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Activists plan to keep pushing for public safety alternatives as Dallas police may get more money

After a nationwide movement sparked by the George Floyd protests last summer, activists say efforts to redistribute money from police appear stalled.
Dominique Symone (left), Classi Nance, In Defense of Black Lives Dallas coordinator (center), and organizer Mercedes Fulbright pictured at Pan-African Connection on Friday, June 25, 2021, in Dallas. (Elias Valverde II/The Dallas Morning News)(Elias Valverde II / Staff Photographer)

By Cassandra Jaramillo and Everton Bailey Jr.

When Classi Nance saw thousands of people last summer protesting police brutality and systemic racism, she believed Dallas was on the cusp of changing its approach to public safety.

The mother of four whose family has deep activism roots in the city was part of the chorus of residents hoping to see up to $200 million taken from the police budget. They wanted to see that money go toward social services programs for mental health, housing, job training, food security and other initiatives.

The nationwide movement to redistribute money from police culminated in Dallas with a City Council vote to divert $7 million initially proposed for the overtime budget to crime reduction efforts, drawing rebukes from Mayor Eric Johnson and others. But instead of slashing money for the police department, the council approved $15 million more in its overall budget last year.

Now, Dallas police are tentatively projected to get millions more in the upcoming budget from the city’s general fund, which is fueled mostly by property and sales tax revenues. And despite last year’s overtime budget decrease, meant to help reign in years of overspending in that category, the department estimates it will need a record amount of cash to cover those costs this fiscal year.

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The lingering impacts of the backlash as well as two new state laws to prevent municipalities from reducing their law enforcement budgets have cast doubts on whether the council this year would again divert money from the police.

The likelihood of abudget increase this fall and increasing overtime costscome amid a sharper focus on reducing violent crime and street racing in Dallasas well as improving 911 call response times.The police department is also losing officers this year faster than they are being hired. Between January and April, 48 officers have been hired and 68 have left, according to the department, which employs about 3,100 officers.

Dallas Police Chief Eddie Garcia speaks at the Dallas Police Department headquarters at 1400 Botham Jean Blvd. in Dallas on June 28, 2021. (Steve Hamm/ Special Contributor)(Steve Hamm)

Dallas Police Chief Eddie García stopped short of saying how much money he expects for the department, but emphasized that it should grow.

“I’m hopeful that the critical needs are going to be addressed,” García said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. “The city manager needs to balance those needs, so I’m not going to get in front of that.”

A year later, Nance and other activists feel the nationwide momentum to divert law enforcement funding in the wake of the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans to address root causes of crime and poverty have largely stalled in Dallas.

Nance said increasing the police budget to address public safety is not the answer because despite the additional funding, the department has not been able to meet crime reduction goals.

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Out of the 84 killings reported at the beginning of June, police say 60% of the victims have been Black. The police department reported 76 homicides at the same time last year and 252 overall in 2020. That tally was up from 203 in 2019.

García said despite the year-over-year outlook in homicides, he’s cautiously optimistic that aggravated assaults and murders have slightly decreased month over month since the implementation of the crime plan in May.

“Do we need to invest in our communities? Absolutely. But people are dying and getting injured now,” he said. “Those investments in our community are not going to reap the benefits when people are being injured and killed now. So we need officers and that vigilance on the streets now.”

In three years, the police spending budget has grown by $21 million or nearly 4 percent, from $547 million in 2019 to a tentative $568 million next year.

“That is not a strategy that keeps children fed and clothed,” said Nance, 37. “That is not a strategy that sends people to college. That is not a strategy that builds new houses.”

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Council member Casey Thomas, who represents the Mountain Creek area in southern Dallas, said he believes criticism from activists who don’t feel like much has changed is fair. But he noted that the bulk of public safety plans the city has begun implementing are long-term strategies that may not all have immediate impacts.

“It’s not a matter of what we’re able to just get done in one year, but how much we can get done over several years,” Thomas said. “That idea has changed the direction of how we view public safety from a City Council point of view.

Police overtime growing

City records show the police overtime budget has increased six-fold in the past decade.

The last time the police department’s overtime came under budget was in 2012, when only 94% of nearly $7.7 million in overtime was spent. Since then, the number has see-sawed.

In the 2017 fiscal year, the overtime budget shrunk from $19.5 million to $16.1 million. It rose to almost $21 million the next fiscal year.

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Last fiscal year, police needed $33.1 million to cover overtime expenses — nearly $7 million more than what had been budgeted.

At the time, then-Police Chief U. Reneé Hall attributed high overtime spending to unanticipated officer responses related to the COVID-19 pandemic, protests calling for policing and racial justice reforms, and the October 2019 tornado that tore through North Texas from Dallas to Richardson.

The council this fiscal year budgeted $17 million in police overtime. In early June, the police department reported spending $21 million thus far in overtime. Police estimated the month before that expenses could hit $34.7 million by the end of the fiscal year — the most the department has ever accrued in overtime expenses.

For comparison, the office of Integrated Public Safety Solutions, which is home to services such as RIGHT Care, reentry help and violence interrupters, had a roughly $3.4 million budget. The office of Homeless Solutions budget is about $12.3 million.

Police officials told City Council members in March that COVID continued to play a factor in overtime costs because officers were providing security at testing and vaccination sites and covering shifts of officers who caught or were exposed to the virus.

The agency said the largest reason officers have given for taking overtime this year and in previous years is late relief, when officers respond to and work calls as their shift is ending.

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The mayor last year ordered an audit of police overtime spending amid concerns from council colleagues about possible abuse. City Auditor Mark Swann said recently that the review is still in the works, and his office aims to produce a report by the end of September. He said last year that his goal was to complete the analysis by June.

Dallas City Council members have raised concerns about the uptick of murders. Issues with the city’s 911 call center are also driving the desire for more police funding.

As of the end of June, the department’s online database shows it takes officers an average of about eight minutes to respond to the highest priority calls such as shootings and major traffic accidents. For calls at the next level, such as robberies and speed racing, that response average increases to 29 minutes. It takes an average of two hours and 45 minutes for officers to respond to calls classified at the lowest priority, like minor disturbances and criminal mischief.

Elizabeth Reich, Dallas’ chief financial officer, said the city has moved unused budget money from other departments to cover police payroll in past years.

The city has used about $80 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds for police and fire pay since March 2020, she said. The police department has received around $50 million of that amount. The city was able to use such money because the federal treasury department allowed cities to consider all first responder pay to be related to COVID-19, Reich said.

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She said her office will make a recommendation to the City Council in September about how to cover current overspending.

Post-election organizing

A growing network of activists that has sought to radically change policing in Dallas say their work is far from over, despite the political tide swinging in favor of more money for police.

They say their efforts canvassing for the May elections helped candidates to keep or win their seats, even as a misinformation campaign inaccurately portrayed that the police department had been defunded.

They’ve organized and knocked on doors in homes in Oak Cliff, Pleasant Grove, and West, South and East Dallas to educate residents about local politics and the importance of the budget.

Even if the political willpower existed to cut back on the police budget, the state has hamstrung most major cities of any potential efforts to do so.

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Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed two new laws this month to dissuade cities from reducing police spending plans — one of them applies specifically to large cities like Dallas, which has 1.3 million residents. Starting Sept. 1, if the governor’s office determines a city has cut its police budget more than the previous fiscal year, it could face multiple consequences that include being banned from raising property taxes or rates on city owned utilities. A city can still reduce the police budget if it gets prior permission from the governor’s office or if the cuts match a decrease in the overall city budget.

Hosanna Yemiru, who ran for District 11 in North Dallas and helped canvas for freshman council member Jaynie Schultz, said that she and other residents intend to keep pressure on the city to find alternatives to bolster public safety.

“Public safety was always more than just about the police,” she said. “It was about really addressing the root causes of violence and crime in our city.”

Schultz said she wants to help García’s crime plan succeed as well as understand what’s causing problems at the 911 call center. She has planned town halls to hear people’s expectations on the budget.

“I’m going to be in different neighborhoods around town to listen to them as well,” Schultz said.

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Yemiru said she plans to continue organizing in state and local elections because of the direct impact it has on the place she’s called home for most of her life. After canvassing for Schultz, she said she would be a thorn in her side, holding her accountable in finding solutions.

“That’s what we’re going to see: is just a lot of people pushing for these issues, regardless of who we have sitting around the horseshoe,” Yemiru said.

The City Council has approved money for a violence interrupters program where community members work to prevent crimes, a sober center instead of jail for the intoxicated, and the expansion of the RIGHT Care program, which pairs paramedics and social workers with officers to respond to mental-health calls. Those programs, Thomas said, are all ongoing, and provide concrete examples of how the city is investing in other approaches to policing.

Some of the initiatives paid for this year with police overtime money could continue under different cash sources, Thomas said.

He added that the funding priorities from Chief García could be different than past department heads as he looks to ensure his violent crime reduction plan is successful.

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“The key is going to be what priorities does the council provide for the city manager as he develops his budget,” Thomas said.

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Budget timeline

  • Aug. 10: City Manager T.C. Broadnax plans to present recommended budget.
  • Aug 12-Aug. 26: Council members host budget town hall meetings
  • Aug. 25: Public hearing on the budget
  • Sept. 1 and Sept. 14: Council budget workshop meeting to consider amendments
  • Sept. 9: City council adopts budget on first reading
  • Sept. 22: A final vote on the budget, tax rate and other related items.
  • Oct. 1: Next fiscal year begins.

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