Tensions were high during Tuesday night’s Norman City Council budget meeting, which ended after 3 a.m. Wednesday and served as a crescendo to more than a year’s worth of drama about Norman Police Department funding and police response in the community.
The council ultimately voted to create a new Mobile Crisis Response Program with more than $1.1 million being dedicated to the City Manager Department for implementation of the unarmed, non-police crisis program. The council’s original proposal involved redirecting $500,000 from the Norman Police Department budget, but that motion was amended to take the money from the city’s general fund.
“We were glad that they switched it from the police department,” said Norman Police Chief Kevin Foster. “We believe in coming up with a solution, rather than cutting any type of budget or taking any money.”
The nine-hour council meeting included dozens of residents offering public comment at the first full in-person meeting in over a year, with arguments about what tasks police should take on and how mental health crises should be handled.
Bickering and clamoring between supporters of the police and reform activists led to some people being escorted out by police after constant pleads for order outside the chamber.
‘This is not just about mental health calls’
Nearly an hour before the council meeting began, the chamber reached capacity with members of Unite Norman, the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 122 and other police supporters occupying most of the seating. However, the item where the council debate from where to redirect $500,000 was not heard until 12:30 a.m., with the final vote happening an hour later.
That vote passed 5-4, with Ward 1 Councilmember Brandi Studley, Ward 3 Councilmember Alison Petrone, Ward 4 Councilmember Lee Hall, Ward 6 Councilmember Elizabeth Foreman and Ward 7 Councilmember Stephen Holman voting in favor.
Voting against the general fund reallocation were Mayor Breea Clark, Ward 2 Councilmember Lauren Schueler, Ward 5 Councilmember Micheal Nash and Ward 8 Councilmember Matthew Peacock.
That $500,000 will be reallocated to the City Manager Department to create an unarmed and non-police Mobile Crisis Response Program. An additional $630,321 increase to the city manager for the program was approved by a separate 7-1 vote, with only Peacock dissenting.
Clark said creation of the Mobile Crisis Response Program involved input from police officers and others. She said additional options to increase health resources in Norman are also being discussed.
To explain her dissenting vote on reallocating general fund dollars for the new program, Clark said she wants to give residents an option for care, but she stressed a need to protect the general budget.
“I’m not worried about adding options for care for residents. That doesn’t bother me at all,” Clark said. “What bothers me is, again, the shellshock that we’ve had with disaster, after disaster, after disaster. And I believe we have to protect the general fund as much as possible while still providing options to our residents. And we have the opportunity to do that.”
Some councilmembers and many onlookers were against the first vote, as it initially stated the $500,000 decrease would come directly from NPD’s budget. Studley, who facilitated the item, amended it to state the funds would be come from the general fund allocation, not the NPD budget.
Believing police should not be the first to respond to a mental health crisis, Studley said the program would provide more mental health resources while aiming to lower the caseload of police officers.
“This is not just about mental health calls. Our police officers handle a lot of calls that are not emergency calls,” Studley said. “Why not have some help? Why not have somebody else we could call that can help come out to your community and handle things that [officers] don’t need to be called for. Let’s use our police officers to help stop all of these crimes.”
Foster said he wants to make sure the police are involved in some capacity.
“The thing that we really want is police involvement. We believe in this mobile crisis unit,” he said. “We looked at the Houston model, we looked at the San Antonio model. We’re planning on sending someone down there to look at that Houston model and then work to see what fits in our community.”
New members joining Norman City Council soon
Two members of the Norman City Council who voted in favor of Tuesday night’s controversial appropriation decisions will be leaving the council in July: Alison Petrone and Michael Nash, both of whom lost elections earlier this year. Petrone will be replaced in Ward 3 by Kelly Lynn, and Nash will be replaced by Rarchar Tortorello.
In May, the council welcomed two other new members earlier than expected: Studley, who won the Ward 1 race outright without a runoff, and Schueler, who was selected to fill the open Ward 2 seat after the newly elected Matt McGarry suddenly accepted a job out of state and resigned after only two months on the council.
(Correction: This article was updated at 2:40 p.m. Friday, June 11, to make a correct reference to the Norman FOP Lodge 122.)