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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