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police department budget
Police gathering in a Northwest 19th Street parking lot between Western Avenue and Classen Boulevard blocks from a protest Saturday, May 30, 2020. (Tres Savage)

The OKC City Council approved the 2021 police department budget today at a meeting that featured a lengthy public-comment portion, which was interrupted more than once by callers using racial slurs.

The police department budget featured a 3.3 percent cut compared to last year and passed by a 6-1 vote. Mayor David Holt, Ward 1 Councilman James Greiner, Ward 3 Councilman Larry McAtee, Ward 4 Councilman Todd Stone, Ward 5 Councilman David Greenwell and Ward 8 Councilman Mark Stonecipher all voted to approve the police department’s budget.

Hamon votes against budget

The $226 million police budget became a source of controversy in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day. Weeks of protests have followed nationwide, and at multiple public hearings in Oklahoma City citizens have expressed opposition to approving the budget amid national calls for police reform and defunding.

Oklahoma City’s Black Lives Matter chapter has also called for the resignation of OKC Police Chief Wade Gourley and for enhanced de-escalation training for officers, among other requests.

Ward 6 Councilwoman JoBeth Hamon voted against the budget’s approval Tuesday. Ward 7 Councilwoman Nikki Nice and Ward 2 Councilman James Cooper abstained, but under rules of the council their votes were counted as absent.

In voting against the budget, Hamon said citizens need more options when it comes to public safety.

“We have a foundational system in this country that has dehumanized black and brown people,” she said. “We have given our communities one option that doesn’t actually produce any real results or any real accountability. The people calling for defunding and investment in restorative justice and community-based services are asking for accountability. So again, I’m not going to be able to vote for this because, fundamentally, we are continuing to give people the same tool somehow thinking it will fix all of our social ills.”

Meeting interrupted by racist comments

The public-comment portion of the meeting, which was held virtually because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, mostly featured callers who criticized the way policing is conducted in Oklahoma City. Others expressed their support for the job the department is doing and for approving the budget.

There were also multiple interruptions by callers who used racial slurs. One, who said George Floyd “deserved to die” followed his comments with “Trump 2020” and the use of a racial slur toward African-Americans three times before being cut off. Another caller immediately afterward made a reference to male anatomy and then used the same slur, before also being cut off.

“Obviously this is a difficult time for us all,” Nice said. “It’s hard for me to even get the words out to speak about what to say. Personally, we have folks shouting slurs, and you hear it more than once, it already tells you there is a problem with systemic racism. When you incorporate that systemic racism in the thoughts of how some of these programs, these organizations, and even how the system was built when looking at policing, it’s a concern for all of our community.”

Stone, others in favor of budget

Stone, who voted for the budget, said the past few weeks had been an educational experience for him as citizens have expressed their views on how Oklahoma City should be policed. Still, he said now isn’t the right time to cut the police department’s budget.

“We can always improve, and we should always strive to improve,” Stone said. “But they do a job that I don’t want to do — a job most of us don’t want to do. And they are put in some horrific situations. And for that, I would really like them to understand that I certainly appreciate their service. I support this budget. A lot of the reason for that is we continue to request training, and we continue to request that different facets of their job change. But I don’t know how we do that and at the same time say we need to cripple your budget.”

McAtee, who also voted in favor of the budget, said the city was fortunate to have a strong police department.

“Each one of us before we go to sleep tonight should thank God we live in a town like Oklahoma City with the law enforcement people that we have guarding us, watching over us, making our lives better,” he said. “It’s not perfect. We’re not perfect. I’m not perfect, but together we can build a community that will give all of our people hope and security and the lifestyle they deserve.”

The city’s total budget for 2021 is $1.6 billion, though Holt estimated that the city would spend only about $1 billion over the coming year.