Community members had little to say about Keene’s 2021-22 budget proposal during a public hearing Thursday night — except when it came to funding for the Keene Police Department.
All of the several comments made at the hearing, which was held before the City Council, were against the approximately $275,000 proposed increase to the police department’s budget. Those who spoke also generally shared a belief about where that extra money should go instead: social services.
Pauline Moll, who identified herself as a person of color, said Keene is not immune to the concerns raised over the past year about police bias and brutality. She questioned the efficacy of common steps police departments have taken in response to criticisms about law enforcement accountability — such as bias training and body camera requirements, both of which were recommended by a state commission earlier this year.
“Instead of expanding the police budget for reforms that don’t work,” Moll said, “we should fund the social services that will improve regular people’s quality of life and decrease our dependence on police.”
Keene’s proposed budget earmarks about $8.13 million for the police department, up from the $7.85 million councilors approved last year for the department. In total, the proposed spending plan includes a $63.4 million operating budget for the city, along with $2.9 million in bonds for general-fund capital projects, and would come with a 1.7 percent increase to the city’s portion of the tax rate.
Eight other people offered sentiments similar to Moll’s Thursday, urging the council not to increase the police budget and instead to give that money to community services that can help with situations police aren’t always equipped to deal with.
Matt Pyster, who shared a story about a mental-health issue he experienced that ended with police intervention, said having an officer present was frightening and only worsened his mental state. Having a professional trained to help people experiencing mental-health challenges would have been better, he said.
“I needed a mental-health professional who could talk to me without all the baggage that a police officer carries,” he said. “These events happened in [a] different city, but the situation could easily play out here in Keene as well.”
Meanwhile, Sabine Maloney pointed to the increased use of opioids in the area and said support for services that assist people battling addiction should also be considered. Similarly, Catherine Lang said that increasing the police budget doesn’t address the issues that often drive crime and called policing “a Band-Aid” that only masks those problems.
Keene State College student Emma Provencher also asked that funds be diverted toward support programs for people in the community who are struggling with financial issues, such as housing insecurity. Not supporting those organizations sends a bad message, she said.
“When we show that we are supporting an increase in the police budget and not those other services, we are showing that we don’t support the members of our community,” she said, “and we’re more likely to criminalize them rather than help them get out of the situations that they’re in. And I don’t think that’s right.”
Several people also criticized Keene’s BearCat, an armored vehicle the city received in 2012 after months of debate about whether a community like Keene needed the military-style machine.
Councilors did not discuss the concerns raised about the police budget during Thursday’s meeting, though Mayor George Hansel said the comments will be taken into consideration.
Following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer last spring, calls for increased police accountability could be heard across the country. In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu formed a commission that developed a list of recommendations for how law-enforcement agencies could improve.
The Keene Police Department has been looking into several of the recommendations, including the use of body and vehicle cameras and working with the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College on ethics and bias training for officers. The cost of implementing the commission’s recommendations was listed in the budget as a challenge the department will face in the coming fiscal year.
But the budget also says the department recognizes the need for social services, particularly when it comes to those that help people battling addiction.
“Enforcement is only one portion of the nationwide effort to deal with the opioid crisis and will yield diminished results if prevention/education efforts and treatment options are not effectively implemented,” it states.
The full budget proposal, which can be viewed online, will return to the council for a final vote on June 17.