Hartford has just eight housing inspector positions, some of them vacant – less than half of what we once had, and far fewer than we need. Stephen Dunn / Hartford Courant

There has been a lot of talk over the last few years about whether “defund the police” was a bad slogan and a bad idea. It seems pretty clear, in Hartford at least, that most people don’t support the idea. But there’s another defunding movement that hasn’t gotten any attention and is doing a lot more harm: city budgets that underfund true public safety.

When Hartford residents get in touch with me to talk about what the city should do better, they’re usually asking for safer, more comfortable lives: they talk about crime, certainly, but also about problems with absentee landlords who won’t do basic maintenance; broken playground equipment that could injure their kids; streets where drivers go too fast and make it hard for people to cross; high rates of asthma, especially among children; and rising rents that threaten to leave families homeless.

Those are all elements of public safety, and all of them – except the police department – are shamefully underfunded.

Josh Michtom

Every year of Mayor Luke Bronin’s tenure, and during many years before it, funding for Hartford’s police department has stayed steady or increased – even two years ago, when the City Council modestly reduced funding in response to protests, the department ended up spending more by drawing on other city funds.

In the mayor’s proposed budget for the coming year, the department’s budget grows to nearly $50 million – the largest it has ever been. Hartford currently has more than twice as many police officer positions as the national per capita average for cities our size. That’s despite the fact that most research shows that the number of officers and the level of spending have little effect on changes in crime. Those mostly happen at a national level, across multiple cities with different laws and different budget priorities.

Meanwhile, Hartford has just eight housing inspector positions, some of them vacant – less than half of what we once had, and far fewer than we need (New Haven has 17; Rochester, NY, has 30). The mayor’s budget does not aim to increase this number. Too few housing inspectors means that it’s much harder for renters in our city – almost 80% of the population – to make sure their apartments are healthy to live in. That means more illness, more asthma, more school absences, more missed work for doctor’s appointments.

That’s what it looks like to underfund public safety.

All of that is happening in the midst of a housing crisis. Rents are rising dramatically in Hartford and families that have paid rent without a problem for years are struggling to find homes they can afford. Evictions are surpassing pre-pandemic levels, and Hartford has one of the highest eviction rates in the whole state.

While the mayor’s time in office has seen considerable construction of new housing, none of it has been public housing. His budget provides no emergency funds for those facing eviction, even as homelessness grows. The same families that are forced to endure unsanitary conditions because the city doesn’t have enough housing inspectors are unable to move to better homes.

That’s what it looks like to underfund public safety.

Outside the home, families face other dangers to their wellbeing. Traffic deaths are rising throughout Connecticut – in 2020, more than twice as many people were killed by cars as by murder and manslaughter – and Hartford residents know the ever-present risk posed by motorists who fly through red lights and stop signs.

Rising police spending has not made a dent in this problem, but we know from extensive research that road redesign can – if we would give the Department of Public Works enough money to do it. Instead, projects drag.

After painting new bike lanes that were meant to be protected by a row of parked cars on Wethersfield Avenue, the city has failed for months to put up signs to educate drivers on where to park. At a budget hearing last week, the Director of Public Works was uncertain whether his department would be able to put physical barriers to discourage cars from parking in the bike lane.

It has now been almost two years since a cyclist was decapitated by drag racers on that stretch of Wethersfield, prompting the new bike lanes, and the project is still not fully functional.

That’s what it looks like to underfund public safety.

Public Works, the department with the most employees living in the city – and the lowest wages – needs more street-sweeping trucks and more public trash bins to keep our neighborhoods clean and inviting.

The Chief of the Fire Department – another agency with a majority of its employees residing in Hartford – reported in budget hearings that he needs funding for 20 more positions to keep up with the needs of a densely populated city with aging housing.

The Department of Families, Youth, Children, and Recreation gets less than a tenth of what our police department gets in the proposed budget. We spend more on the police dog unit than on early childhood services.

That’s what it looks like to underfund public safety.

Just $5 million from the police budget could more fully fund our Fire Department and our Department of Public Works, triple the number of housing inspectors on the job, double early childhood spending, and create a significant emergency fund to help families avoid homelessness. And it would still leave us with more cops per capita than the vast majority of small cities – even cities with similar levels of crime and poverty.

That’s not defunding. It’s smart budgeting.

You can support the police and recognize that there’s more to public safety than law enforcement. And we know from mountains of research that the best way to reduce crime and improve our quality of life is by investing heavily in housing, health, infrastructure, and youth programming.

The mayor’s budget does none of this, offering criminalization where our children, families, and communities need support and uplift.

If Hartford’s residents are going to thrive, we need investment in real public safety, and we need it now.

Josh Michtom is a Hartford City Councilman.