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Despite community demands to reallocate public safety funds away from the police budget, Escondido officials are setting aside nearly $3 million more than last year’s budget to reinstate officers who can work on homeless outreach and traffic enforcement, boost salaries and upgrade the city’s emergency response system.
The city’s budget for the police department for the upcoming fiscal year is more than $49 million.
“The increase is not that big of a deal,” Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara wrote in an email to Voice of San Diego.
But it is to activists who’ve been calling for the city to put less money into the Police Department and more money into social services. About three dozen people challenged the hike at a recent City Council meeting, the Union-Tribune reported. Many of them argued the money could be better spent on helping the homeless get off the streets. (Escondido has the highest number of homeless residents in North County, according to San Diego’s latest point-in-time count.)
Leyel Joy Malavé, an organizer with the activist group We the People Escondido, said she’s not surprised that the City Council approved the increase. Escondido’s police budget has trended upward over the last five years, though last year’s $45.6 million police budget represented a slight decline from the year prior.
Community activists like Malavé, Yusef Miller of the Racial Justice Coalition and others joined a national movement to “defund the police” and reallocate funds to community services following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer. They argued that armed police officers disproportionately target people of color and aren’t the right people to respond to mental health-related calls. Malavé’s group is continuing to push for a police oversight committee, but Malave told me she hasn’t received an adequate response from city leaders.
“Pretty much any kind of talk about racial inequality and systematic racism isn’t really acknowledged here in Escondido, she said. “They definitely really ignore it.”
Though the movement was started to address racial justice, in Escondido it’s taken a turn to also advocate for the city’s homeless population after Escondido police officer Chad Moore shot and killed Steven Olson, a homeless man who police officers on the team frequently interacted with, in April. Following the shooting, activists pressed the Escondido City Council again to adopt an independent oversight committee and cut police funding while beefing up social services.
Before the City Council approved the additional spending on police, the group wrote, “Don’t forget what we marched for last summer! We must continue to apply pressure on our local government!” in a social media post. The group also provided residents with talking points about how funding for drug addiction and other services will prevent crime in the long term.
This week, McNamara and Escondido Police Chief Ed Varso said in separate interviews that it’s not ideal for police officers to respond to homeless needs in the community, but argued that officers are still first responders and the department needs the extra funding to create relationships with the homeless community before they end up in crisis. They both praised a county program that assigns mental health professionals to respond to certain calls with police officers, called the Psychiatric Emergency Response Team, but said they need more of those responders to address the needs at all times of the day.
“We do need more support,” Varso said. “It takes time and funding … not necessarily cutting law enforcement.”
The department will restore three police officer positions to its Community Oriented Policing and Problem Solving team with the additional funding “to provide a more effective, efficient and consistent level of service by increasing coverage and proactivity to further the city’s approach for addressing the community impacts of homelessness while being sensitive to the importance of tackling underlying causes and helping people,” the city’s operating budget document reads.
The department’s website also reads, “The unit’s main purpose is to reduce crime and address public concerns through a community-based, problem-solving approach that produces meaningful crime reduction and an enhanced quality of life.”
While Varso doesn’t disagree with community activists who don’t believe law enforcement should be the only one responding to homeless calls, he said there aren’t enough state and county resources available for addressing the needs of homeless individuals, and police from his department are usually the ones to get involved when someone is in crisis. At the same time, he said, removing police from homeless-related calls isn’t a viable solution because there’s no one else available to do it. He also said he’d like to see additional resources from the state and county to help people released from jail to end the cycle of criminalization.
“Usually at that point, they’re in really bad place. It’s usually too late,” he said. “But we can’t just not respond.”
McNamara argued that until there’s a comprehensive system in place to assist people suffering from mental health illness, the city is “somewhat stuck” using its Police Department and giving it more money to help address it.
“We could get into a discussion about whose responsibility it is to respond to the mental issue — cities or county since it is a health issue. But as you also know, there is really no system in place to address this challenge. … Not ideal in my mind, but there is no alternative in place or on the horizon,” McNamara said.
The Escondido City Council previously approved additional funding for another clinician and case manager the local nonprofit Interfaith Community Services Homeless Outreach Team. The nonprofit’s chief executive officer, Greg Anglea, said his team is working alongside local police officers to get homeless residents connected to services, but believes cities really need to focus on housing.
He said it’s wise to look at how cities are funding operations, but more important to look at what they’re doing to provide affordable housing for residents.
“Communities need to understand that cities have a choice … If they’re not creating affordable housing, then they’re not doing their part to end homelessness,” he said.
Anglea also told me that Olson, the homeless man killed by Escondido police, had requested a shelter bed from Interfaith, but the group didn’t have one available for him at the time, so they put him on a waiting list and he didn’t return when they called him back. “The reality is we need more resources,” he said. “If we had a bed that day, would his case have turned out differently?”
Varso said the district attorney’s office is still investigating the case. Moore is still employed by the Escondido Police Department. At a recent City Council meeting, Escondido Councllwoman Consuelo Martinez said that she never wants to see another incident like that.
Varso said Olson had been stuck in “this horrible revolving cycle” of being arrested — more than 100 times — and not getting or refusing the resources he needed. “He had been violent in the community leading up to the shooting that happened,” Varso said.
Meanwhile, Malave said the increase in police spending is “mostly upsetting” because the City Council has been adamant that it can’t do anything more than throw more money at enforcement. She said her group is pushing the Council now to provide “minimum-line” resources like public restrooms for the homeless community in Escondido.