At the end of the day, this was a vote over a budgeting technicality. It is about two thirds of the way through the city’s fiscal year, and the Dallas City Council needed to approve a reallocation of funds to make sure it will be able to balance the budget by year’s end. But that technicality ran into the two major crises gripping our city: the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the demands from thousands of protesters who have taken to the streets in recent weeks to call for a “defunding” of the Dallas Police Department.
Before the council discussed the item, multiple speakers reiterated these calls to defund DPD, citing atrocities committed by the police at recent protests and instances of police brutality and killings both in Dallas and around the country. The speakers also decried cuts to services like libraries and parks, as well as an increase to the mayor and council’s staff budgets that were included in the budget reallocation. Most of these adjustments, however, were COVID-19-related, the impact of employee furloughs and hiring freezes, and the council and mayor budgets related to staff, not representative compensation. Regardless, the main focus was on the $7 million increase for the Dallas Police Department.
The vote seemed set before the item came before the council. West Dallas representative Omar Navarez got council members off the hook today by introducing a motion to approve the majority of the item while delaying the decision on the DPD portion of the budget until August. It passed 13-2. The council will eventually have to vote on the increase, which is related to a prior council commitment in the 2019-2020 budget to increase police staffing. Successful hiring and better-than-expected retention thanks to a Council-approved pay raise means DPD currently has 97 officers for whom it had not budgeted. City Manager T.C. Broadnax promised to return to the council in August with ideas on how the city will pay them.
The conversation before the vote provided something of a preview of how that vote—as well as the looming 2020-2021 fiscal year budget process—will unfold. Many council members pledged to find ways to rethink how the city handles public safety. That desire echoed a memo that 10 council members sent to the city manager yesterday. They asked for such ideas to be included in the upcoming budget process. Southwest Dallas Council member Casey Thomas spoke passionately about is own recent discovery of new ideas around policing that he hopes the city will be able to adopt.
“When you know better, you should do better,” said Thomas, who urged his colleagues to visit the website for the Center of Policing Equity, an organization that works with police departments to reform policing practices. “Over the past seven days I’ve been educated on different ways you can go about providing public safety and policing communities. More police does not mean safety and sometimes it creates anxiety.”
Fellow Oak Cliff and southern Dallas Council members Tennell Atkins and Carolyn Arnold highlighted initiatives already in place. They cited a pilot program started last year in southern Dallas that teams police officers with mental health experts, which city staff says has resulted in a reduction in arrests and greater success at steering at-risk individuals to mental health services. They plan to roll out the program citywide. Pointing to the high cost of police and Dallas’ rising crime rate, Fair Park and South Dallas Council member Adam Bazaldua said if a corporation devoted 60 percent of its budget to a problem and that problem was getting worse, they would change their approach. “I look at public safety as an ecosystem,” Bazaldua said. “If we are going to look at equitable disparities, then we are going to look at areas to provide services.”
Others on council expressed their sympathy for the call to divert more funding from policing to public services but balked at the words “defund” or “dismantle” the police. “We have to be careful in putting out our messaging,” said North Oak Cliff Council member Chad West. “And opening the door for other things to come.”
North Dallas Council member Cara Mendelsohn joined Lake Highlands Council member Adam McGough in voting against the vote to delay the police budget increase. They chafed at their colleagues’ professed epiphany on police reform. Mendelsohn called them out for voting to increase police funding and to hire more officers during the last budget cycle. Only a few weeks ago, the City Council voted unanimously to approve the police budget increase in committee.
“What I hope doesn’t happen is that we start taking victory laps,” Mendelsohn said.
There is no worry of victory laps on police reform any time soon. City staff expressed a willingness to find ways to reallocate city resources from law enforcement into community services in the upcoming budget, but it won’t be easy. As Uptown, downtown, and East Dallas Council member David Blewett pointed out during his line of questioning with staff, 87 percent of the police department’s budget is allocated toward personnel costs. Any attempt to free up funding from the public safety budget will inevitably mean reducing the size of the police force.
“If we get into significant cuts it does mean people,” Blewett said.