Activists on both sides showed up to Tuesday’s Norman City Council meeting to have their voices heard on an issue that has divided the city since June: The reallocation of Norman Police Department funding.
After the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled last week that the Norman City Council’s June 16 budget approval violated the Open Meeting Act, the council on Tuesday had to re-ratify the city’s fiscal year 2021 budget, which reallocated $865,000 away from the NPD.
“My daughter and I came up here and spoke two different times over the summer,” said Ward 1 councilor-elect Brandi Studley. “We all have stories, and it’s important that they validate that and keep with the decision that they made. Because I feel like if they don’t, then they’re invalidating what people say and making it seem like because the experience didn’t happen to them, that they don’t want to do anything to resolve it.”
Studley said she wishes residents would listen and realize why people want to reallocate funds away from the police department into other areas of the community.
“The best thing that I can talk about is if you look at teachers, or even the fire department, we’re constantly cutting funds from our fire department, and we have one of the best fire departments in the state,” she said. “So they manage to operate within the budget that they’re given. Why should the police be the number one budget? We have to think about those things and where else could that money fall to better help our community.”
The council ultimately voted to reaffirm the decision it made in June, keeping the original budget that reallocates $865,000 away from the NPD and into community programs and an internal auditor.
Ward 5 councilor-elect Rarchar Tortorello, who attended Tuesday, said he would not have voted to ratify the June 16 budget, but would have given all the money back to the NPD. Tortorello is backed by Unite Norman, a group that formed to recall council members who voted to cut the NPD’s budget increase in June.
“I think if they were to restore the $865,000 back to Norman PD, it might go a long ways to the city reconciling and working together and basically admitting that, ‘[We] know the Norman Police Department is not our enemy,’” he said.
While some like Tortorello believe the NPD don’t receive enough funding, many in attendance Tuesday believed the opposite.
“I feel like the police have way too much money to deal with,” local activist Sheridan Johnson said. “I feel like we can take some of that money to benefit Norman in other areas, like our mental health, [invest] in our fire department more — just stuff that will benefit the Norman community more directly.”
One talking point of many residents who spoke against the budget Tuesday was that in cities like New York and Minneapolis, taking money from the police force has backfired. But Johnson said Norman is not New York.
“They’re comparing systems from New York, Minneapolis, but we’re Norman — we don’t have the population that New York has, we’re a college town,” Johnson said. “So I’m kind of confused by their stance that crime will go up if it wasn’t already going up [before].”
The meeting even drew students from the University of Oklahoma, who came to voice their solidarity with the council’s original decision from June.
“I want to show solidarity with everybody that showed up last summer,” OU senior Victoria Force said. “I think it’s really important that the city council keep their promise to invest in the community and to build a better Norman, which would involve more community resources that would really address the root issues.”
Unite Norman co-founder Russell Smith said in an interview with reporters before the vote that he believes the money should be given back to the police department, and said Unite Norman is working with “legal counsel, and talking to all of our Unite Norman people” on what to do next if the council didn’t restore the NPD funding.
“I think it’s important that if anyone’s receiving racial discrimination, that it’s vital that their voices are heard,” Smith said. “In this town, we do not have the issues, statistically, that a lot of these other towns had that actually defunded their police like ours did.”
Despite Smith’s claim, reporting from the OU Daily shows that per capita, Black Norman residents are three times more likely to be contacted, arrested or have force used against them by police than white residents.