How do you ‘defund the police’ in Texas? Very carefully.

A summer of protests has fed into heated debates on city councils over how much public money should go to police departments, and what their functions should be. In Texas, the discretionary power of municipal councils to redirect money from law enforcement is limited by union contracts and political constraints. But cities have begun the hard work of deciding what public safety could look like if less money went to the police. 

The cuts so far are modest but represent a break with elected officials’ historic reluctance to be seen as undermining police powers. In San Antonio, for example, a share of future tax revenues earmarked for cops will be allocated to nonprofit agencies to assume functions that are currently the purview of the police. 

Tax revenues have been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, adding to the pressure to find ways to fund public services. That may force a sharper look at how police budgets are spent and how to empower other actors.

“Police reform and crime reform have always been the third rail of politics,” says Manny Pelaez, a member of the San Antonio City Council. “It’s going to require a certain amount of courage to be able to have these conversations.”

Jarrell, Texas

The mercury was around 102 degrees Fahrenheit when Leon Reed left the town of Jarrell for the last 40 miles of his journey. He had been walking for a week, mostly during dawn and dusk, to the state capital of Austin so he could talk to Gov. Greg Abbott about police reform.

Like other activists in cities across the nation, Mr. Reed, a criminal defense attorney, is pressing for policing in his state to change – from intangible aspects like workplace cultures and mindsets to the nuts and bolts of budgets and regulations. But just as in those cities, the “defund the police” slogan doesn’t fully capture activists’ demands.

“We need the police,” he said. “But the answer to everything isn’t ‘send a police officer.’”

Governor Abbott wasn’t in Austin when Mr. Reed arrived earlier this week. That afternoon he was actually in Fort Worth, where Mr. Reed had begun his walk, calling on the state legislature to freeze property tax revenue in any city that defunds its police, but offering few details.

In Texas, as elsewhere, public safety is the biggest line item on most municipal budgets. While the bulk of spending goes to salary and benefits, underpinned by union contracts, there are expenditures like equipment, technology, and legal fees, all of which are up for debate as cities explore how to shift funding and responsibilities away from police departments.

The discussions in Texas cities illustrate the variety of ways that funding of the police could change in the United States, as well as the hurdles ­– both practical and political – that stand in the way.

Some cities have already begun to redistribute those funds: the Austin City Council last week unanimously approved a plan to cut $150 million from the police department.

The financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on local tax revenues has added more strain on budget negotiations this year. One constraint is that a significant chunk of police funding is dictated by collective bargaining agreements in most cities; another is that local officials usually are reluctant to make budget cuts to public safety. Still, a combination of financial and political pressure is chipping away at this consensus on police budgets and what they spend it on.

“Only in the last few years have we really seen organized activism, particularly from communities of color, to challenge the requests of police departments,” says Michael Leo Owens, a political science professor at Emory University.

“The conversation isn’t just about how much money, but also a conversation about what are the proper functions that we should be asking police departments and officers to engage in.” He adds: “What are the arguments and empirical bases that municipal leaders are using when they’re determining what the budget of their police should be?”

Potholes and barking dogs

Community activists in San Antonio have criticized a 2021 budget proposal from the city council that would increase funding for police by $8 million, or 1.7%, to cover a 5% pay increase for officers. Erik Walsh, the city manager, said it was the lowest increase in police funding in five years in both dollars and percentage points.

“We know we need to make foundational changes,” he told a city council meeting last week. “We need to think through what type of encounters we want to put police officers in, or the public in.”

Shirley Gonzales has been on the San Antonio City Council for seven years, and since she was first elected she has tried to redirect spending toward social services programs like after-school programming and family services, so far without success.

“What we have never done before is perhaps redirect that from police,” she says. “What we are now seeing is a much more unified discussion about the funding.”