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After last summer’s surge of Black Lives Matter protests, criminal justice reform advocates elevated calls to “defund the police.” In Texas, that slogan struck a nerve among some state lawmakers, who are moving in this session to penalize large cities that slash police budgets.
Supporters insist House Bill 1900 is necessary to assist law enforcement, but critics believe it’s little more than pro-police propaganda. State Rep. Jasmine Crockett said the bill “defies logic”: The Republican Party, which claims a small-government mantra, is all too eager to dictate what big cities can do with their money.
“There’s nothing that’s monolithic about any portions of Texas, honestly, and with us being the size that we are, it’s very difficult to write policies that across-the-board make sense for everyone,” the Dallas Democrat said. “It was unfortunate that they took this attitude.”
HB 1900 is a push by the Republican-majority Legislature to micromanage big cities, Crockett said, most of which are run by Democratic mayors.
If signed into law, a city with more than 250,000 residents would be penalized for cutting its police funding. The state would be allowed to use part of that city’s sales taxes to pay for Texas Department of Public Safety costs, and the city also would be prohibited from increasing property taxes or utility rates to make up for that loss.
Last week, HB 1900 was approved on a vote of 90-49. A related bill in the Senate passed last month that would mandate cities hold an election before making law enforcement budget cuts.
In some years, Dallas City Council may want to temporarily increase its police budget in anticipation of hosting a large-scale event, such as the Super Bowl, Crockett said. On other occasions, cities may choose to purchase big-ticket items like tanks. HB 1900 would mean cities can never return their police budget to normal without being penalized.
One of the bill’s authors, Democrat Richard Peña Raymond, has argued that increasing funding is the way to improve policing and other essential functions, according to The Texas Tribune. Yet crime rates have risen even in cities that have beefed up their police budgets, including in Republican-run Fort Worth.
It isn’t anti-police to divert funds when appropriate because doing so will ensure that officers can concentrate on one job instead of 50, Crockett said. But her conservative colleagues are less focused on solutions than they are on serving up “red meat” to their base, she argued.
“This isn’t about money. Money doesn’t fix crime, right?” Crockett said. “What fixes crime is actually being smart on crime.”
Critics of HB 1900 have noted that lawmakers also passed a constitutional carry bill despite fierce opposition from leading law enforcement officials, including Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia. Others have pointed out that budgets for essential services like health care and education aren’t nearly as sacrosanct.
Regardless, pro-police bills are attracting widespread conservative support.
One of HB 1900’s authors, Fort Worth Republican state Rep. Craig Goldman, tweeted last week that lawmakers will “always do whatever we can to provide public safety to the citizens of Texas and #BackTheBlue.” The tweet included a video of an impassioned Gov. Greg Abbott speaking in front of the Harris County GOP.
“In Texas we don’t defund or disrespect our police,” Abbott said, prompting applause. “We support our law enforcement officers who put their lives on the line to keep our communities safe.”
But some state lawmakers joined Crockett in condemning the bill, including Democratic state Rep. Michelle Beckley of Carrollton. She said in a tweet that HB 1900 is a “blatantly partisan effort” by Republicans that would only apply to 11, mainly Democratic, cities.
Criminal justice reform advocates are equally outspoken about the bill. Last week, the criminal justice blog Grits for Breakfast tweeted that the bill could have unintended consequences: “If they pass #HB1900, affected cities will likely just stop all spending increases on cops because they’ll never be able to roll them back.”
Finally somebody said it out loud: If they pass #HB1900, affected cities will likely just stop all spending increases on cops because they’ll never be able to roll them back.
— Grits for Breakfast (@Grits4Breakfast) May 6, 2021
District 11 Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman called HB 1900 a “punisher bill” that would usurp the city’s home-rule authority.
The bill would give the governor’s office its own ad hoc power to make determinations, he said. It’s unfortunate and ironic that the “supposedly conservative Legislature” is so involved in this kind of central planning.
“If legislators wanted to be in charge of municipalities, they should run for City Council,” Kleinman said.
Dallas cut its police overtime budget by $7 million last year. But despite some rhetoric, including by the shadowy group Keep Dallas Safe, the city increased DPD’s overall budget by $15 million.
“QAnon theories aside, Dallas did not defund the police,” Kleinman said.
Adding more cops and money isn’t dealing with the root problem, but when the city attempts to mend the core issue, it gets punished in Austin, he said.
One example is the city’s RIGHT Care program that deploys a police officer, medical technician and social worker to deescalate tense situations, he said. Through that effort, hundreds of people who could have gone to jail have been diverted to the appropriate place, such as a hospital or mental health services.
Solutions like that can prevent conflict while simultaneously relieving officers’ workload, Kleinman said.
“Clearly there’s no understanding on the part of the Legislature on how crime prevention works,” he said. “They believe crime prevention is just more hammers, and there’s a lot more to it than that.”
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