“Defund the police” became a rallying cry at protests in the wake of last summer’s wave of killings of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, and Republican lawmakers are pressing ahead with a new bill intended to stop that cry from becoming reality in communities across Georgia.
The bill authored by Athens Republican state Rep. Houston Gaines passed the Georgia House 101-69 Wednesday, largely along party lines. It aims to prevent cities and counties from reducing police budgets by more than 5% over a rolling ten-year period. It contains exemptions for cities and counties that experience unexpected revenue drops and for those where departments make large one-time purchases.
“When a victim calls 911, we need quick response times,” Gaines said. “Defunding the police is a radical idea that will slow response times for victims and put our families and communities at risk.”
The calls to redirect some police department funding grew after the 2020 killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and other Black victims. Supporters of police reform argue some money used for traditional policing could be better spent beefing up social services to respond when incidents are due to a mental health crisis.
Destruction and vandalism at summer protests, including in Atlanta, sparked outrage, and Republicans including former President Donald Trump and former Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue sought to paint their opponents as supporters of defunding police departments in the 2020 election. Neither President Joe Biden, Sen. Raphael Warnock nor Sen. Jon Ossoff have called for cities and counties to cut police budgets.
The lingering outrage spurred some Georgia legislators to file bills intended to grant police new protections or clamp down on protests. Republican lawmakers recently filed similar bills in other states, including Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and North Carolina.
Republicans called opposition to Gaines’ bill purely political.
“This is a politicalized issue,” said Hartwell Republican state Rep. Alan Powell, who supported the bill. “And it’s politicalized because it plays to the base of one of the political parties. But at the end of the day, public safety is out there for both political parties, and it should serve both equally.”
Local governments’ top priority should be to keep people safe, said Rep. David Knight, a Republican from Griffin.
“This is a political ploy about the police being the enemy, when, in fact, they are the ones out there defending, on the front line in the war on drugs, keeping drugs out of our state, out of our schools, out of our cities, our communities, off our streets.”
Democrats said Republicans were the ones pulling political stunts, which would disproportionately harm minorities.
“Republicans, you can continue to run these weird PR campaigns if you want to, Democrats will continue to press for justice,” said Decatur Democrat Renitta Shannon.
Democratic lawmakers have filed bills calling for police reform measures including expanded body camera use and more police training in de-escalation.
All Georgians want to live in safe communities, but more police presence does not always make communities safer, said Rep. Bee Nguyen, an Atlanta Democrat.
“It is the truth that we do not like to admit, but we have the statistics and the stories to show it: if you are Black or brown, whether armed or unarmed, you are more likely to be killed by law enforcement than your white counterparts,” she said. “The calls for reimagining public safety are exactly about this.”
Others called it an attempt to grab power from city councils and county commissions.
“It is critically important that we do not forget that these local elected officials represent their communities in a way that, candidly, we don’t,” said Rep. Teri Anulewicz, a Democrat from Smyrna and a former city council member there.
“We all want to live in safe communities, and they are the people who best know how to keep these communities safe,” she added. “It is them, not us, who should be the ones who have the final purview over their municipal and county police department budgets.”
Gaines said he supports local control, but lives are more important.
“When we have local governments that are out of control and putting their lives at risk in our state, we have to step in,” he said. “I live in a community that has considered cutting 50% of its police budget. We have to step in. Lives are at risk in communities that are making those sorts of proposals.”
The Athens-Clarke County Board of Commissioners considered a measure to reduce its police budget by half over 10 years, but did not pass it, instead passing a budget that increased spending on police by about $1 million.
Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz opposes the bill because he says it would limit the ability of local government officials to do what they think is best for their constituents.
“It’s nonsensical to me,” he said. “There’s no other operational and budget component of local government in which the General Assembly has made comparable moves. When it comes to road paving, when it comes to fire department activity, when it comes to the provision of homeless services, there is no other arena in which the General Assembly has said to 500-plus cities and 159 counties, ‘You’ve got to run your budget this way.’ I just see this as massive overreach.”
Atlanta considered but voted down a proposal that would have redirected $73 million from its $218 million police budget to social services.
Gaines’ legislation is opposed by the Georgia Municipal Association and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, which lobby the Legislature on behalf of the state’s local governments. The Georgia Police Benevolent Association and the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association support the bill.