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As Fort Worth voters preserve more than $85 million for police, activists vow to lobby City Hall for spending changes

Tuesday's election comes after nationwide calls to defund police departments have gained traction in Texas as Americans demand reforms in how law enforcement officers do their jobs.

Fort Worth Police vehicle.

Despite opposition from police reform advocates and civil rights organizations, Fort Worth voters supported renewing the half-cent sales tax that funds at least 24% of the city police department's budget.

The measure had the approval of 64% of voters, according to unofficial results provided by the city on Wednesday morning. Still, the proposal had far less support than in 2014, when 84.6% of voters approved an extension of the tax.

This year's vote came after George Floyd's killing in Minneapolis police custody sparked massive protests against police brutality across the country and calls for police budgets to be cut or departments to be disbanded entirely. That vote also followed at least three high-profile incidents in which Fort Worth officers were accused of — or charged with crimes for — using excessive force against Black residents, two of whom were killed by police.

Police reform advocates pledged to keep fighting for changes in the police department funding as the city starts debating its 2021 budget, a process that starts in August.

“We have an engaged army that will not stop demanding that this money be used to actually mitigate the root problems in our community,” said Pamela Young, a community organizer with United Fort Worth, a grassroots organization that works with marginalized communities in the city. “Our top priority is going to be cutting from the police budget and giving to these community programs that actually keep our community safe.”

Fort Worth is the largest of more than 60 Texas cities that have what's called a crime control and prevention district. These districts — which voters must approve periodically — are funded by a portion of the sales tax that is different from the portion of a sales tax that often flows into a municipal general fund. Voter-approved crime control district sales taxes can only be used for crime control and crime prevention. Sales taxes flowing into a city's general fund often can be spent in any way that elected officials decide.

After early voting returns were released Tuesday, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said she was pleased with the renewal of the Crime Control and Prevention District but acknowledged the criticisms of advocacy groups.

"As a lifelong resident of Fort Worth, I have seen CCPD in action, decreasing crime and positively impacting our community," Price said in a statement. "However, I understand there are concerns about the governance of the CCPD Board of Directors and spending of allocated funds. In the coming weeks, I will be calling on the City Council to engage in a conversation about the governance structure and CCPD spending."

Fort Worth voters were asked to extend for another decade the sales tax that provided more than $85 million to the department's budget this year. The department gets another $267 million from the city's general fund. Final results could take days to compile due to a possible increased share of mail-in ballots. Those ballots have to be received by county election workers 5 p.m. on Wednesday — as long as they were postmarked on election day — and then will take time to count.

Proponents for defunding law enforcement — which does not always mean cutting all funds and disbanding police departments — had hoped that recent political and social shifts would lead to the ballot measure's failure.

“This is not preventing crime, it’s not preventing violence," Young said. "It’s only responding to crime and many times perpetuating violence, especially in Black and brown impoverished neighborhoods. This enhances SWAT teams, it goes into policing our schools, it goes to increase surveillance in our communities.”

Floyd's death sparked a movement calling for money spent on law enforcement to be reallocated to social safety net and community programs. But Sgt. Manny Ramirez, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers' Association, said that voting against the tax would not lead to investment in other areas and that the more than $85 million that the measure provides would simply disappear from the budget.

“If citizens do want to have different programs funded by [the tax], then they ought to contact their elected officials and ask about those and give them their ideas for those programs,” Ramirez said.

The Houston City Council marginally increased its police department budget recently. Austin officials are proposing a 2% cut to the city's police department budget, and Dallas officials delayed the approval of a $6.5 million increase to their police department's budget.

Fort Worth's crime district was first approved in 1995, with the goal of tackling a crime wave that Fort Worth was experiencing at the time, as were many other cities in the country. It has funded a wide range of items for the past 25 years, from high-tech equipment to after-school programs.

“It's been a phenomenal thing for our city over the last 25 years, and we hope that it continues,” Ramirez said. “It’s one of the reasons why Fort Worth is one of the safest cities in America.”

But things have changed in the six years since the tax was last approved.

Fort Worth activists say the community has been mobilized by some high-profile incidents involving police officers' use of force on residents. In 2017, an officer was suspended after violently arresting Jacqueline Craig, who had called the police when a neighbor attacked her son. Last year, another officer shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson during what was supposed to be a wellness check. And in February, a jury cleared two officers in the death of Jermaine Darden, who died after being shot with a taser during a raid in 2013.

“We’ve been petitioning our City Council, city staff, city mayor for years for criminal justice reform, and for policing reform, because our people are dying,” Young said. “We’ve gotten absolutely nothing from them. ... We don't trust them with our tax dollars anymore.”

The Fort Worth Tarrant County Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has also said that there's been "no real community input" into how this money will be spent and criticized that the vote will renew the tax for 10 years, a longer period than it's previously been extended.

The tax funds after-school programs, domestic violence programs and anti-gang interventions. But advocates said that most of the money helps fund enforcement and infrastructure items, like the SWAT team or updating the fleet of patrol vehicles.

“Over the years the budgeted percentage of the funds to the community groups has gone from 80% to 20%. In this proposal 80% of the funds will go to Police,” the organization said in a statement.

Kwame Osei, leader of the social justice advocacy organization Enough is Enough Fort Worth, said that this is not what his neighborhood needs and he would rather see this money invested in other areas, like parks and public transportation.

“We need to give our kids a lot more to do and more accessible tools for prevention of crime,” Osei said. “Crime has continued to decrease in the city of Fort Worth, but the militarization of the police has kept increasing.”

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