How do you ‘defund the police’ in Texas? Very carefully.

Henry Gass/The Christian Science Monitor
Leon Reed, a criminal defense attorney, during his 10-day walk from Fort Worth to Austin, Texas, to raise awareness for police reform. Amid a national debate around policing reform, local police budgets are coming under scrutiny from activists and local officials.

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A summer of protests has fed into heated debates on city councils over how much public money should go to police departments, and what their functions should be. In Texas, the discretionary power of municipal councils to redirect money from law enforcement is limited by union contracts and political constraints. But cities have begun the hard work of deciding what public safety could look like if less money went to the police. 

The cuts so far are modest but represent a break with elected officials’ historic reluctance to be seen as undermining police powers. In San Antonio, for example, a share of future tax revenues earmarked for cops will be allocated to nonprofit agencies to assume functions that are currently the purview of the police. 

Why We Wrote This

Activist calls to defund the police are playing out in city budget meetings in Texas, showing the limits of what is possible as well as points of agreement in funding public safety.

Tax revenues have been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to the pressure to find ways to fund public services. That may force a sharper look at how police budgets are spent and how to empower other actors.

“Police reform and crime reform have always been the third rail of politics,” says Manny Pelaez, a member of the San Antonio City Council. “It’s going to require a certain amount of courage to be able to have these conversations.”

The mercury was around 102 degrees Fahrenheit when Leon Reed left the town of Jarrell for the last 40 miles of his journey. He had been walking for a week, mostly during dawn and dusk, to the state capital of Austin so he could talk to Gov. Greg Abbott about police reform.

Like other activists in cities across the nation, Mr. Reed, a criminal defense attorney, is pressing for policing in his state to change – from intangible aspects like workplace cultures and mindsets to the nuts and bolts of budgets and regulations. But just as in those cities, the “defund the police” slogan doesn’t fully capture activists’ demands.

“We need the police,” he said. “But the answer to everything isn’t ‘send a police officer.’”

Why We Wrote This

Activist calls to defund the police are playing out in city budget meetings in Texas, showing the limits of what is possible as well as points of agreement in funding public safety.

Governor Abbott wasn’t in Austin when Mr. Reed arrived earlier this week. That afternoon he was actually in Fort Worth, where Mr. Reed had begun his walk, calling on the state legislature to freeze property tax revenue in any city that defunds its police, but offering few details.

In Texas, as elsewhere, public safety is the biggest line item on most municipal budgets. While the bulk of spending goes to salary and benefits, underpinned by union contracts, there are expenditures like equipment, technology, and legal fees, all of which are up for debate as cities explore how to shift funding and responsibilities away from police departments.

The discussions in Texas cities illustrate the variety of ways that funding of the police could change in the United States, as well as the hurdles ­– both practical and political – that stand in the way.

Some cities have already begun to redistribute those funds: the Austin City Council last week unanimously approved a plan to cut $150 million from the police department.

The financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on local tax revenues has added more strain on budget negotiations this year. One constraint is that a significant chunk of police funding is dictated by collective bargaining agreements in most cities; another is that local officials usually are reluctant to make budget cuts to public safety. Still, a combination of financial and political pressure is chipping away at this consensus on police budgets and what they spend it on.

“Only in the last few years have we really seen organized activism, particularly from communities of color, to challenge the requests of police departments,” says Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University.

“The conversation isn’t just about how much money, but also a conversation about what are the proper functions that we should be asking police departments and officers to engage in.” He adds: “What are the arguments and empirical bases that municipal leaders are using when they’re determining what the budget of their police should be?”

Potholes and barking dogs

Community activists in San Antonio have criticized a 2021 budget proposal from the city council that would increase funding for police by $8 million, or 1.7%, to cover a 5% pay increase for officers. Erik Walsh, the city manager, said it was the lowest increase in police funding in five years in both dollars and percentage points.

“We know we need to make foundational changes,” he told a city council meeting last week. “We need to think through what type of encounters we want to put police officers in, or the public in.”

Shirley Gonzales has been on the San Antonio City Council for seven years, and since she was first elected she has tried to redirect spending toward social services programs like after-school programming and family services, so far without success.

“What we have never done before is perhaps redirect that from police,” she says. “What we are now seeing is a much more unified discussion about the funding.”

Stephen Spillman/Austin American-Statesman/AP
Austin police investigate a homicide shooting that occurred at a demonstration against police violence in downtown Austin, Texas, July 25, 2020.

But while police departments often have large budgets, there isn’t much flexibility. Almost two-thirds of San Antonio’s 2021 budget is focused on public safety, but as in many cities around the country, a significant chunk of the police funding is locked in by union contracts.

So while some funding could be reallocated, Councilwoman Gonzales says more meaningful change could result from empowering other departments like Animal Care and Neighborhood and Housing Services.

In a presentation to the council, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus noted that quality of life and civil calls to the police have increased 40% since 2011, including calls about barking dogs, panhandlers, and mental health disturbances.

Police budgets make up upwards of one-third of the entire general fund of large cities in Texas. In Houston, that adds up to nearly $900 million.

Yet there are about 18,000 police departments in the U.S., and fewer than 100 of them are in major cities, but all must respond to a similar range of issues that cost officers time and money.

In St. Louis, Missouri, where Heather Taylor has been a police officer for 20 years, police get called about potholes. While a different department has to fix the potholes, she says, a squad car can have to stay for two hours or more to keep traffic away from the workers.

“If we are spending time on all these nonviolent crimes that are not police matters, when do we investigate all the hundreds and thousands of violent crimes that we have?” says Sergeant Taylor.

Finding potential savings 

The major expenditures agreed under union contracts may be untouchable, for now. But one area where police departments could find potential savings is in how they choose to hire and fire problem officers and those who could present problems in future. Reformers argue that protecting “bad apples” is both expensive and counterproductive.

Between 2015 and 2019 the city of Dallas spent almost $10 million to resolve police-involved lawsuits. Chicago paid $20 million in such settlements in just the first eight weeks of 2018. In St. Louis, the city paid almost $5 million on settlements between 2010 and 2016.

“How we can address some of these funding issues is clearly through firing [problem] officers,” says Sergeant Taylor, who as president of the Ethical Society of Police advocates for racial and gender equality in St. Louis police agencies.

Fort Worth began debating police funding in January, three months after an officer fatally shot Atatiana Jefferson in her home. The former officer is being charged with her murder. Voters in the city still chose in July to renew a special sales tax that will fund the local police department over the next decade. 

Now the city’s top cop wants the city council to change how that money is spent. Outgoing Police Chief Ed Kraus has proposed that of the $85 million in projected taxes this year, more spending is redirected from equipment and enforcement in order to create a civilian response program, increase funding to nonprofit partners, and expand a mental health team, reported the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Under this proposal, funding for nonprofits would increase from $250,000 to $2 million. 

Analysts note that given the historic gulf between funding for police and social services in most cities, such a small change can make a big difference.

A political backlash

Austin has gone further. Its $4.2 billion budget cuts $150 million from the police department. Only $21.5 million of the cuts are immediate; the rest will go into two funds that will redirect funding and functions out of the department, the Austin American-Statesman reported. One $80 million fund could see primarily civilian functions like forensics and victim services "decoupled" from the department, while a further $50 million-worth of department functions will be studied further before the city council decides if any of those functions will be taken out of the department. It's unclear if, when and how those funds will be dispersed.

The decisions prompted a swift backlash from the state’s Republican leadership, including Governor Abbott’s vow to freeze future property taxes. “Cities that endanger their residents should not be able to turn around and raise more taxes from those same Texans,” he tweeted. Details of how that could be enforced, or what defines “defund,” are unclear.

Still, local officials say changes to public safety funding generally, and police funding specifically, inevitably spark a backlash, in part because of public perceptions that crime is getting worse, even though violent crime rates have actually been declining.

City leaders are going to have to keep this in mind as they continue these discussions, says Manny Pelaez, a member of the San Antonio City Council.

“Police reform and crime reform have always been the third rail of politics,” he says. “It’s going to require a certain amount of courage to be able to have these conversations.”

In his district, many constituents tell him they want more, not fewer, police officers in their neighborhood. “I’d like to see as much data as possible that helps me understand what are the consequences of defunding a police department, and what are the consequences of maintaining a well-funded police department,” he says.

For Mr. Reed, the problem is complicated, but it’s also urgent.

When walking alone, he often listened to gospel music to help him forget his aching feet and his numb legs, or he thought about what he would say to Governor Abbott. And he’s still hoping his sweat equity pays dividends.

“Walking 200 miles in a Texas August, I’m hoping will let the governor know this is how serious I am about this,” he said. “There’s an urgency of now.” 

Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify how the Austin City Council is changing its police funding. Some proposed changes are being studied.

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