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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The Austin woman suspected of killing star cyclist visiting from out of town, Moriah "Mo" Wilson, has now been captured after evading arrest for more than a month.
Kaitlin Marie Armstrong, an Austin yoga instructor, is believed by officials to be the killer of Wilson, who was found with gunshot wounds in a friend's house on May 11. The murder is being investigated as a crime of passion after Wilson met up with Armstrong's ex-boyfriend.
According to the U.S. Marshals, Armstrong was located at a hostel on Santa Teresa Beach in Provincia de Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Officials said she may have been using her sister's name after fleeing Austin on May 14, the day after police questioned her. She was last identified at Newark Liberty International Airport on May 18.
Federal authorities say they plan on returning Armstrong to the U.S., where she'll face charges of murder and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Here's a timeline of events since the night of Wilson's murder.
- The night of her death, Wilson met with Armstrong’s ex-boyfriend Colin Strickland, a fellow pro cyclist. According to an affidavit, the pair went swimming, then to dinner, before he dropped Wilson off at her friend's home where she was staying in East Austin at around 8:30 p.m.
- While Wilson and Stickland had previously had a romantic relationship, Stickland said the two were friends. The affidavit says Strickland lied to Armstrong about his whereabouts that evening.
- Video footage shows Armstrong’s Jeep pulled up nearby the home within a minute of Wilson arriving home.
- At around 10 p.m., Wilson's friend called Austin police after finding her in a pool of blood. Wilson had been staying with the friend ahead of the upcoming bike race in nearby Hico, Texas.
- Armstrong was brought in for questioning the day after the murder and released after appearing “very still and guarded” when confronted with video evidence.
- The Lone Star Fugitive Task Force said her black Jeep Cherokee was sold to a South Austin CarMax dealership on May 13 for $12,200.
- She leaves from the Austin airport on May 14.
- Shell casings found on the scene matched a gun belonging to Armstrong.
- Austin police obtained an arrest warrant for Armstrong on May 17.
- She took a flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to San Jose, Costa Rica on May 18 using a fraudulent passport, according to the Marshals.
- On May 25, another warrant was obtained for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
- On June 29, she was captured by the U.S. Marshals
On Thursday, the Supreme Court limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority in regulating greenhouse gases, a move that comes at a time when experts have warned about the need to take action on climate change.
The ruling was brought after a challenge to a lower court opinion brought by Texas and more than a dozen other states.
Vaibhav Bahadur, an associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin called the SCOTUS decision significant, noting that Texas is the biggest energy producer in the U.S., and produces more energy than the United Kingdom.
“Power generation accounts for a significant fraction of U.S. carbon emissions, and the EPA loses its ability to control what's happening in about half of that sector,” Bahadur said. “And it's not just the U.S., I think people and environmentalists on pretty much anywhere on the planet will be disappointed because this is going in the wrong direction. We know we want to be decarbonizing, and this is essentially putting a roadblock on progress toward decarbonization.”
So, we’re going to need some insurance, Bahadur says. He’s carrying out work that’ll act as such through his research on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), the process of sucking carbon from the air and burying it.
For the past five years, he’s been working on a novel approach to storing carbon. It involves supercharging the formation of carbon dioxide-based crystal structures and storing billions of tons of carbon under the ocean floor.
“If all of this is successful, then we will have another option for safely and responsibly storing carbon at the bottom of the seabed for essentially eternity,” Bahadur said.
Still, Bahadur talked about a different approach to responsibly cutting down emissions in the next decade, and doing so in a meaningful and substantial way, then the environment will eventually heal itself and we might not need CCS.
But that’s not the path we’re headed down.
“We're already starting to see temperature records being shattered this year, and we're still to hit peak summer,” Bahadur said. “All of this just makes me think that we need CCS to a larger extent, and possibly sooner than what a lot of scientists anticipate, especially if we can't keep our emissions in check.”
Gary Rochelle, a professor in the department of chemical engineering at UT, thinks CCS was ready to be deployed in 2010 and those 12 years have made a difference.
“But now we've emitted all that CO2,” Rochelle said. “And unfortunately, unlike other pollutants, when you emit CO2, it's there. It's not going away.”
Gary Rochelle and Vaibhav Bahadur are both researching technology to address carbon emissions. (UT)
Still, the delay is good in that now researchers like him have had time to learn about and improve the technology, allowing for fewer problems once it's deployed.
In December, UT announced a licensing agreement with advanced technology company Honeywell. The technology from that is targeted at power, steel, cement and other industrial plants to lower emissions.
Rochelle has been working on the technology since 2000 as part of an international collaborative effort. When he talked to Austonia on Thursday, he had just had calls with collaborators in Germany and Norway. Currently, he’s working with some Ph.D. students on addressing a chemical reaction that can happen with the technology known as oxidation that could lead to ammonia emissions and cause problems for a large-scale commercial unit.
Rochelle says he’s driven to this work because he wants to make a contribution.
“We're trying to develop this technology so that we can make a difference,” Rochelle said. “It's a nice problem to work on. The students are motivated and those are the primary things which drive us.”
Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott celebrated the high court’s decision which acted as a blow to President Joe Biden’s plan to reduce emissions.
“Today’s landmark victory against an out-of-control administration is also a big win for Americans who worry about skyrocketing energy costs due to expensive federal regulations that threaten our energy industry,” Abbott said. “President Biden cannot keep attacking the energy industry and the hardworking men and women who power our nation.”
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