For These Texas Organizers and Officials, Defunding the Police Means Remedying Effects of Racism

Jun 16, 2020
2:54 PM
Originally published at The Texas Tribune

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By Clare Proctor and Juan Pablo Garnham

The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police —and officers’ use of force on protesters opposing police brutality against Black Americans— gave rise to local and nationwide calls for elected leaders to defund law enforcement.

But that push, especially in Texas’ largest cities, doesn’t always mean that people want police departments to lose all of their money, though some people support abolishing law enforcement agencies. What some Texas activists and officials actually want is to limit money spent on police so more funds can instead be directed toward remedying the racism, segregation and poverty often fueling tense relations between law enforcement and residents of color in the first place.

And in at least two major Texas cities, those calls to defund police departments are already gaining traction as officials eye spending less on police and more on things like housing assistance, mental health services and job training. It’s come at such an unusual speed in the weeks after Texans began risking their health to publicly gather in protest of police violence that even demonstration organizers have been caught off guard, albeit pleasantly so.

“We didn’t think this is where we would be,” said Clarice Criss, a member of a group called In Defense of Black Lives Dallas.

Last week, the Austin and Dallas city councils asked their respective city managers to propose cuts to police department funding in order to free up money for social services. Supporters of such moves say rethinking budget priorities, instead of consistently bolstering law enforcement budgets, can make communities safer.

“I want to start by saying that defunding the police doesn’t necessarily mean defunding public safety,” Ali Tahir, a small-business owner, told Austin officials at a council meeting this week. “I think that gets glossed over, I believe it can be the opposite. The aim is to improve public safety by means of reallocating these resources.”

American leaders at all levels of government have historically attempted to mitigate crime by upping the police presence in certain areas instead of investing in social services to combat the root causes of many crimes: mental illness, drug addiction and poverty.

“Crime exists in many cases because of the huge inequality that exists,” said Alan Dettlaff, dean of the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. “The reason why that inequality exists is because of the racism that existed for hundreds of years.”

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.

And some local Texas leaders say they want to start putting money toward closing those gaps in a country and state where black people disproportionately live in poverty, get arrested for drug-related offenses, are incarcerated and die at the hands of police.

“We should be treating homelessness not with policing, but with housing. We should be treating addiction not with policing, but with treatment,” said Greg Casar, a member of the Austin City Council. “We have dedicated so many of our public dollars simply to policing, and that hasn’t made us actually more safe.”

Austin directed 39.9% of the city’s general fund to the police department in the 2019-20 fiscal year. Dallas budgeted 36% of its general fund on police. San Antonio allotted 37.5% of its general fund for police. Houston dedicated 33.1% of its general fund to police.

Texas police associations agree there needs to be an investment in communities’ social services, programs like mental health care and drug rehabilitation. Some are even willing to part with portions of their funding to accomplish this goal.

“We’re supportive of actually getting rid of officers going to mental health calls,” said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. “Take that job from us. They’re medical professionals and we’re not.”

Other Texas law enforcement officials say their departments are already spread thin and that cutting budgets or limiting the number of officers that can be hired in the future will hinder their ability to combat crime.

Over the past several years, statewide crime has been on the decline, falling from a rate of more than 4,200 crimes per 100,000 people in 2010 to just shy of 2,800 crimes per 100,000 people in 2018, according to data from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

But police officials say some of the state’s bigger cities have seen increases in crime rates.

“Most police departments have already been defunded,” said Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “We’re all short on where staff has been. There’s rising crime in most major cities. Murders are up this year. Aggravated assault is up 23%.”

Yet Criss said there’s a “spectrum” of views on how police departments should be handled, ranging from reforming training to cutting budgets to abolishing the agencies altogether. She’s among those who would eventually like to see departments disbanded. She said once communities are safer and all residents are supported, policing won’t be needed.

“We must say defund because we know that where the money goes is where the attention goes,” Criss said. “We continue to push toward defunding until police are abolished.”

From Slavery to Broken-Window Policing

The history of conflict between Black communities and police traces all the way back to the era of slavery, when police held the responsibility of keeping slaves in line, said Katharine Harris, drug policy fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Distrust persisted across generations and into the Jim Crow era, when state and local laws kept segregation in place primarily in the South, leading to the overpolicing of Black communities, Harris said.

With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 1960s, Harris said, many public officials crafted a narrative that tied civil unrest over systemic and societal racism to violence.

“For example, there was the characterization of the Black Panthers of being this violent group and ignoring the community work they did,” Harris said. “They were portrayed in white America as a very violent group.”

Modern policing tactics that disproportionately target Black communities took off after former President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” in 1971, Harris said. Although studies show comparable drug use among Black and white people, Black people are disproportionately more likely to be arrested on drug offenses, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Three-strike laws crafted in the 1990s punish people who are convicted of three serious or violent felonies, which often include drug offenses classified as serious. But because of the racial disparity in drug policing, the laws operate out of a “system devoted to maintaining the inequality” between white and Black Americans, said Dettlaff, the University of Houston dean.

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.

The war on drugs spurred the use of no-knock warrants, which allow police officers to enter a residence without knocking or announcing their presence, Harris said. Louisville, Kentucky, police officers were using a no-knock warrant when they shot and killed Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, in March.

The systemic inequality is apparent in the death of George Floyd, who died in police custody after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, said Eric Tang, an African studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Floyd’s crime: He allegedly spent a counterfeit $20. Spending counterfeit money isn’t a violent act, Tang said, but rather a small crime typically perpetuated by people struggling to make ends meet. And crime can frequently be linked to poverty, he added.

“If law enforcement wasn’t sent out to address the issue, but rather another set of people who hold people accountable in society, we wouldn’t have seen fatal outcomes,” Tang said.

Meanwhile, redlining also worsened socioeconomic inequity as Black Americans were blocked from renting in certain neighborhoods or could not get bank loans for certain homes. That created and maintained segregated neighborhoods that became clear targets of “broken-window policing,” Harris said.

That policing tactic from the 1980s theorizes that even small-level crimes —like loitering and vandalism— must be policed to prevent the entire neighborhood from decaying. In practice, it led to more interaction between police and communities of color and perpetuated distrust, Harris said.

“Overpolicing made that worse,” Harris said. “We’ve been building on this essentially broken system from the get-go.”

This has led to opposite opinions about the role of police. According to a 2016 Pew Research study, three quarters of white people surveyed said that local police do an excellent or good job when it comes to using the right amount of force for each situation. Only 33% of Black people shared that opinion.

View From the Neighborhoods

In Houston’s Third Ward, Kandice Webber watched years ago as schools closed in her neighborhood, prompting many Black families to leave. The ones who stayed then watched as real estate developers brought a new wave of white affluent residents who wanted to live near downtown. With these new neighbors came police officers’ more visible presence.

“There would be more cops patrolling these areas,” said Webber, who is an organizer with Black Lives Matter Houston. “They would be worried that the Black lives would cause harm to the white lives. And they expected us to change to make them more comfortable.”

But, she said, the increased patrols haven’t always benefited black families like hers.

“We know that the increase in police presence does not make us safer,” Weber said. “Increasing the amount of school counselors, nurses, librarians and having wrap-around services makes us safer.”

Gov. Greg Abbott deployed state troopers to Dallas last summer after a surge in violent crime, but some city officials said the officers did more harm than good as residents complained of overpolicing in communities of color.

Those officials reported an “overwhelming” number of complaints about overpolicing. The Department of Public Safety reported issuing an average of around 260 warnings per day. A tiny fraction of those resulted in arrests. Criss, the member of In Defense of Black Lives Dallas, said she remembers seeing people pulled over by police every two or three blocks.

“It made me not even want to go into southern Dallas,” said Criss. “As a Black woman, I get fearful when I see the police.”

Daniela Nuñez is the president of the Georgian Acres Neighborhood Association in Austin. Last year, she pushed for city leaders to increase the number of paramedics available to respond to incidents related to drug use or mental health issues in her community so police don’t have to.

“There’s a lot of issues in our area, and police will not solve them. These are community problems, social problems,” Nuñez said. “Lots of the issues that people are really concerned about are really related to poverty, and they will keep popping up if we don’t address root problems.”

She said that she wishes that the area could have social workers 24/7 to address homelessness and mental health-related incidents.

“For so long, the police have taken the lion’s share of the budget. But we do need to empower other areas of the city government, nonprofit groups and all these people that are really invested in prevention of root problems,” Nuñez said.

Decades of racism have created an unequal system in which a lack of investments in social safety nets creates “push factors” where crime can become a necessity, Dettlaff said. Instead, calls to defund the police propose a long-term strategy of investing in communities to gradually decrease the need for crime and widespread policing, he said.

“Increased police in communities doesn’t create public safety,” Dettlaff said. “What creates public safety is well-funded schools, access to mental health services, access to health insurance and quality health care.”

Politics of Defunding

Police associations across the state often agree that social services need better funding, and law enforcement is frequently dispatched to handle issues that are the result of drug addiction, homelessness and lack of access to mental health services. Terrance Hopkins, president of the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas, said the police have had to take up the roles of dog catchers, social workers and psychiatrists. Police association leaders in San Antonio and Austin echoed that.

But many police leaders warn against decreasing the number of officers. They say that could harm communities of color.

“We know that when violent crime is starting to go up across the country, it is not going to hurt affluent communities, because they’re paying for extra patrols or paying for the constables or paying for private security,” said Houston police Chief Art Acevedo. “It’s going to hurt the communities that we’re supposed to be helping, and that’s disproportionately communities of color and poor communities.”

Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, said he sees “some merit” to the argument to reallocate funding away from police departments and funnel it into social services. But he cautions against doing both at the same time, Lawrence said.

Even if investing in communities’ mental health, drug rehabilitation and the likes does bring about a decrease in crime, the desired effect will likely take months, or even years, before cities begin seeing a decline in crime, Lawrence said. If police funding is cut before crime levels fall, there’s a potential for inadequate law enforcement in the interim period.

“The problem is you cannot do both at the same time,” Lawrence said. “You can’t take away resources currently being used… and wait and hope other services reduce crime.”

But most of the city leaders heeding calls to defund police are not pushing for a full dismantling of the police departments.

“I’m not in any way suggesting that we don’t need police presence or to abolish the police department as a whole,” Dallas council member Adam Bazaldua said. “I just believe that we put too much emphasis on police as the solutions of everything.”

Criss, the Dallas activist, said letters from council members like Bazaldua calling for reallocating police funding were a “great first step” in combating systemic racism. But the conversation is far from over, she said.

Come August, when the city starts making budget decisions for next year, Criss said activist groups need to hold officials accountable for following through on their support of defunding the police.

“This was definitely not the end,” Criss said. “We have strong support on the council, but we’re asking them to do something they never thought they’d be asked to do in their lifetime.”


Meena Venkataramanan contributed to this report.

Disclosure: Rice University, the University of Houston and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.