Bozeman Day of action for Black Lives

A Bozeman police officer drives a cruiser down Main Street during the Bozeman National Day of Action for Black Lives on Friday in Bozeman.

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Bozeman city commissioners reviewed Monday night portions of the city’s proposed budget for next year, prompting hundreds of residents to voice concern about how taxpayer money will be spent on policing.

Local calls to redistribute city funding for law enforcement follow a national push by protesters, activists and others to “defund the police,” or divert money away from police departments, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

Floyd’s death sparked massive demonstrations over the last several weeks protesting police brutality and racism all over the globe.

Commissioners and staff held a work session at the tail end of Monday’s meeting to discuss the city’s general fund. It often garners attention because it’s largely funded by taxpayer money that goes to services like the library, fire department and police.

Of the $34 million city staff propose to spend out of the general fund, nearly $10 million is set to go to the Bozeman Police Department and pensions for officers. That’s 8% of the city’s entire budget.

The budget recommends that the police department get a 5% increase in funding this coming year. That amounts to about $468,000, which will go toward equipment, a new part-time officer and paying for a new school resource officer. The cost of the resource officer is split between the city and the school district.

Some residents asked the city commission to reallocate that money to social services. Others asked for more training on de-escalation tactics and racial bias. Many asked for commissioners to engage with black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) on core issues.

City commissioners directed city manager Jeff Mihelich to do a review of how the city treats minority populations, including in policing, hiring and accountability. Mihelich said he’d have findings and a plan to improve city practices by the end of July.

On the point of police funding, Mihelich said that out of the seven largest cities in Montana, Bozeman employs the fewest number of officers per 1,000 people. He said he won’t recommend any redistribution of money for police, and that if anything, he’d recommend spending more city money in the department if needed to carry out recommendations from his review, like adding more training.

Mihelich said spending 8% on police is “very reasonable,” maybe even too little.

Public comment on the night’s budget presentation began around 10:30 p.m., about four-and-a-half hours after the meeting started.

Justice Geddes criticized the city commission for discussing the budget so late in the night. He said it isn’t possible for everyone to tune in to a commission meeting for four hours on a Monday, and that they would be left out of the conversation.

“By pushing it to the bottom (of the agenda), you’re showing an unwillingness to engage with public critique on issues that actually matter,” he said.

Geddes said that caring for children should not be the job of the police, and requested the city consider using the money for a school resource officer for something else, like maybe a school counselor.

“I don’t know if you’ve actually talked to students. I’ve been a student fairly recently. Having cops at high school around me never made me feel safe and I don’t know any students who felt that way,” Geddes said.

Madison Perrins sent a letter to commissioners saying the objective of police is to deter crime and “that can be accomplished by allocating funds towards social services and housing services that eliminate the circumstances that create crime.”

Perrins called on the city to reallocate money to create jobs for “non-violent specialists” to handle situations like helping the homeless population, those dealing with mental illness or to perform welfare checks.

Liam Brown told commissioners about the massive demonstration that took over Bozeman’s downtown last Friday. He said protesters are calling on the city to defund the police, and that he hopes the majority white commission hears what protesters are saying and will work with them.

“As a member of the BIPOC community — please listen to us,” Brown said.

After public comment, Commissioner Terry Cunningham said the board had received around 400 comments on its budget this year, and that increase in engagement is a good thing. He said the budget represents the city’s values, so it’s important to talk about.

“Having that open, honest, candid look at ourselves ... as we become a more diverse community is absolutely important. And it’s important that we look at ourselves on a citywide basis,” Cunningham said.

The city commission is scheduled to take a vote on the final budget next Monday.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.

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