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Police brutality in Texas

Houston officials increase police budget as Dallas and Austin officials consider decreases in wake of police brutality protests

Some of Texas' biggest cities appear headed in different directions with police budgets during nationwide calls to cut law enforcement funding.

Dallas police officers during a march against the death of George Floyd on May 29, 2020.

*Correction appended

As nationwide calls for defunding law enforcement grow in the wake of historic protests against police brutality, Houston officials increased their spending on police Wednesday.

But Dallas and Austin officials appear supportive of pulling money from their police department budgets and reallocating that money toward community investments.

The Houston City Council increased its police budget Wednesday from $945 million last year to $964 million for the upcoming fiscal year. That came after the failure of council member Letitia Plummer's amendment that aimed to redistribute some of the money to other areas, including mental health programs and loans for businesses owned by people of color. Wednesday's vote came after Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that he will be launching a task force focusing on police accountability and transparency.

"We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history," Plummer said on Twitter. "That is the most important take away. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the task force accountable."

Bill Kelly, director of government relations for Turner, said that the increase in police funding was mainly related to "fixed costs," including pensions and pending pay rises. He also added that part of the police funding goes to its already existing mental health program, which includes outreach teams and training for officers.

"Houston has invested a considerable amount in better service for our population that has had to turn to law enforcement for public health crisis," King said in an email.

Calls for defunding the police often refer to cutting funding for police departments and spending the money on social services. And on Wednesday, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo was in Washington, D.C., where he told federal lawmakers that cutting police budgets is not the best solution to ending police brutality.

"Some think defunding the police is the answer. I’m here to tell you on behalf of our mayor and other mayors across the country and police chiefs across the country and the diverse communities that we serve, this is simply not the answer," he told the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

But in Dallas, 10 of 15 City Council members sent City Manager T.C. Broadnax identical letters dated Tuesday and Wednesday asking him to prepare options for spending less on public safety and more on other initiatives that they can discuss at a meeting next week.

"We understand that this call is a demand to address the deep root of our nation’s unjust practices and institutions and the need for us, as a city, to repair the harm of structural oppression," the letter says. "It is time to reimagine public safety."

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson was not among council members who sent a letter, but he told Fox 4 News on Tuesday that he is "not only willing" but fully expects to have a "robust conversation" come budget time to discuss how much money the city spends on the police department.

The Austin City Council plans to vote Thursday on decreasing the police department's funding, among other reforms. That council has unanimously expressed support for budget cuts and reform measures, according to KVUE-TV.

In Dallas, the letter signed by council members does not detail specific amounts of money or what may have to be cut in public safety to achieve the possible reallocations, though the council members suggested using the funds to remedy "discriminatory policies that reinforced segregation and inequality." It told Broadnax to consider directing the funds to affordable housing programs, workforce readiness centers, homelessness assistance and community centers, among other things.

"We have increasingly asked our law enforcement officers to perform duties beyond the scope of their role as police," reads the memo. "Some of these duties are societal problems that are not best solved with policing but rather with meaningful and equitable community investment."

Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata described the memo as “very vague” and said that although he agrees that more resources are needed to address issues like mental health or homelessness, those do not necessarily have to come from the police department's share of the budget.

“There's plenty of fat in the city budget other than just the police department," he said. "We're over here building deck parks, and I think we need better funding for social programs and homelessness more than we need a deck park."

Council members Chad West, Adam Medrano, Casey Thomas, Carolyn King Arnold, Jaime Resendez, Omar Narvaez, Adam Bazaldua, Tennell Atkins, Paula Blackmon and Lee Kleinman sent copies of the letter. Council members Adam McGough, Cara Mendelsohn, Jennifer Gates and David Blewett did not, according to the city manager's office.

Kleinman told the Tribune that two council members weren't interested in the memo and another two would have sent copies if they had been asked.

He said he's calling on the city manager to examine the budget for police and examine where cuts can be made, such as reserving patrol jobs for sworn officers and allowing citizens to hold office jobs.

The council will address the budget June 17 in an initial planning meeting, but Kleinman said the budget won't become the council's primary focus until August and September. Because of the financial strain the coronavirus pandemic has put on the economy at the local, state and national levels, Kleinman said the city will face a tough budget. Often, the first proposed cuts are to libraries, parks and cultural affairs — the “ministry of happiness” — Kleinman said.

“Do we want to keep libraries and the rec center open longer hours, or buy more paramilitary equipment for police officers?” Kleinman said. “When you put it in that light, the police budget is not so sacred as it has been in the past.”

The public safety budget in Dallas, which includes the courts and fire and police departments, makes up about $800 million of the city’s annual budget, Kleinman said. About $500 million of that goes toward the police department. Just 1% of that budget — $8 million — could stretch far if diverted to invest in the community’s roads or schools, he said.

Stacy Fernández and Valeria Olivares contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Dallas City Council member Omar Narvaez.

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