Boston Mayor Michelle Wu on Wednesday proposed trimming the city’s policing budget by roughly 1 percent, a modest decline that disappointed reform advocates who have pushed for sharp cuts but angered the department’s primary union.
As part of a nearly $4 billion city budget for the next fiscal year, Wu allocated about $396 million for the police department, whose current budget is just under $400 million.
The proposed decline, which requires City Council approval, is substantially smaller than a $20 million cut instituted last year by acting Mayor Kim Janey. And many local officials — including Wu — have previously pressed for even larger reductions. As a city councilor, Wu voted against the past two budgets, saying they failed to adequately respond to “a moment when we need vision,” and after the 2020 murder of George Floyd in police custody signed onto a letter calling for the police budget to be reduced by 10 percent.
On Wednesday, Wu told reporters that she’s “always believed that it’s pretty arbitrary to pick a number... It’s really about what impact we deliver to our residents.”
Her budget calls for a $10 million reduction in spending on personnel services, which Justin Sterritt, the city’s chief financial officer, said is largely the result of a lower payroll burden. The department has seen a number of more highly paid, senior officers retire, and brought in new recruits at lower salaries.
Councilor Frank Baker, in a statement, said Wu’s proposal was “a long way from her defund-the-police stance in 2020.” Wu’s press office did not respond to a request for comment.
Jamarhl Crawford, a police reform activist and member of the city’s police reform task force in 2020, called the proposed cuts a solid first step that he hopes will pressure police officials into keeping a tighter rein on spending.
“I guess you have to start somewhere, chipping away a little at a time, but there’s a lot more tightening up that could be done in the BPD,” he said. “They don’t need a bigger budget, they need to start budgeting, and being efficient with the city’s money.”
Crawford said the department needs to prioritize mental health counseling for officers and crisis response training that draws on the experiences of marginalized communities.
“If the community here has been crying for de-escalation, then that’s really what we need to be focusing on,” he said. “Whether we’re on a shoestring budget or in a windfall situation, what I care about is the quality of policing that we get in return.”
Larry Calderone, president of the police department’s largest union, decried Wu’s proposed budget cuts, saying better policing will require more funding and new hires.
“Any effort to cut the police budget when crime, violence, and guns are up in our public schools, and while officers are retiring at an alarming rate, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” he said. “If ever there were a time to invest in public safety and hire more police officers, it’s now.”
But many police reform advocates said the spending cut didn’t go nearly far enough. Andrea James, founder of Families for Justice as Healing, a group that works to end the incarceration of girls and women in Massachusetts, dismissed it as “paltry.”
“Doesn’t feel like we’re making much progress,” she said, stressing the importance of investment in neighborhoods most affected by high levels of incarceration. “I don’t think 1 percent is going to budge us in that direction.”
Kade Crockford, who directs the Technology for Liberty program at the American Civil Liberties Union Massachusetts, said the initial budget proposal is only a part of of the larger conversation around police spending and pointed back to Wu’s campaign promise to reform the department through union contract negotiations.
“Voters should know that no matter what the city budget says, the amount we spend on policing ultimately gets decided at the negotiating table,” she said.
Fatema Ahmad, executive director of the Muslim Justice League, said she was “disappointed to see essentially the same police budget” as last year given Wu’s aggressive stance on cutting the police budget in 2020.
“We understand the police contract plays a role in budgeting, but we expected to see more from her on this budget,“ Ahmad said, adding that her group wants to see more money spent on alternatives to policing, such as a clinician-based response program for mental health emergencies.
Wu’s proposal now goes before the city council, which experienced significant turnover after the fall election. Some centrist councilors, including president Ed Flynn, have advocated for the hiring of hundreds more officers, an idea that riles progressives and ardent police reformers.
Councilor Ruthzee Louijeune said police reform supporters have asked for the past two years if the city is investing in efforts to prevent crime and she wants to see if this budget does so.
Under a new process approved in a referendum last year, city councilors now have the power to amend Wu’s proposed budget, so long as changes do not exceed the original amount proposed. Previously, the council could vote to approve or deny the mayor’s proposal, but could only transfer funds at the mayor’s request.
Emma Platoff of the Globe staff contributed to this story.