Texas’ largest cities spend more on police than anything else. Activists want more of those funds spent on the social safety net instead.
Officials in Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio each spent more than $434 million from their general funds on their respective police departments during the 2020 fiscal year. For each, that was more than a third of their general funds, the portion of city budgets that can largely be distributed to any department because it is not mandated to a specific function.
Spending that much on police has rarely been challenged on a large scale, according to police reform advocates. But some Texas cities are rethinking how much they spend on police this year after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis police officers during an arrest, spurred protests against police brutality and calls to reduce police funding across the state and country.
On Thursday, the Austin City Council unanimously voted to cut its police department budget by one-third — or $150 million — over the next year.
Police reform activists like Nora Soto, the co-founder of Our City Our Future in Dallas, are asking City Council members to reallocate part of these funds toward areas like housing, social services and public spaces as part of an effort to end a history of discrimination, inequality and overpolicing of Black and brown communities.
In 2018, about a third of Texas prisoners were Black, a third were white and a third were Hispanic, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. That same year, about 12% of Texas' population was Black, about 42% was white and 40% was Hispanic, according to the Texas Demographic Center.
Also in 2018, 19.6% of Black Texans lived below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, compared with 20.9% of Hispanic Texans and 8.5% of non-Hispanic white Texans.
"The only way that you're going to prevent crime is by addressing the root causes of crime, and the main one is poverty," Soto said. "Police have acted as a poverty patrol. They're criminalizing poor people."
Jennifer Szimanski, public affairs coordinator for the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said funding that police departments receive is proportional to their responsibilities, which include everything from responding to potentially dangerous emergency 911 calls to attending monthly neighborhood meetings. And police unions like CLEAT have warned that cuts to public safety funding could increase crime.
"Just because of the sheer volume of tasks that we are responsible for dealing with, public safety is going to be the most expensive part of a city budget across the board. That's really just demand," Szimanski said.
Houston has the largest police budget in Texas and spent more than $899 million on police in the fiscal year that ended in June. But Austinites spent more on police per resident than their counterparts in the state's three other biggest cities in the 2020 fiscal year before the City Council there slashed police funds in the 2021 budget.
There, the city was budgeted to spend $443.84 per resident on police from its general fund in the 2020 fiscal year, which ends in September. The Austin Police Department also constituted 39.9% of the city's general fund this fiscal year, a share that was larger than in Dallas, Houston or San Antonio.
According to Austin spokesperson Andy Tate, the high cost of living there drives officer's wages up. The city also previously included many items in its police budget that other cities list separately, like park police and emergency communications centers. The 2021 Austin budget approved Thursday calls for approximately $20 million in immediate cuts, money that will be redirected to fund areas like violence prevention, food access and abortion access programs.
Another $80 million in cuts would come from a yearlong process that will redistribute money used for civilian functions. About $50 million would come from reallocating dollars to a "Reimagine Safety Fund" that would divert money toward "alternative forms of public safety."
The Houston City Council approved a minor funding increase to its police department in June, but an amendment that tried to redistribute some of the money to other areas, like the police oversight board and loans for businesses owned by Black and brown people, was rejected.
In San Antonio, the budget proposal presented on Aug. 5 includes raises for police officers and an $8 million increase in overall police funding. But it also cuts overtime and moves $1.3 million from the police department to the local health authority to create a new division of violence prevention, according to Texas Public Radio. This budget is scheduled to be approved by Sept. 17.
Dallas officials, who should vote on their budget by Sept. 23, are considering a proposal that doesn't make large cuts to the police department, but adds $3.2 million for mental health services and increases housing, employment and other safety net resources.
Click here and scroll down for interactive Tribune graphics comparing major city police budgets in Texas and showing how cities spent general fund revenues on police compared to other departments and initiatives in their 2020 fiscal year budgets.
It can be difficult to compare spending toward a goal, like decreasing homelessness or increasing workforce development because some cities may have an agency or a position dedicated to solve these challenges, while others have many departments contributing to the goal. Austin, for example, allocated $73.4 million toward homelessness, but a long list of agencies were involved in this effort, from public health to the design and delivery office.
Academic research has shown that hiring more officers can reduce crime. But experts and advocates say that spending a lot on public safety may also have negative outcomes, like overpolicing marginalized communities. At the same time, there's evidence that shows that investing in areas like early childhood education or offering food stamps can also create safer neighborhoods. Police reform advocates said that policing is not able to solve deeper problems, as law enforcement mostly reacts to particular emergencies. Soto said, for example, investing in affordable housing is more important than funding police.
"Once you solve the issue of housing, you solve most of the issues that stem and that causes chronic poverty," she said.
Szimanski said CLEAT doesn't oppose more funding for other areas like mental health, as long as it doesn't mean cuts to police departments.
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Expect some whiplash this week, Austinites: with an expected high of 103 degrees, Monday is predicted to be the hottest day of the year, but a midweek cold front is on the way to bring that first glimpse of fall.
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport could see its first 100-degree temperature this year on Monday as temperatures citywide are expected to exceed this year's record of 102 degrees.
The cold front arrives Tuesday afternoon to evening.#atx #atxwx #cbsaustinwx https://t.co/rQni6ug3y4 pic.twitter.com/PoFeHPYtnM
— Chikage Windler WX (@ChikageWeather) September 20, 2021
After a typical summery Tuesday with highs in the mid-90s, Wednesday will welcome the first signs of fall as a cold front drops lows into the 50s.
Expect more wind and a chance of rain come Tuesday with a 40% chance of scattered storms. The cold front, which should last through Friday, will bring drier, crisper air that could cause fire hazards on Wednesday.
Highs will be in the upper 80s and lows in the 50s and lower 60s for the front's final two mornings.
After near record heat today, a cold front arrives tomorrow! Hang in there South-Central Texas, we have almost made it. pic.twitter.com/yd9UbNo7hY
— NWS Austin/San Antonio (@NWSSanAntonio) September 20, 2021
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Around 75 dogs died in a fire Saturday night at Ponderosa Pet Resort in Georgetown, according to the Georgetown Fire Department, leaving dozens of owners to mourn the losses of their furry companions.
The fire department arrived on the scene less than five minutes after 911 calls started flooding in at 10:56 p.m. At their arrival, they found flames and clouds of smoke, according to GFD Chief John Sullivan.
Twenty-five firefighters were on the scene, hoping to save as many lives as possible, initially trying to open some ventilation and control the smoke, though they were unable to save any dogs. Sullivan said his heart goes out to the families of the victims of the fire.
"I've been doing this for 29 years and this is the first incident that I've had where we've lost so many pets," Sullivan said. "I hate to use that term because, to me, a pet is a lot more than a pet—it is the closest friend. I wish I could convey my internal emotions adequately. I just wish I could go back in time to make it better."
Families of the fallen pets, who are believed to have died from smoke inhalation, have created a memorial outside the pet resort's fence complete with flowers, photos, notes and beloved toys of their friends.
No people were discovered at the scene—Ponderosa's boarding policies state that the staff feels that pets sleep better at night when no employees are there, so the pets are left unattended at night.
The fire department is still working to discover what caused the fire. Despite fire and smoke damage to the inside, the outer metal exterior survived the blaze. Based on the type of construction and occupancy type, the building was not required to have a sprinkler system.
"Quite frankly, I view my personal pet as probably my closest confidant, friend and the one that doesn't judge, so my heart just breaks," Sullivan said.
The fire claimed the lives of dog duo Bunny and Clyde, leaving owners and newlywed couple Don and Pam Richard devastated and angry KXAN reports, saying they wouldn't have left the dogs had they known they would be left unattended at night.
The Richard family is planning to petition the city of Georgetown, making it so that animals in professional care are never left unattended again.
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After months of speculation, a new report says political personality Beto O'Rourke is mulling a run for Texas governor that he will announce later this year.
Sources tell Axios the former congressman is preparing his campaign for the 2022 election, where he will likely vie for the position against incumbent Gov. Greg Abbott. The only other candidate that has announced he will take on Abbott for governor is former Texas GOP Chairman Allen West—no Democrats have announced they are running as of yet.
"No decision has been made," Axios reports David Wysong, O'Rourke's former House chief of staff and a longtime adviser, said. "He has been making and receiving calls with people from all over the state."
A new poll from The Dallas Morning News and University of Texas at Tyler shows O'Rourke is narrowing the gap between himself and Abbott's prospects for governor. In the poll, 37% said they'd vote for O'Rourke over Abbott, while 42% said they'd vote for Abbott.
Abbott has been in the hot seat due to his handling of COVID-19 and the signing of landmark legislation into law, including new abortion and voting rights laws; 54% of poll respondents voted they think the state is headed in the "wrong direction." Still, Texas hasn't had a Democrat as governor since the 90s.
O'Rourke's people-focused approach to the 2018 Senator race, which he lost to Sen. Ted Cruz, gave him a widespread following and many hoped he'd throw his hat into the ring since he said he was considering it earlier this year.
"We hope that he's going to run," Gilberto Hinojosa, the state chair of the Democratic Party, told Axios. "We think he'll be our strongest candidate. We think he can beat Abbott because he's vulnerable."