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New London coalition renews calls for better scrutiny of police funding

New London — Members of the activist organization Hearing Youth Voices, the group that helped organize the local Black Lives Matter movement, has formed a coalition to renew its call for a shift in city budget priorities away from “traditional forms of policing.”

The New London People’s Budget Coalition has asked the City Council to seriously consider things like the health inequalities and wealth gaps that exist in the city and is calling for more substantial investments in areas including social services.

The message is made clear in a video released by the coalition, which along with Hearing Youth Voices boasts support from Step Up New London, FRESH New London, Writer’s Block InK, Madry Temple, Cultured AF and the New London Green Party.

“We are fed up with the lack of mental health services provided to our community members who are struggling. We are fed up with the lack of resources to our public libraries. We are fed up with the lack of child care provided to our families and parents and our single mothers,” Shineika Fareus, a youth organizer for Hearing Youth Voices, said in the video.

Fareus and other members of Hearing Youth Voices made their case to the City Council’s Finance Committee on Monday, demanding a budget that better reflects the community and families struggling to meet fundamental needs.

Hearing Youth Voices already has garnered more than 8,000 signatures on an online petition “to Prioritize New London Community Needs 2020,” and demands 35% of the police department budget be moved into services that “support residents who are Black, Brown and poor.”

“Our demands are clear. It’s time to invest in universal needs and divest from traditional forms of policing,” Denise Boyd said during Monday’s presentation.

The message is in line with recent campaign messages from the New London Green Party.

“Budgets aren’t just about money. They’re about prioritizing things that are important to us in a tangible way by funding them,” party leader Ronna Stuller said during an interview Monday.

“The budgets are really value statements,” she said.

Some of the calls from Hearing Youth Voices closely align with recommendations made in a recently released report from the Public Safety Policy Review Committee: oversight of the police union contract, formation of a community police review board, anti-racist training and removal of officers from city schools.

That same report, by a committee whose members were appointed by Mayor Michael Passero, also suggests boosting the city’s Human Services Department and collaborations between police and social services agencies that could reduce police expenses and reduce the numbers of calls for police to situations involving people who are mentally ill or have substance abuse issues.

The report calls for an examination of the role of the police department and asks the question: “Who is best equipped to be the first responder in addressing a long list of calls for service?”

“We must meet the community needs with proper funding and investments and avoid inserting police into roles in which they must be the primary or only public response,” the report states.

The committee did not recommend an outright reduction in the police budget, currently at $12.1 million, but did endorse the idea, wherever possible, “to make every effort to redirect funding and resources from policing to education and social services.”

Passero, at Monday's City Council meeting, said the passion of Hearing Youth Voices has helped push the discussion and their demands were part of the reason for formation of the Public Safety Policy Review Committee.

“They should not think we haven’t heard them. I think we all share the same goals. But certainly when it comes to budgeting and dividing scarce resources amongst all of our needs, it’s difficult and subject to debate,” Passero said.

“There will be a very robust public debate, I anticipate, during this round of budget deliberations in April. I hope to produce a budget that reflects what our community is looking for,” he said.

Passero said the city is working hard to increase revenues “so that we have more resources to devote to the needs we have in this city.”

Hearing Youth Voices also is pressing the City Council to repeal the 80-officer mandate enacted in 2014, when Passero was on the council.

Hearing Youth Voices has compared similarly sized cities like Cheshire, East Haven and Newtown, all of which have far fewer officers and police budgets that in some cases are half of New London’s. Police officials have previously defended the department's numbers and rebuffed comparisons to more rural communities with fewer calls for service. Fareus asked whether the city was being policed more because of its demographics.

g.smith@theday.com

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