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Crime, poverty, policing point to need for a People’s Budget in Jacksonville, FL

By Christina Kittle

Jacksonville, FL – There is no denying the separation between the community and city officials in Jacksonville, Florida when it comes to solutions on crime and poverty. Community advocates continually push for solutions that will tackle the social and economic roots of crime while local politicians continue to support more policing.

In 2017 Sheriff Mike Williams and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO) received a $4.4 million budget increase to “crack down on crime,” but the returns were insignificant. There was no drop in violent crime. The next year, Williams and the JSO received a $36 million increase granting them approximately 36% of the entire city budget. Not only did the violent crime rate not drop, it actually spiked.

This year, Mayor Lenny Curry’s proposed city budget for 2019-2020 would give JSO an extra $45 million in additional funding for a total police budget of $482 million dollars.

The JSO ranks second-worst in the state of Florida when it comes to solving crime. A staggering 83% of all reported crime and about 70% of homicides go unsolved. Jacksonville indisputably holds the title of Florida’s ‘murder capital' with a rate 51% higher than the national average.

Jacksonville also experiences high police shooting rates, though the number has decreased in the last three years. Ten years ago, JSO officers shot 62 civilians, killing 32 over a three-year period. Within the last three years that number dropped to 23 shootings with 15 fatalities.

There are debates over the reason behind this decrease. Some say new police trainings have been effective. Others, like Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police President Steve Zona, have denounced this, arguing that “while training can affect and produce different outcomes in certain scenarios, we do not believe that is the driving factor in the reduction of officer-involved shootings. The driving factor will always be the conduct and actions of the person who is committing the crime.”

The far more likely factor is the publicity brought to police crimes within the last three years, both nationally and locally. In May 2016, Vernell Bing Jr., an unarmed Black father, was killed by Officer Tyler Landreville in the largely African-American Springfield neighborhood of Jacksonville. State Attorney Melissa Nelson ruled the shooting ‘justified’ in 2017. In July 2019, less than two years later, Landreville made headlines again for shooting another civilian in the same part of the city. Bing’s mother and community activists continue to host public events demanding police accountability.

Countless examples of JSO’s police crimes have surfaced as Jacksonville’s movement for community control of the police grew. JSO made national headlines in the 2017 ProPublica investigation, “Walking While Black,” which exposed rampant racial profiling and police harassment in the city. Earlier that year, an anti-war protest turned into a vicious example of police brutality televised for the entire city to see. The JSO violently attacked and arrested five activists, dubbed the Jax 5 by supporters, charging them with bogus felonies like ‘inciting a riot.’ A mass movement pressured State Attorney Melissa Nelson into dropping all felony charges, aided in large part by graphic video footage, including live local news coverage, of police beating peaceful protesters unconscious. Incidents like these have made police crimes into a major public concern in Jacksonville.

But even though the number of people killed directly by cops has finally started to decrease, the numbers for violent crime in general have not. It raises the question: Do police prevent crime? The numbers suggest not. Crime has social roots like poverty, joblessness and poorly funded public schools. To address those, the Jacksonville community argues for measures like social and economic rejuvenation – not more police funding.

“Crime exists where conditions are desperate,” says Joshua Parks, organizer with the Jacksonville Community Action Committee. “We can’t out-police crime. We need to create better living conditions for the areas labeled high-crime neighborhoods instead of over-policing them.”

Since the 2017 city budget debate, the Jacksonville Community Action Committee (JCAC) has pushed for police accountability and community reform. The organization has hosted vigils and protests with the families of the victims affected by the 23 police-involved shootings, along with events bringing attention to city spending and the nature of policing in high-poverty neighborhoods. The JCAC believes that Mayor Curry’s proposed 2019-2020 city budget is part of the problem – not a solution.

Under Mayor Curry’s proposed budget, the JSO would receive a $45 million increase – the most in the entire budget by far – bringing their total budget to around $482 million dollars. To put this staggering amount in perspective, Curry’s proposed budget allocates just $157 million for public transportation, $35 million for the Kids Hope Alliance, $35 million for public libraries, $48 million for public works programs.

If the city council – dominated by a Republican supermajority – approves the mayor’s budget, it will mark the third consecutive year they have ignored community needs in favor of JSO budget hikes – with no drop in violent crime.

Jacksonville’s high crime areas have common factors: aggressive gentrification by real estate developers, historical remnants of Jim Crow segregation, poor public infrastructure and the highest poverty rates in the city. The zip codes with the highest poverty rates in Duval County – which is consolidated with the city of Jacksonville – cover Springfield (34.91%), Riverside (26.68%), the Northside (25.88%), downtown (21.87%) and the northwest quadrant (19.46%). All of these areas are either now or historically Black-majority, working class neighborhoods.

The JCAC has proposed an alternative to Mayor Curry’s budget. Known as the ‘People’s Budget’, their proposal calls for reducing JSO’s share of the budget to no more than 25%. This badly needed reduction would yield $134 million city dollars for crucial social and economic programs aimed at the city’s multinational working class and Black community. JCAC organizers say that their proposal would do far more to reduce crime by tackling its social roots than another round of failed police budget hikes.

The People’s Budget Program includes plans to invest in the Northside by directing a portion of the extra funds to the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development fund while also relaxing restrictions and lowering interest rates for local Black entrepreneurs looking to develop the historically Black areas of town.

The People’s Budget also calls for creating public works programs through the city’s Parks and Recreation sector and hiring workers at no less than $16 an hour to upkeep and rejuvenate the Northside, providing both living wage jobs and safer, cleaner public spaces for children and families.

It states the need for rent control alongside building up these areas of town to avoid gentrification. While the community wants to see these areas flourish financially, it is also imperative that it thrive culturally and not displace the residents.

The program also calls for overall better quality of life for workers in the city with a call to strengthen unions. It demands the implementation of a union neutrality ordinance for all private contractors doing business with the city, meaning employers must take no position for or against a union if their workers want to organize and collectively bargain. It goes further to include ‘City Dollars for City Workers,’ urging officials to pass a local hiring preference prioritizing local businesses for city contracts while also strengthening public transit for the working class.

These vitalization efforts, again, can only be possible if the police are no longer prioritized over the community. With all JSO assets frozen at 25%, and an extra $134 million put back into the budget, the city can see a People’s Budget. This is why police accountability is the other focus of the proposed People’s Budget Program.

The program also calls for community control of the police, stating that the city council should direct its lobbyists in Tallahassee to push for a carve-out amendment to Florida Statute 112.532, which would allow for the creation of an all-civilian, elected council tasked with investigating complaints and allegations of police misconduct. This Civilian Police Accountability Council should have subpoena power of evidence, the authority to rewrite JSO hiring practices, review and revise police procedures and fire officers found guilty of misconduct.

The Jacksonville Community Action Committee hosts public meetings every third Thursday of the month at the Springfield Wells Fargo Center. The group will be attending city council budget hearings to challenge Mayor Curry’s proposed budget starting August 13. Follow the group on social media to stay updated and learn more details about the proposed People’s Budget Program as well as other alternatives to the bloated police budget.

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