Last year, Mayor Eric Johnson made a public push to “defund the bureaucracy” with a plan that called for cutting some city staffers’ salaries. It was shot down.
The mayor seems to have learned his lesson from that episode. In a memo to City Manager T.C. Broadnax that lays out his priorities for this coming budget season, Johnson has avoided all talk of defunding anything. The mayor is all in on funding. He notes that the city will be able to spend more than usual this coming year thanks to federal stimulus funds passed to spur recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. And he hopes some of that will be used to dramatically grow the police department.
The major bullet point is that Johnson wants the city to hire 275 new police officers. Sticking to the conciliatory “back to basics” line he’s adopted since his preferred candidates lost their City Council races in May, Johnson is also calling for more funding for basic city services. Here are his other priorities:
- Grow the police department and match salaries to market rate for police officers and firefighters; encourage “lateral hiring” (attracting talent from other departments, basically) to get police on the street quicker.
- Increase pay and offer other benefits and bonuses to help staff up a shorthanded 911 call center.
- Fund violence interruption programs and other public safety efforts aimed at blight remediation.
- Pay for sidewalks in the especially troublesome areas identified in the city’s sidewalk master plan, and increase funding for streets.
- Boost pay for sanitation truck drivers and change the bulk trash and brush pickup system.
- Fix the building permitting process.
The City Council is on break until early next month, which is when budget conversations will really heat up. Budget season is important, setting the city’s priorities for the coming year and divvying up hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money. It is sometimes contentious. Last year’s budget season was especially tense, dominated by debate over police funding. And it often seems boring or inscrutable—a lot of spreadsheets and pie charts and interminable meetings—or, worse, futile.
Under Dallas’ council-manager form of government, the city manager makes the budget. By the time most of us see a draft, the ink is pretty much dry. The trick, especially if you’re a member of the City Council, is getting your requests in before there’s a draft. So you lay out your priorities and hope T.C. Broadnax is listening. That’s what the mayor has done here.
“Basics” aside, police funding is again likely to take center stage in coming budget discussions. The question of how many police officers Dallas needs has come up repeatedly over the years. In January 2020, police officials said they needed 350 more officers to bolster a department that then had about 3,150 officers, down from a high of about 3,700 in 2011. (This was following an audit that found, among other things, the department was not spending its budget effectively.) Police Chief Eddie Garcia, who only arrived in Dallas earlier this year, has been more circumspect about his specific budget hopes, although he has said the department needs to “grow responsibly.”
By calling for the hiring of 275 new police officers, Johnson is getting a head start on steering these budget discussions away from activists who want to defund the department, which accounts for about a third of the city’s general fund dollars.
As agenda-setting, it should have better luck than Johnson’s plan to “defund the bureaucracy.” No City Council member has shown an appetite for seriously redirecting police resources to other city services. And Johnson’s memo further raises the bar for other elected officials who want to increase police funding. As Johnson notes, this would be 125 more officers than Broadnax sketched out hiring in his 2021-2022 plan from last year, and “70 officers above the expected attrition.” This is what support for the police department looks like, the memo effectively says.
Determining what causes crime rates to rise or fall is notoriously difficult, and City Council members will hopefully have some robust conversations in the coming weeks about how to best address public safety issues in Dallas. There is, for example, evidence that adding more cops doesn’t necessarily mean less crime. Except for when it does. Although even then, it doesn’t address racial disparities in policing or the problem of mass incarceration.
In other words, it’s complicated. Johnson’s vote is one of 15 that will decide the city’s priorities in the next year. And they all have to hear from you, in coming budget workshops and town halls and the like. It’s politics. But it’s how budgets get made.