it downtown. That has drawn protests from activists using the slogan “$1 Million for the People” who say the money should go toward public transit or anti-poverty programs.
For more than two hours opponents and a few supporters of the funding spoke in the public hearing that was the last official chance to comment on the budget before a planned June 13 City Council vote.
“I want to give you 903 signatures and climbing to say that we need more community. That community creates safety, and not expanding police,” said protest organizer the Rev. Amy Cantrell.
Several speakers echoed the larger national debate over police racial bias, including Dewanna Little, an African-American resident who said she’s experienced problems locally.
“We are the ones who police stop walking down the street,” Little said.
Many took confrontational tones, questioning police’s role in society and the even the basic structure of city government. One speaker read aloud a long description of the “pig” as a species, and another read a analysis of policing as a tool of state violence that included references to communist writer Friedrich Engels.
Jake Swett said the gathering represented workers’ growing dissatisfaction over low wages and what he called a lack of government transparency.
“There’s a lot more of us than of them, or of you. We’re starting to organize,” Swett said. “If we don’t start to see real sustainable change in our government here, I can’t even speak to what will happen.”
The crowd applauded loudly at times, despite Mayor Esther Manheimer’s admonitions to not clap in the meeting.
Some of the biggest applause came after Luis Serabio, who was providing live interpretation in Spanish, spoke against the funding. Serabio told council members more needed to be done to include Hispanics in local government.
“All of you, what do you do to reach out to my community?” he said.
Dee Williams, one of two black council candidates, said policing was based on historic oppression, and that needed to change.
“Modern policing is no more than compilation of, let’s face it, slave catching and protection of property that folks who are landed gentry own,” Williams said.
Two other council candidates spoke at the hearing.
Candidate and transit activist Kim Roney also opposed the new police funding, saying, “now is the time to hear the voice of the people and the positive solutions they brought to the table.”
South Asheville resident and municipal budget specialist Vijay Kapoor called for more clarity about how the city was going to spend $74 million in voter-approved bond borrowing.
“I can’t tell from this document what impact the bonds are going to have on the city’s budget,” Kapoor said.
Defending the police request were a few residents as well as leaders of police labor organizations.
Police Benevolent Association President Brandon McGaha said officers had too heavy a workload.
“Officers when working their shift with an average of 30 officers, care for 3,000 residents each, not including people visiting the city,” according to the uniform crime report, McGaha said.
He said he supported Hooper’s plan which would reduce crime and improve officer safety and morale.
Fraternal Order of Police President Rondell Lance said anti-police sentiment expressed Tuesday was unfair.
“Believe it or nor, these people in the police department love the city of Asheville. They will come and lay down their lives for you,” Lance said.