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What ‘Defunding’ the Dallas Police Department Could Look Like

A data scientist takes a stab at cutting the Dallas Police Department's budget and finds ways in which reducing funding could reduce crime
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A Dallas cop holds a sponge bullet launcher on June 1, outside police headquarters. Photo by Miles Hearne

Samuel Sinyangwe is an activist and Stanford-trained data scientist and policy analyst who co-founded Campaign Zero, which researches solutions to end police violence. Although based in New York, yesterday on Twitter Sinyangwe took a passing look at the budget of the Dallas Police Department in order to illustrate what “defunding” the police could look like in practice.

Given the controversy and confusion around the word “defund” that has erupted in Dallas since protesters began calling for it in the streets — and 10 of 14 council members used it in a memo to the city manager on Tuesday — I believe it is worth walking through Sinyangwe’s analysis to offer some clarity on what this policy approach actually means.

First of, here is a thread that makes it easier to follow Sinyangwe’s tweets.

Sinyangwe begins by making a simple, though insightful comparison between the percentage of Dallas’ municipal budget that is taken up by police – around 60 percent – and the results of community surveys that show that if Dallas residents had the option to set budget priorities themselves, they would only dedicate around 30 percent of the budget to public safety. In other words, despite the often-repeated rhetoric from elected officials that police and public safety is the top priority for residents—which it is—the public actually supports cutting the police’s budget in half. Also illuminating is the fact that the survey shows that Dallas residents would like 23 percent of the budget to be spent on mobility solutions. In other words, public safety and mobility are the two top priorities for Dallas residents, but the city vastly overspends on police while failing to address mobility in any meaningful way.

So, there is already public support for a major cut to the police budget. Sinyangwe next digs into where those cuts could come from. As I mentioned in my report from this week’s council meeting, the majority of the police budget goes to “personnel services” – pay, benefits, overtime, pension. Sinyangwe notes that increases to those benefits over time are baked into the police union contract, which does not expire until 2022. Sinyangwe argues that cutting pay, benefits, and overtime has to be a part of a “defunding,” however, that may take time because of contract restrictions.

I agree that this isn’t the first fat that should be trimmed from the department’s bone. To give the budget a little local context, the reason the police budget includes a provision for “market-based” pay increases is to help recruit officers who are often lured to higher paying jobs in the suburbs. They are an attempt to attract quality candidates and to keep DPD from having to scrape from other departments’ reject pile in order to meet staffing goals. For now, and because those increases are locked in until 2022, it may be important to continue to try to attract the very best officers. But let’s move on.

Sinyangwe says the quickest way to reduce the budget is to start eliminating officers. How do you do that? He begins with dissolving the Narcotics and Vice divisions, which would immediately shave $20 million off the department’s budget. “This could also lead to a reduction in arrests for drugs and other low-level offenses,” Sinyangwe says. “Win-win.”

I’ll admit, the proposal sounds shocking at first. But stay let’s look at it for a second. The first thing I thought about when reading Sinyangwe’s proposal is the statistic I quoted in my piece about the protests from earlier this week that cited the large percentage of drug arrests for marijuana offenses and the disproportionate number of African Americans who are prosecuted for those offenses. Sinyangwe points out that the DPD’s budget lists Narcotics arrests as “performance measure” in its budget. “In previous years they planned increases in drug arrests though now they seem to be “budgeting” for a smaller drug arrest quota,” he writes. In other words, the department’s budget appears to be driving a need for increased crime.

These kinds of quotas are problematic, because as the legal scholar Shaun Ossei-Owusu wrote in 2016, they help to create the culture of a “blue wall of silence” within police forces that place pressure on cops to place pressure on communities. “This wall consists of a subculture that prohibits cops from reporting misconduct and makes exposing quota regimes difficult,” Ossei-Owusu wrote. “Moreover, a police quota, as opposed to racial profiling, but sometimes in concert with it, can be the prelude to minorities’ ensnarement in the legal system (à la Ferguson) or the beginning of a fatal police interaction.”

The second thing I thought of after reading Sinyangwe’s proposal to eliminate DPD’s Narcotics division, however, was the work Dallas Police Detective Dave Roach did in investigating the Highland Park Drug Ring, which I wrote about in our May issue. The individuals involved in that drug ring are responsible for many deaths, and DPD took the lead in busting it, so why would DPD eliminate its drug investigations unit? On closer look, however, that story also illustrates a model that could help rethink how we handle drug crimes. Remember, DPD was one of a network of law enforcement agencies that led the investigation. One possible scenario of a “defunded” DPD is that quality investigators like Roach could simply live in one of the other agencies and do the same work.

In fact, looked at through a different lens, the HP drug bust offers a useful example of how cuts to the police may not mean limiting Dallas’ ability to deal with real crime. If you read the story about the Highland Park drug ring, you’ll remember the criminal network was discovered not by a beat cop busting a deal but by the overdose death of a young man in Fairview. In fact, some sources I spoke to said that beat cops they called to complain about drug dealing knew about houses that were notorious drug depots and yet did nothing about them.

The overdose death kicked the drug investigation not to the Fairview PD but to Dallas PD, because Fairview doesn’t have a robust narcotics investigation department. Two points here: the city of Dallas is subsidizing regional drug investigations, and many suburban police departments are already “defunded,” so to speak, outsourcing the investigations of certain crimes in their communities to other agencies. If Det. Roach simply lived in a different agency, not much about the investigation into that crime would be different. What Sinyangwe’s proposed elimination of the DPD’s narcotics division would do, however, is remove the need in the DPD’s budget for drug arrest quotas that help drive problematic policing.

Remember, this is about relieving the city’s budget from the burden of funding operations that are better handled by different kinds of agencies and services. We’re still wadding into speculative police waters here, but the idea is that there are other agencies that could pick up the slack and provide better outcomes without the residual harassment and violence. The point here isn’t to stop investigating real drug crimes, it is to stop investigating, harassing, or brutalizing Dallas residents for minor or nonexistent drug crimes.

The next portion of the DPD’s budget Sinyangwe targets is the revenue the police receives through “fines and forfeitures.”

“The city confiscates (steals) $7M in “revenue” each year from residents in fines and forfeitures,” Sinyangwe writes. “Ending civil asset forfeiture and other exploitative practices could cut the amount going to the police budget.”

Note, this cut wouldn’t free up funding for other civic investments, but Sinyangwe’s observation shows how there is an incentive for the department to bloat its budget through methods that also create more conflict and harassment in the community, like seizing property.

Finally, Sinyangwe takes a swipe at dealing with the toughest solution to reducing the Dallas Police Department’s budget: eliminating police officers. Unlike other police union contracts, DPD does not require layoffs to be in order of seniority, which gives the city some leeway in deciding how to reduce the overall size of the force. Sinyangwe suggests the metric the city use is reports of misconduct. He crunches the city’s available data around use of force incidents in 2016 and finds that while there is less than one use of force incident per officer on average, there are some badge numbers with upwards of 25 use of force incidents that year. Sinyangwe suggests laying off officers with the most problematic records as a way of cutting costs and weeding out bad cops.

Altogether, his proposals shave $100 to $200 million off the department’s $516 million budget, so not even half. To close the gap, Sinyangwe looks at cutting low level arrests and laying off more officers.

This analysis is likely going to rub a lot of people the wrong way, but it helps illustrate what a complicated and somewhat counterintuitive concept “defunding” the police is. This is a process of changing how we think about what a police force is and what it needs to be. It is important to remember that this analysis only looks at one side of the algebraic equation that is represented by the idea of “defunding.” For every officer laid off, the city then has public dollars available to fund alternative ways to address endemic issues that lead to crime. What if 10 fired cops became 10 community social workers, 10 city-funded jobs in a poverty-stricken neighborhood, 10 mental health experts embedded in the city’s homeless population, or 10 check-out clerks hired from the neighborhood in a grocery store co-op in a current food desert? What if it could invest in better mobility or affordable housing that is closer to the region’s job centers?

The overall point here is that the police department is structured in a way that tries to fit too many square pegs into round holes. Sinyangwe’s quick analysis shows how easily aspects of this approach produce both budgetary waste and problematic policing. This is the beginning of a conversation. It will be complicated and painful, but it’s necessary and overdue.




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