Proposal to cut Shelby County sheriff’s budget fails, sparks heated conversation at county commission

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The discussion to cut funding from the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office budget for community programs ended in a heated argument between two county commissioners during Monday’s meeting.

Shelby County Commissioner Tami Sawyer proposed to amend the budget by cutting 5% from the sheriff’s office budget and redirecting the funds to community services. The budget amendment failed, with five commissioners voted in favor of it, five voted against it and three abstaining.

The protests that unfolded after the death of George Floyd have led to conversations about defunding law enforcement and spending the money elsewhere.

Sawyer’s proposal would have cut the sheriff’s budget by $9 million.

However, Commissioner Mark Billingsley said the proposal was not the way to start the conversation.

“If we’re going to start a conversation which I applaud and want to do, we don’t do that by threatening $9 million dollars from the sheriff’s department,” Billingsley said. “In any good marriage, do you start a conversation with a threat?”

Related: County Commission considers amendments to budget

Billingsley commented on Sheriff Floyd Bonner’s dedication to the community.

Sawyer replied, saying funding needs to be used to help children.

“Our kids are out there, whether they are getting in trouble themselves or being shot,” Sawyer said. “It’s because we refuse to allocate resources to them.”

Billingsley commented on the proposal being a punishment to the sheriff’s department but Sawyer said it was a new way to funding community services.

Billingsley said taking money from the sheriff’s budget didn’t seem like an appropriate way to do that.

“This is about criminal justice reform and it’s happening around the country, whether people like it or not,” Sawyer said.

Billingsley said the county has an “exceptional sheriff,” and raised the question of whether Sawyer was familiar with his family’s civil right’s history. “His father was a law enforcement officer. He’s got more stories than any of us could tell about civil rights and abuse.”

The conversation continued to escalate.

“No Mark, you don’t get to do this,” Sawyer said. “Call me your friend then say that you’re going to interrupt me and tell me I don’t know anything about racism. When the sheriff’s department surrounded me and others with batons and tear gas and ties, I have kept my composure this entire time…”

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