Collier commissioners asked to shift money from Sheriff's Office during budget talks
Calls, in cities across the nation, have grown louder to divert funding away from police and sheriff's departments and toward other government services, in the wake of George Floyd's death in Minneapolis police custody.
They reached Collier County this week during a budget workshop, but county leaders showed little appetite to heed the requests from some residents who argued money from the Sheriff's Office's nine-figure budget could be put to better use elsewhere.
"We've had a couple callers talking about, you know, obviously stuff that we would not even want to talk about, defunding the police and that sort of thing," Commission Chairman Burt Saunders said during the workshop.
"But they do raise an interesting point in terms of getting more mental health services to people that need it. I think we're doing that."
A number of speakers, calling into Thursday's meeting, asked county commissioners to reallocate funds from the Sheriff's Office toward other areas, including mental health and social services, affordable housing, education and parks.
For fiscal 2021 — which runs from Oct. 1, 2020, through Sept. 30, 2021 — Collier Sheriff Kevin Rambosk has requested $203.6 million, a 3% increase from last year, from the county.
Funding for the Sheriff's Office comes from the county's $495.6 million general fund. Collier's proposed total net budget for the upcoming fiscal year is about $1.5 billion.
Rambosk separately requested $3 million to meet the state-ordered mandates of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act, legislation passed in the aftermath of the 2018 Parkland shooting. The state law requires all charter and public schools to either hire their own security personnel, have certified deputies, or allow school employees to carry weapons.
The additional $3 million, the third year of enhanced funding, will help pay for 10 deputies. The Collier County School District has sent the county $1.8 million in fiscal 2020 from state funding the district get for school security.
But Floyd's death and subsequent nationwide protests against police brutality, including a series of peaceful marches in Collier, have reignited conversations across the country about re-imagining the police's role in society.
In cities from Los Angeles to New York, local leaders have vowed to implement changes, including shifting funds away from policing and toward community programs and social services.
Policing, Callhan Soldavini told Collier commissioners Thursday, was never meant "to solve all of our problems" and police enforcement can often make matters worse.
"We pass every societal failure off on our police officers to solve, and it's too much to ask of them," she said.
Community organizations with the proper funding, Soldavini argued, could be the ones to relieve the burden being put on the Sheriff's Office.
Protesters rally for racial justice in North Naples Naples Daily News
She said Collier should empower mental health providers, social workers, victim advocates and religious leaders "who are already doing this work with the appropriate funding to do it more effectively."
"To really fight crime in Collier we do not need more officers. We do need more jobs, affordable housing, education, community centers and mental health resources," Soldavini said.
Others echoed Soldavini's sentiments.
Melissa Alamo, a Golden Gate resident, asked commissioners to take the necessary steps to "critically examine" the CCSO budget and reallocate funding to other areas, including funds for affordable housing and economic redevelopment.
"I believe that there are better ways that our taxpayer dollars can be used by going to other important sectors in our community," she said.
Alamo added Collier, as a community, should begin "shifting our thinking into long-term, sustainable and community-based public safety approaches, outside of just relying on the police for safety."
Eliven Cruz called the Sheriff's Office budget "outrageous" and said she would like to see some of those funds allocated toward Parks and Recreation, museums and libraries.
She said she wanted to see more services benefiting the county's immigrant population in Golden Gate and Immokalee.
"I am a person of color. I've been afraid of the police my entire life," Cruz told commissioners. "I would love to see, you know, these funds allocated elsewhere."
Rambosk and commissioners pointed to the progress they said the county has made over the past years in dealing with residents with mental health and substance use issues, working with local treatment courts and the nonprofit David Lawrence Center.
Rambosk said the Sheriff's Office has trained personnel to help those in crisis and get them to a location that can help them.
"We are one of the only law enforcement agencies that have this many trained, 40-hour Memphis Model (Crisis Intervention Team) trained, law enforcement officers," he told commissioners.
Community members with mental health crisis should not be in jail and Collier's jail population has been "significantly" reduced over the past decade, Rambosk said.
"Again, saving money and getting people to the right treatment and the right place that they need to be," he said.
The Sheriff's Office is also trying to reduce substance abuse and has distributed Narcan, used to counter the effects of opioid overdoses, to deputies, Rambosk said.
"And have saved 251 lives in the last two years," he told commissioners. "That's by your deputies in the street, responding to emergency medical calls."
Law enforcement pulls back to allow protesters to advance on Gordon River Bridge in Naples, Florida. Naples Daily News
Like other law enforcement agencies around the country, the Sheriff's Office recently added explicit language in its policy manual that requires deputies to intervene if another officer uses excessive force.
Every CCSO law enforcement officer has a duty to stop an act that is improper, incorrect or unlawful, Rambosk said. "It's always been in our code of ethics but we wanted to make it extremely clear about what would and would not be tolerated," he said.
The school resource officers, Rambosk and Saunders said, were needed to help prevent school shootings.
"It's an expensive proposition," Saunders said. "But I can tell you, the worst thing we could ever do is find out that there was a school shooting in Collier County. And we want to make sure that never happens."
Not all public speakers petitioned commissioners Thursday to divert funding from the Sheriff's Office.
"I do not believe in defunding our law enforcement, especially with what's going on in the country these days," Joseph Doyle told commissioners.