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Local Government

‘Defunding’ the Police Is Not a New Idea in Dallas, It’s an Overdue One

The City Council appears open to rethinking how it funds public safety. But police reform must go hand-in-hand with budgeting reform.

In late 2019, Sara Mokuria, associate director for leadership initiatives with The Institute for Urban Policy Research at the UTD and a co-founder of Mothers Against Police Brutality, helped organize a new network of activists under the name Our City Our Budget. The group advocated for including funding for a handful of deceptively simple programs in the 2019-2020 Dallas municipal budget.

At the time, the Dallas City Council, spooked by a record spike in crime, was promoting what they called “a public safety budget.” But Mokuria believed that directing money to the very programs the city planned to cut to afford more police officers—parks, rec centers, homeless services—would have a better impact on public safety. “We think we should be having an anti-poverty budget, not a public safety budget,” Mokuria said at the time. “And truly, an anti-poverty budget is a public safety budget. When you invest in the people, you don’t have to police them.”

In recent weeks, Mokuria has become one of a handful of prominent voices that have emerged from the protest movement to advance the call to “defund” or “dismantle” the police department. And while these words have quickly become weaponized to promote polarization around the issue of police reform, they aren’t new ideas in Dallas. Activists like Mokuria have been advocating for them for years. They represent a desire to change the public’s perception about the role of policing in America, to recognize that pouring money into an increasingly militarized police force doesn’t reduce crime; it does, however, terrorize many communities of color.

Defunding the police, Mokuria says, is simply a process of reallocating the city’s resources toward programs and departments that are better suited at addressing the instability, inequality, and degradation that contribute to crime. It means no longer trying to address all of the city’s problems by dumping more money into the police department, and instead funding mental health, drug addiction treatment, and better schools. “Defunding is investing in cleanup of environmental racism,” Mokuria says. “It is addressing the housing crisis.”

Perhaps the person who best articulated the need to defund the police was, somewhat ironically, former Dallas Police Chief David Brown. In the wake of the 2016 police shootings, Brown acknowledged that the tension between the police and the community is a result of a system that pretends that the police are the solution to too many societal problems.

“Every societal failure, we put it on the cops to solve,” Brown said. “Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we have a loose dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy-percent of the African American community is being raised by single women, let’s give it to the cops to solve as well. That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems. I just ask other parts of our democracy along with the free press to help us.”

There are communities around the country that have already begun to address this over-reliance on police, most notably Camden, New Jersey, which has received a lot of attention as protests around the country have raised the volume on the call for a new approach to law enforcement. Camden’s hand was forced by a budget crisis. In 2013, Camden ran out of the public funds necessary to chase the endless cycle of hiring more police to solve crime. Instead, they dissolved their police department and partnered with the county to establish a new law enforcement organization, which allowed the city to rewrite the rules around policing. They adopted an 18-page use-of-force policy and instituted stricter rules governing officer behavior. Excessive force complaints have since dropped by 95 percent.

Camden is not necessarily a model for Dallas, but it is an example of how it is possible to rethink policing and the roles we expect police officers to perform. Part of that rethinking needs to acknowledge that the modern police force is a relatively new historical invention, with roots that stretch back to armed guards used by the British to enforce colonial rule in Ireland, as well as armed bands that enforced slavery in the American South. This history sets a framework that understands law enforcement as an agent of population control, not population protection.

Rev. Dr. Michael Waters, senior pastor at Abundant Life A.M.E. church in Dolphin Heights, says the move to defund policing simply means recognizing that the disproportionate amount of funding Dallas pours into policing does not produce the results the city desires.

“I think most reasonable persons are saying, You know what? We may not need that tank that we buy every other year,” Waters says. “Maybe the millions that are spent on a tank will be better served and providing resources to young people will be better served and addressing issues of housing or healthcare, providing jobs that provide not a minimum wage, but a living wage.” (Actually, a lot of that military equipment has been given for free to police departments, which is part of the problem.)

There is a growing indication that this message is getting through to policymakers. Yesterday, 10 of 14 Dallas city council members signed a memo requesting that City Manager T.C. Broadnax include options for shifting funding away from the public safety budget and toward community programs that address underlying issues like poverty, education, and jobs in the upcoming budget process. That’s a remarkable shift since last year, when Mokuria and her fellow advocates struggled to be heard at City Hall. What changed? Simple, Waters says. Protests work.

“We saw that even in the civil rights movement,” Waters says. “It was public protest that provided an opportunity to get to the negotiation table to bring about change, or it was public protest that ultimately enabled courts to take action.”

Even as the Council proposes reforms, the protests will continue. Organizers recognize that direct action is helping to advance the push for reform, but the protests will also be sustained by their own organic nature. Long-term organizers have been struck by the sheer numbers of groups that have entered the space in recent weeks and the organizing in the suburbs, in particular. They suspect that some of the new groups were incubated on college campuses or have crossed over from other activist networks, such as the environmental movement. The examples of direct action have been varied—from traditional marches to car rallies at local jails, banners hanging off overpasses to a temporary shutdown of Central Expressway—but the message has been unified: “defund” or “dismantle” the police.

But even with council members expressing a newfound openness to this call for action, yesterday’s memo also points to one of the underlying, systemic issues that inhibit Dallas’ ability to reform. Council members wrote to the Dallas city manager because he oversees the city’s staff, which is tasked with creating the budget each year. That budget is then presented to the Council, which brings the recommendations to the community in a series of public meetings.

These meetings are often performative and lack substantial opportunities for feedback, collaboration, or revision from the community. In addition, staff often skillfully ties the hands of council representatives, making it difficult to make many meaningful adjustments to the budget based on what they hear from their constituents. As a result, not only is it difficult for communities to effect change, but it is easy for outside influence to work through staff and individual council members to protect business as usual at City Hall.

That’s why Mokuria wants to see more than just council members politely asking the city manger to throw the police reform movement a bone. To truly reform Dallas policing, she argues, you have to reform how Dallas sets its budget.

“Ideally there would be an open and transparent and collaborative budget process at the city level,” Mokuria says. “In that process there is no holy grail. For too long we have not been able to touch public safety. Not allowed to take away from 60 percent of the budget. I don’t think that is a fair and democratic process.”

Mokuria would like the city move to a more participatory budgeting model, in which funding priorities are directed by communities, not city staff — a way to budget that allows ideas to rise from the bottom up, not the top down. Again, there are models for this, and a number of cities around the country have adopted some form of participatory budgeting.

Mokuria has already seen what this could look like in Dallas. During a community meeting last year in a southern Dallas neighborhood, a few elderly women were shocked by the talk of redirecting funds away from the police. They love the police, they said, because there was no one else they could turn to for help. The more the women spoke, the more it became clear that the service the police provided these women had nothing to do with law enforcement. They relied on police for handling simple chores they couldn’t manage and even for occasional conversation to break up their lonely days.

It was an illustration both of Brown’s observation that we ask police to do too much, and the reason why so many people are afraid of the words “defund” or “dismantle” the police. Even as so many people fear the police, for many other people in Dallas, the police exist to provide a feeling of comfort.

At the meeting, a 12-year-old boy had an idea. Rather than ask the police to come over and help their elderly neighbors, why not take some of the money from the police department and hire some young men and women in the neighborhood to check in on the women a few times a week? They could help them with their groceries, pick up trash around the yard, talk to them.

It was such a simple idea—something that would never have been raised by a city staff member or at a Council budget retreat. It was a seed of real change.