In wake of protests, Denver police cut budget for financial reasons though public safety remains bulk of city spending

Denver’s public safety agencies will freeze open positions, hire fewer police recruits and close some jail housing units as the city grapples with a financial crisis that is forcing leaders to slash budgets.

Overall spending for the Department of Public Safety — which includes police, sheriff deputies, 911 operations and the fire department — will drop 9% in 2021 compared to last year to $533 million from $588 million, according to the proposed 2021 budget.

But public safety operations will remain the city’s largest expenditure from its general fund and no other single department is close, despite calls from weeks of protest this summer to reallocate taxpayer dollars from public safety to other city services. Mayor Michael Hancock on Tuesday explicitly said the cuts to public safety were due to financial needs, not protests, and no city council member during Friday budget hearings suggested major changes to the amount of tax dollars allocated by the mayor’s office to public safety.

“I firmly believe that when we’re talking about changes to our police department … we must have a plan before we make sweeping changes,” Councilwoman Kendra Black said.

Public safety spending represents about 42% of the city’s $1.3 billion 2021 budget and costs more than the next five largest budgets combined. The department with the next largest amount of tax dollars in the proposed budget is for transportation and infrastructure, which is allocated $128 million.

Several council members questioned whether specific public safety programs should be moved to other city agencies, like those focused on youth safety. The department did move the city’s fledgling STAR program — which sends mental health professionals to some 911 calls instead of police — from the police department’s oversight and placed it under 911 operations. The city also allocated $1 million to expand the program, which was previously funded by grant money.

“We don’t keep something in the department just because it’s always been there,” Public Safety Executive Director Murphy Robinson said after stating he’s open to discussing moving programs.

Council members said they were caught in the middle of residents in the city who want to abolish or defund the police and those who want more police services.

“It’s a real tension in our community and it puts us in a really difficult situation,” Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer said.

The proposed 2021 budget for the Denver Police Department calls for $230 million from the city’s general fund, down from $254 million in 2020, The majority of the decrease  — $17.5 million — comes from an accounting shift in how the city pays for law enforcement at the airport. Another $7 million will be saved by holding open civilian positions, early retirements and decreasing the number of new officers hired.]

Pazen said the department will continue to focus new hiring efforts on women and people of color to better represent the city’s population.

“Often what we hear is we want better policing, not no policing, not less policing,” Pazen said.

Changes to the city’s criminal justice system that resulted in fewer people being jailed made some cuts to the Denver Sheriff Department’s budget possible.

The department — tasked with operating the city’s two jails and some courthouse security — will drop to a proposed $148 million in 2021 from the $151 million allocated for 2020. The department in 2020 also lost a significant amount of revenue from vehicle impounds and civil service fees, Sheriff Elias Diggins said Friday.

To bridge the gap, the department will close a floor in the women’s building at the Denver County Jail, temporarily freeze 45 vacant deputy positions and some civilian positions, reducing staffing in some units and continuing to close jail housing units through 2021 if the jail population remains low.

The jails’ combined population plummeted in the first months of COVID-19 as the city made efforts to lower numbers inside the facilities to mitigate the risk of an outbreak. In early 2020, the jails housed about 1,800 people on any given day. That number plummeted to less than 1,000 during the summer before beginning to creep up toward 1,300 in August and September.

“If we can continue to keep those population numbers low we expect this trend to continue into 2021,” Diggins said of savings created by the low number of people housed at the jails.

The City Council will continue to hold hearings on the 2021 budget, propose changes and then will vote on a final version in November.

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