RTDNAC 2020: Wilmingtonians Protest Police Budget

Jul 13, 2020


Wilmington leaders have passed a resolution authorizing the city manager to apply for a COVID-19 pandemic-related grant. The funds -- nearly $235,000 -- would be used by the Wilmington Police Department to buy equipment: ultraviolet lights for sterilization, first aid kits, and eight drones.

WPD currently has three drones. The additional eight -- purchased through the federal grant aimed to assist law enforcement -- would be used for multiple purposes: like investigating traffic accidents or enforcing social distancing. One Wilmington resident, Maria, sent an email to council at the Tuesday, May 19 city council meeting -- expressing concern about privacy. It was read by the city clerk:

“As a Wilmington resident, I do not feel comfortable with the Wilmington Police Department using funds intended for the coronavirus to go towards drones that will be utilized for surveillance of the citizens.”

Interim Police Chief Donny Williams responded, stressing the technology would only be used for surveillance in public spaces:

“We currently have policies that are very clear on what they can and they cannot be used for: to give example, you cannot fly them over someone's yard unless there is a search warrant or some type of exigent circumstance.”

WPD officials say the drones will give the department the ability to observe situations from a distance -- and therefore preserve PPE supplies. 

After discussion, the resolution passed unanimously. 

The May 19 meeting also renewed the current state of emergency in the city. That means current COVID-19 restrictions will be extended through Friday, May 22.

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It’s been a tough year in the world of municipal finance -- with the pandemic making it difficult if not impossible to predict how the economic crisis will affect localities. Nonetheless, the Wilmington City Council will vote Tuesday, June 16 on whether or not to adopt its proposed 2020-2021 fiscal year budget.

The initial proposed $206 million budget included road and infrastructure improvement projects, a transportation bond, and stronger affordable housing initiatives. But with COVID-19 causing uncertainty and possible revenue shortfalls ahead, Mayor Bill Saffo says city leaders had to cut those items.

Funds for law enforcement and emergency response services -- which make up 50% of the budget -- will stay the same. Mayor Saffo defended that decision, as nationwide protests against police brutality call for reducing funds for law enforcement:

“We haven't had any kind of discussion about cutting any kind of funding for policing until this incident that unfolded in Minneapolis with Mr. Floyd -- we haven't heard from any citizen in any of our budget discussions, any public hearings that we've had about the budget until these last two to three weeks.

Half of our city's budget goes to public safety. That is the number one service that cities provide. And more importantly, it's always been that way.”

The city council will meet at 6:30 to vote on the plan.

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Wilmington City Council has voted to adopt its 2020-2021 fiscal year budget. The $206 million financial plan does not include a tax increase. Other aspects of the budget stirred controversy at the council meeting.

Council members approved the plan unanimously, despite outcries from speakers calling for a reduction in money allocated to law enforcement. Funds for public safety, which includes the fire department, make up nearly 50% of the budget.

The controversy came amid a nationwide discussion of police brutality and systemic racism, with some cities across the country now considering restructuring law enforcement, or re-allocating police funds for other social services. 

Council commended the passion of protesters but defended their decision to keep the budget as is. Mayor Bill Saffo reaffirmed his commitment to public safety and said it was too late in the budget process to make changes. He also noted that the city declined to provide an additional $5 million the Wilmington Police Department had originally requested.

Some protesters also called for the permanent appointment of Interim Police Chief Donny Williams. Saffo said that decision would be made at a later date.

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It was a tense City Council meeting in Wilmington this week, with Black Lives Matter protesters in attendance, demanding changes to police procedures, and the city budget.

“My name is Sonya Patrick and I represent the local Black Lives Matter and the National Black Leadership Caucus Southeastern Region. I am also a descendant of former slave captives.” 

On Tuesday, June 16, protesters -- including former mayoral candidate Devon Scott -- confronted city leaders with a list of demands. Most requests pertained to law enforcement: mandatory body cameras, more training and mental health screenings for officers, and the formation of a Citizens Review Board to review allegations of use of force or other misconduct by police. 

Speakers praised Interim Police Chief Donny William’s performance in his position and asked for him to be hired in the role permanently. But they also criticized the Wilmington Police Department’s requests for drones and additional vehicles -- items approved and funded by the council in recent weeks. They argued that money -- and the substantial funds allocated for public safety in the city budget -- could be used for other community resources.

Wilmington resident, Angela Marie Colon:

“There is countless [money] being spent on replacing unused ballistic vests, simply because of expired warranties, new cameras and intercoms replacing those that are still functioning and other superfluous expenses. Wilmington has essentially allowed a blank check policy to their police based on vague descriptions of need. These requests need much more scrutiny. So as it currently stands, no this budget is not acceptable.”

Mayor Bill Saffo responded to the demands, saying the mandatory use of body cameras is already a policy for WPD officers, and a meeting to discuss a possible Citizens Review Board has been scheduled. He noted various community programs WPD is already involved with, as well as community and social programs that the city budget funds.

As for the police budget?

“This budget is needed based on the service calls that we as a community are receiving every single day. And one of the primary missions of the city of Wilmington is to protect our community and make it safe.”

Saffo’s colleagues echoed the mayor’s sentiments and stressed the amount of work that had been put into the creation of the budget.

Councilman Kevin Spears: 

“I don't want people to come in and slight the work that's being done by staff, by the council or by other community members, because now you've been awakened to an issue that's been going on for a while.”

The budget was unanimously approved. But as the evening continued, protest organizer Lily Nicole attempted to interrupt the meeting through its virtual live feed. She was cut off by Saffo. 

Later that evening, protestors took to the streets. WECT reports demonstrators blocked traffic, and five people were arrested. One was taken to the hospital; the news organization did not provide any further details as to how they were injured.