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Editorial: Don't cut Charleston police budget. Do advance social justice. Here's how.

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Charleston City Hall (copy)

City Council chambers in the renovated Charleston City Hall.

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has prompted Charleston and other communities to seek changes in the way their police departments operate. Some of these ideas are promising and overdue.

But while shifting dollars from police budgets to social and other services might be possible over time by rethinking the myriad duties placed on officers, simply redirecting resources to other good causes won’t guarantee a corresponding drop in accidents or crime. It also won’t necessarily improve relations between the police and those they protect and serve.

Charleston’s police budget is about $53 million, 22% of all of its operating costs. Add in the fire department, and about half of the city’s budget goes toward keeping people safe. That is a city’s No. 1 job.

A new group, the Charleston People’s Budget Coalition, wants the city to redirect $5 million from its police budget — 9% — to other areas, such as affordable housing, youth opportunities, safe infrastructure, better wages for city employees and its Department of Racial Reconciliation and Tolerance.

As the city puts together its 2021 spending plan this fall, the coalition is unlikely to get its way — and not only because the city faces a $42 million revenue hit due to the pandemic and many residents have called for more, not less, police presence in the wake of a fatal shooting, protests and a riot downtown. Nor should it.

The city already is making multimillion-dollar commitments to creating more affordable housing, improving drainage infrastructure and making improvements for bicyclists and pedestrians. City employees’ pay packages, including benefits, put them all well above $15 an hour, which is twice the federal minimum wage.

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The city also conducted one of South Carolina’s first racial bias audits of its police department and is working to implement its recommendations. Slashing the department’s budget could risk the ongoing progress toward that larger goal. “In short, we’re investing in better policing and a stronger community at the same time, and that’s a win-win for all of us,” Mayor John Tecklenburg says.

He’s right. Mr. Tecklenburg, who is proud of his police department, also takes the right position when he says “we’re not going to defund it” and promises instead to “keep making the kinds of investments in community policing that build trust and make all our citizens and neighborhoods safer.”

As local governments set their budgets, they certainly should consider additional investments that would allow police to focus on criminal justice matters. Investments such as drug courts and social workers to help those struggling with mental illness and homelessness. Over time, that new spending could lead to a shift away from spending on law enforcement.

Police officers would be the first to applaud such a shift. According to reporter Sara Coello, Police Chief Luther Reynolds acknowledged that police are not the solution to everything, “and I think that’s a challenge that’s coming to us from a lot of different places that I welcome.”

Former City Councilman Kwadjo Campbell, a member of the coalition, cited the gap between the city’s haves and have nots, adding, “More policing might temporarily calm fears, but unless this city refocuses its spending priorities to address income and racial disparities in terms of housing, jobs and business development, it will be to no avail.”

The city is addressing those income and racial disparities, and it conceivably could do more. But any such new efforts should stand on their own merits, separate from what city leaders believe they need to spend to keep us all safe. As the late American journalist H.L. Mencken once noted, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”

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