City council members in Chattanooga grant 60 minutes to public comment, a handful of the 200 plus people joining the Zoom “public meeting” to decry police abuse and demand a budget shakeup.

Council members give Mayor Berke’s police department 100 percent of its white-bread slice of the city budget Tuesday, a F$71 million allocation from which no one is willing to trim a fingernail.

By David Tulis / NoogaRadio 92.7 FM

If there is any cutting to be done Tuesday, it’s upon the volume of words emitted at the “public comment” segment at the end of the meeting. As if they’d consulted one another, members say no more than an 60 minutes is allowed on public grievance about policing in light of the national protests of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis.

“I just don’t want to sit here and get bullied all night, or get bullied any way,” Anthony Byrd says. “I will listen to some, but I have kids that I do have to feed and put away,” and so call or email him later “to receive your concerns then.”

“I’m not going to miss another night eating dinner with my family,” Demetrus Coonrod says. “I’m not going to miss another opportunity to read a bedtime story or tuck them into bed.”

A Pornhub meme indicating the council had gangbanged the public at last week’s lengthy online parade of voices caused offense, securing the free speech cutoff as a necessary way to avoid, as Dr. Carol Berz put it, crudeness. “I don’t think democracy is ever crude,” she says. 

The vote to chop public input after a 7½ hour meeting last Tuesday is unanimous.

Mayor yields 1 / 473rd of cop outlay

Mayor Andy Berke proposes this week an “office of community resilience” with a budget of F$150,000 (less than he earns a year) and city council member Darrin Ledford, a thin-blue-line conservative, is solicitous about damage such a cut may bring to the chief’s office budget. He wants to make sure the department is “not defunded in any funds to provide the services that our community relies on.”

Chief David Roddy indicates that the cutting 1 / 473rd from the police budget won’t affect operations at all, is not really defunding, but a “divesting,” moving money from one part of city government to another. Chief Roddy is perfectly content with the concession.

Mr. Ledford warns a police-free society inevitably self-destructs. “Destruction, revenge, abolishment of our police department is not an option nor a reasonable solution,” he says for the national upheaval over the George Floyd killing. “The outcome is chaos. The outcome leaves the most vulnerable in our community at great risk.” 

He lumps police in with other first responders, and insists that defunding first responders is not an option for the council.

State prosecutor Neal Pinkston, 17 years in office, says “If you are unaware of the African-American community’s displeasure with police brutality and violence, then you’ve been putting cotton in your ears or putting your head in the sand.” But he turns from this harsh intro to call Chief Roddy “very progressive” and he propose increasing the police budget, hoping to keep senior cops longer on the payroll because of their “bank of knowledge.”

“Defunding the police is not the answer. Yes there are times law enforcement is wrong, and we refer those for investigation. *** Here in this community, we are like most anybody else. We’re very progressive in that. We ask the feds and the TBI to investigate so as to protect the integrity of the investigation. I understand the protests about George Floyd and Mr. Brooks in Atlanta ***, of course, those are horrible, horrible instances. However, that doesn’t mean that that paints our law enforcement in the same light that those individuals acted.”

Former federal ‘slave’ boosts independence

The council member whose heart and identity is closest to the cause of the hundreds of protesters is Demetrus Coonrod, who by God’s grace reformed herself after a troubled life involving crime and time behind bars.

Demetrus Coonrod says that across the city people have said their No. 1 concern is “public safety,” and there is no gain to delay the budget or cut the police department third of the cashflow. She says she is responsible to her district, and that she can fight racism even while supporting the F$71 million for police.

She insists on independence among African-Americans, ending dependence on government. The solution for black people is hard work and not attacking black leaders for being responsible.

Mrs. Coonrod votes for the budget, taking “personal responsibility” for black community in dealing with the “beast of racism.” She wants to make things more positive — economic mobility, being a homeowner, “changing things one block at a time, “ opening businesses.

Mrs. Coonrod says she had her “own personal battles with the police department” and has “been a slave in the system, the federal system.” Nothing handed to her after she was freed, but had to work hard for everything.

Smith: Even budget trim ‘makes no sense’

Councilman Ken Smith is supportive of the status quo, praising officers and thanking them for their service. 

Officers filed 305 use of force reports in 2019, and in these cases citizens filed 19 complaints from among “hundreds and hundreds of thousands of interactions” between cops and the people, Mr.  Smith says. “To vilify all of them for what a few have done doesn’t make sense. Our officers have proven they stand with the citizens, not against them, and I intend to do the same for them.” Nothing he has seen makes him think defunding or divesting “is going to change anything by snapping fingers and just moving money somewhere else and suddenly things are going to be better.”

He dismisses the defund argument because the citizens don’t know where the diverted money would go. “They don’t even know how to spend it. There’s no plan there. They don’t know why the money would be put in those areas.”

Budget participatory budgeting has been a routine for years, Mr. Smith says. “People don’t show up. They don’t show up until right before the budget, which is what we’re seeing once again.” He invites people to involve themselves early and often in the process.

He admits competition for officer applicants is strong, as policing appears in decline as a profession. “To defund the police department and lose several hundred officers — good men and women that have done no wrong — makes no sense whatsoever. *** I don’t see how that’s going to improve anything.”  

‘Heal me, Lord, and I shall be healed’

No law or ordinance will eradicate racism from the heart of man, says chairman Chip Henderson, “only the grace of God will.” He views the budget as an investment in the department’s employees “to do the job they were trained to do.”

The budget also recognizes the “need to unmask the systemic racism that is hiding within the police department policy.” Mr. Henderson senses a lot of hurt in the city, “and we all have wounds that need to be healed.” He cites Jeremiah. “Heal me, Lord, and I shall be healed. Save me, and I shall be saved.”

Anthony Byrd says the F$71 million budget is “a very, very, very large number” and “staggering,” and that it would be splendid if the cop department cost F$2 million a year and had only Barney Fyffe and Andy Griffith on the payroll. Maybe, at some point, it could be cut. But data seems in the department’s favor — with only three or four complaints about the use of force, which cops tally past 305 instances in use of force in 2019.

His vote is the only no vote on the budget — 8 to 1 in favor of police spending.

Public anger squeezed into 60 minutes

Members who make comment are mostly young, mostly Caucasian, and vigorously favor cutting tax money for police in favor of more money for CARTA bus service and youth development centers.

➤ A woman caller named Hodge, for five years a city union rep proposes five reforms that wouldn’t cost a dime: suspend paid administrative leave for cop after killing or wounding; withhold pensions and not rehire cops guilty of excessive force; require personal liability for misconduct settlements; limit comp time and OT for cops out for military training or getting extra hours during protests; and reduce the size of the force by attrition and retirement.

Josh Smith says it is “outrageous” to cite scripture in the context of budget decisions. He demands police be slashed. “The glorification and obsession with our further investment in police is the middle finger to your most vulnerable constituents. I urge you to come to one o these protests. Hell, come to all of them.”

➤ Councilman Ledford is quoted as saying council last week was used as “propaganda tool” and Terry Rankin says “this is very alarming to me” and demeaning. She is struck in the line items by f$702,000 for radio maintenance, F$60,000 for leased vehicles, F$900,000 for gasoline, which she estimates at F$3 a gallon would go for 300,000 gallons a year. She wants to “hold them accountable for being better stewards of our tax dollars.”

➤ The Rev. Dr. Clay Thomas reads a brief from 33 clergymen and women, noting first that Chief Roddy uses the term “divest” without its sense of doing violence to policing per se. The group demands the council restructure the budget and divest from “ineffective and unjust policing and invest in black and brown communities with a participatory budget that includes the community organizers asking for these demands as well as local leaders.” His time runs out and the next speaker continues reading from the list of clergy signatories, including numerous female pastors.

➤ Former first responder Jennifer Russo recounts the trajectory of her life from poverty to middle class. Tornado damage to her house in Brainerd cost her F$200,000, but five years before she had lived in East Lake in poverty. “The roof was leaking, the house was decaying; there were times we didn’t have electricity and no one came to help.”

How is it, she demands, that police were solicitous to storm damage victims with bottles of water and aid, but indifferent to people whose daily lives are an emergency? “In East Lake, I never saw CPD do anything for the community. I saw them harass and brutalize my black and brown neighbors, yet when the tornado struck in East Brainerd, all of a sudden the police demonstrated all kinds of care and compassion for my family.”

The Tulis Report is 1 p.m. weekdays, live and lococentric.

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