Langley council discusses defunding police, debates what it means

The discussion was put on hold after much debate.

Langley council members may not be in agreement about defunding the police department, but they can all agree that the term “defund” can have different meanings to different people.

During a meeting Tuesday night, Council Member Peter Morton brought a resolution to the council’s attention that called for a commitment not to defund or disband the Langley Police Department.

Morton referred to the phrase as “ambiguous” and providing “little guidance for local action.”

Morton said he had heard three different examples of what “defunding the police” means: redirecting the police budget to social services, reconstructing the police department or as an action reserved specifically for police forces that have a record of racial injustice.

“I have come to the conclusion that it would be unwise for Langley to defund its police, or reallocate police budget dollars to create our own social services organization,” Morton said, “and I think it’s time we publicly state in a resolution form our intentions on that subject.”

He referenced the social services supplemented by the mutual aid agreement with the Island County Sheriff’s Office.

“One size does not always fit all,” Morton said. “We’re not Minneapolis, Portland or Seattle. They each will resolve their issues in accordance to the local circumstances.

“We have a police chief I admire and respect.”

Council Member Thomas Gill said he agreed with Morton’s statement.

“The police are not a monolithic group,” Gill said. “The police is an individual organization whose duties and responsibilities are set forth by this council and this mayor and held accountable to the people of this community.”

He pointed out that the police budget mainly covers salaries and equipment, not riot gear or military hardware.

Gill advocated for education, and eventually having someone other than the police to respond to code enforcement issues.

The other council members, however, showed a hesitancy to support the resolution.

Council Member Dominique Emerson pointed out that the city has enough to deal with, especially when including COVID-19. She suggested putting the discussion about the police department on hold.

“We’ve got our hands full trying to keep our businesses going, and our government going,” she said.

Mayor Tim Callison compared the question of defunding the Langley Police Department to “a big cloud” hanging over the police department.

“They are working every day with a situation that they feel is unresolved in terms of support for what they’re doing by the city council, because that is left hanging in the air,” Callison said.

Council Members Craig Cyr and Christy Korrow were even more hesitant to back the resolution.

Cyr said he wouldn’t be in favor of disbanding the police, but by defunding the police, he meant redirecting funds away from law enforcement and towards other city services with the goal of preserving public safety.

He added that he supports a three-officer model in which a fourth officer will not be hired to fill the open position.

The police chief mentioned during earlier council meetings that the department already cut the police budget by about 30 percent because of COVID-19.

Korrow voted in 2018 to maintain Langley’s police force and said she stands by that decision.

Korrow added that she felt like the resolution put her in an unfair position and made her feel like her word wasn’t good enough.

“I agree with Thomas that our police budget is really at a skeleton level,” she said.

She added that it wasn’t clear in the resolution what defunding the police meant.

Korrow asked Langley Police Chief Don Lauer if he felt supported by the community, and he responded that he did.

“My goal has always been my intent for us to provide the greatest service that we can to this community,” Lauer said.

At a police workshop last month, Lauer pointed out that the officers are also performing public services, such as letting people into their homes or cars who have been locked out and performing welfare checks.

Per the mayor’s suggestion, Morton and Cyr agreed to draft a new resolution together, and the discussion was put on hold.

“One of the things I noticed as we went around the room, is that the word ‘defund’ is interpreted differently by each person, and that is why it’s such a disastrous and ambiguous word to even exist,” Morton said. “I would be very happy to re-word this resolution.”

Since the discussion was tabled, public comments on the issue were not allowed. However, South Whidbey residents tuning into the teleconferenced meeting made their disapproval known.

Freeland resident Seth Sobottka pointed out that because of the Langley Police Department’s interlocal agreement with the county, the issue of whether or not to defund the police affects not just Langley citizens.

Grace Diliaberto, also of Freeland, said it seemed strange the council was ready to make the commitment to never defunding the police.

“I just don’t understand this insistence on digging your heels in to defend a racist institution without even being open to exploring alternatives,” Diliaberto said.

The next Langley council meeting is 5:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 21.

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