In a meeting last week outgoing Mayor Pete Muldoon scrutinized the Jackson Police Department’s budget and the agency’s effectiveness in the community when it comes to public safety.
Muldoon said the department’s budget is one of the biggest the Town Council oversees, and after researching some of its daily tasks he questions whether taxpayers are getting the most bang for their buck.
“In a lot of ways we are acting as say … a publicly funded private security agency for the Cowboy Bar,” Muldoon said. “I was in the bar industry for a long time, and can tell you it’s common practice. You overserve the crap out of people, and then you call the police when they do what you can very predictably expect they are going to do, which is behave badly.”
The Dec. 16 meeting was focused on the town’s “priority driven budget” goals. Muldoon’s focus was the department’s patrol and programming.
He pulled data from July 15 and presented his research in a spreadsheet to town councilors, acting Chief Michelle Weber and Town Manager Larry Pardee, highlighting all the calls for service town officers worked on that specific day.
“I look through this and … I am not saying nothing good was done here,” Muldoon said in the meeting. “But I look at the amount of money we spend on this, and I look at how we could improve public safety and welfare by, say, funding housing for people, or mental health counseling or any number of other things, and my takeaway from this is … we get a lot of stuff that involves alcohol. I think we could end up spending money on preventing some of these issues, but we are not preventing them. We are responding to them when it’s too late.”
The probing comes in a unique year. Because of COVID-19 setbacks the Town Council cut about 15% from the police department’s budget for fiscal year 2021.
But the budget they adopted was still more than $4 million.
“I struggle to understand how we are spending this money,” Muldoon said in the meeting.
Muldoon said the police budget has not historically been questioned, that it’s something that’s passed each year without much criticism.
He asked Weber to explain why the department hosts programs like Coffee with a Cop, bank robbery trainings for bank employees, hunter safety courses and kids’ camps.
“Why are we are taking kids to a camp in Casper?” Muldoon asked. “I don’t understand why this is something our police department is involved in.”
Weber said Camp Postcard, which the mayor was referring to, is largely grant funded and doesn’t usually cost anything.
Some years the grant covers the time for an officer to go. Other years the town has paid for a school resource officer to go.
Muldoon said it’s the time cost that adds up.
“It’s a week here and an hour or two here,” he said. “They aren’t focusing on law enforcement and preventing crime.”
Weber said historically the police department has agreed to take on certain programs when there’s a need in the community that’s not being met.
“We do a number of programs and many are community policing oriented,” Weber told the News&Guide on Tuesday. “Many of those were started either because someone asked us to or directed us to.”
Weber said she admits the department has taken on a lot of various activities or programs that she’d be okay with letting go.
“My officers would be happy to take some of these things off the list and not do them,” Weber said in last week’s council meeting.
Weber said she’s already started looking into all the extra programs and their expenses.
“Of those 50 or so programs, it’s a very, very minuscule amount of money in our budget,” she said. “Many of them are grant funded or they don’t cost anything.”
Coffee with a Cop was an example brought up at the meeting. Weber said those types of events help with building community trust.
“Who shows up for Coffee with a Cop?” Muldoon asked. “Are we getting people there who don’t trust cops or is it people who love cops who can’t wait to have coffee with a cop?”
Toward the end of the council meeting Muldoon made a motion to remove some duties and funds from the department. It failed 4-1, with Muldoon being the only yes vote.
Act Now JH, the organization that first brought up the idea of reallocating police funds to human services over the summer, said they look forward to better examinations of the police budget next month.
“Our state and community is facing a budget shortfall, and ActNow JH believes in investing in the organizations that enhance the lives of the average person in Jackson — those worried about their job, health, housing, and kids’ education,” a statement provided by Act Now JH member Sarah Ross said. “This requires examining what’s been accepted as the norm (for example, funding Coffee with a Cop or the JPD’s anti-robbery training at the banks) and questioning if or how these funds can be applied in ways that better help the average community member.”
They see Muldoon’s motion as a first step in an improved process.
“It is a first step to imagining an alternative to how we care for our community in ways that are both fiscally sound and justice oriented,” they said. “We understand that a significant amount of research, community input, and time on the Council’s part will be necessary to look into the items the Mayor proposed. We urge the Council to include a fine-toothed examination of the JPD’s budget in their January retreat, and look forward to continuing this work in the new year.”
Weber said she’s “open to making positive changes” and isn’t taking a hard or defensive stand on the issue.
But she does worry that what some see as a progressive move could force them into the past.
“If we eliminate all those programs, we’re going back 50 years in law enforcement when all they did was arrest people,” she said.