Imara, McDonald, Walter | Photos provided

If the goal of Charleston’s public safety system is to keep the public safe, then it’s time for Charleston’s city leaders to rethink our system.

To ensure that Charleston is vibrant and safe for all community members, we need to invest in services and resources that benefit all of us. Almost a third of Charleston residents face shelter poverty, where high housing costs force people to forgo other basic needs. Pedestrians and cyclists face one of the highest fatality rates in the country. People in need of mental health or substance use treatment cannot access these services in large part because there are not enough services. The list goes on. 

Yet, Charleston’s definition of public safety is based solely around our police and fire departments. This limited scope places too many Charlestonians in danger on a daily basis. 

Almost a quarter of our total city budget currently goes to the Charleston Police Department. This is because over the years, our political leaders have misguidedly asked police to fulfill roles that they were never meant to fulfill. 

Instead of proactively ensuring that people have access to mental health care and treatment for substance use disorders, we depend on police respond to and criminalize drug use and mental health issues.

Instead of making sure that people have a roof over their head and access to work with a living wage, we depend on police to criminalize poverty and homelessness.

Police are not the right professionals to provide systems of care. As a society, we need people who are trained and equipped to provide these services. 

Additionally, policing experts have long noted that policing does not prevent crime. There is no correlation between the number of police and crime rates. Between 1997 and 2016 the number of police officers for every 100,000 residents dropped by nearly 10 percent. During that same period, the violent crime rate dropped by 37 percent according to FBI data. 

The Charleston Police Department continues to spend the majority of its resources going after people who don’t threaten our everyday safety. In Charleston in 2019, only 13.8 percent of arrests involved incidents with serious threats of violence like murder, rape and aggravated assault. While up to 86.2 percent of arrests are for nonviolent, largely low-level offenses like marijuana possession or having an open container of alcohol.

Charleston’s current definition of public safety results in more than just a waste of our city’s resources. It also perpetuates the harms created by Charleston’s racist and exploitative history. 

Black people are more likely to lack housing, transportation, a living wage, quality public education, comprehensive health care, healthy foods, clean air and water, and affordable credit, to name just a few things. And, while Black people face the brunt of these injustices, Brown, Indigenous, and poor white people are also harmed.

The Charleston People’s Budget Coalition represents a broad intersection of organizations and community leaders imagining this future. We work in multiple spaces including transportation, living wage, racial and environmental justice, housing, and education. Collectively, we ask our city leaders to join us in rethinking public safety.

As our elected city leaders build Charleston’s 2021 budget, we call on them to build a system that ensures the safety and well-being of all — a system that focuses on a provision of resources directly to historically underserved communities. We urge the city council to reallocate $5 million dollars from policing into permanently affordable housing, youth and education programs, sidewalks, weatherization programs, living wages for city employees, and to listen for more needs as they arise. We ask for meaningful investment in and dialogue with the Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation.

Now is the time for Charleston to pass a people’s budget that is focused on eliminating poverty and racial disparities. Now is the time to finally build a Charleston that is safe and just for all. 

Charleston People’s Budget Coalition members include the ACLU of South Carolina, Black Liberation Fund, NAACP Charleston, Black Lives Matter Charleston, Lowcountry Alliance for Model Communities, We Are Family, Lowcountry Action Committee, Charleston Democratic Socialists of America, Tamika Gadsden of Charleston Activist Network, JC & Associates LLC, Community First Land Trust.

Latisha Imara is co-founder of Black Liberation Fund. Marcus McDonald is director of Black Lives Matter Charleston. Emily Walter is organizing advocate at the ACLU of S.C. For a full list of coalition members, visit charlestoncitypaper.com.