SALEM — A traditionally routine yearly City Council review of the police department budget was upended by questions about use of force and demographics of arrests and traffic stops.

The Council last week approved the department's budget at $10,705,403 without any changes, with the Council's five-member finance committee approving it Tuesday and the full City Council Thursday night.

The focus on the budget this week coincided with several protests in Salem over the past few weeks, some targeting police Capt. Kate Stephens. The department said she was responsible for a post on its official Twitter page criticizing Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh for allowing protests while COVID-19 necessitated shutdowns of restaurants for public safety. 

Stephens was demoted to sergeant last week and suspended without pay for 30 days, with half to be held in abeyance. Mayor Kim Driscoll has also formed a race equity task force to review of city policies with regard to equality and police use of force, among other things.

The most recent protest, held Friday night about 18 hours after the budget was approved, called for defunding of the department and eventually made its way to City Council President Bob McCarthy's home in Juniper Point to make the demand in person.

Last Tuesday's finance committee hearing, which ran for nearly 90 minutes, also saw councilors praising the police department.

"As a whole, Salem's police department isn't biased," Ward 7 Councilor Steve Dibble said.

Meanwhile, arrest numbers discussed at the hearing showed that Black people make up a larger percentage of those arrested than the percentage living in the city, according to the most recently available census data. According to census.gov, Black people make up 5.9 percent of the city's overall population.

During the presentation, police Chief Mary Butler detailed the demographics behind arrests and traffic stops. For arrests, Black people made up 9 percent of arrests in 2016, 2017 and 2018, while making up 10 percent of arrests in 2019. Other demographics were below numbers shown in census data, with white arrests making up 70 percent in 2016, 72 percent in 2017 and 63 percent in 2018 and 2019. That compares to the "white alone" line on census data putting Salem at 77.2 percent.

After the meeting, police Capt. Fred Ryan said the department doesn't "ask race or ethnicity of anyone arrested or with whom we have contact. Therefore, it is only the determination of the officer based on the person before them and the officer's perception."

"We would need to check every arrest to determine if the person arrested was black, dark complexion Latino, Pacific Islander, etc. without checking each and having more information," Ryan said. "We also can't say with any degree of accuracy at this precise moment if every person arrested in the statistics in any of these categories actually resides in the city, whereby the residential rate is relative to the data presented."

The discrepancy in the data wasn't discussed during the presentation and isn't clear whether any councilors were aware there was a possible discrepancy.

"I see your officers do a great job every day, first hand. And I can assure you they're the very, very best," said Ward 4 City Councilor Tim Flynn, who also serves as a lieutenant on the fire department. "I don't support any of the budget being taken from your department and diverted anywhere else."

Other councilors saw the conversation as an opportunity to question Butler about replacing parts of the police force with civilians, including the Community Impact Unit, a five-member team that works heavily with the region's homeless population and schools.

"For a lot of people, it isn't about necessarily defunding the police," said Councilor-at-large Ty Hapworth. "It's what we're asking our police department to do today, and is it appropriate to ask them to deal with some of these questions."

Councilor-at-large Domingo Dominguez asked about the department getting body cameras.

"It's about a $1 million investment for the city to do that for the equipment, storage, and obviously the capabilities we're going to have to provide," Butler said, "not only for discovery and a court process, but public records requests and redacting those things for people's safety and confidence."

Butler said if the price tag wasn't a factor she'd be all in.

"When you recording something, you can't really alter that," Butler said. "It isn't a panacea because it can't catch everything in every direction, but it certainly can catch enough to be able to get an idea of what's going on."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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