Yielding to pressure from demonstrators who've demanded “defunding” police, Dallas City Council members Wednesday declined a request to increase the city's police budget.
The request was to redirect $6.5 million from savings in other city programs to pay for better than expected police hiring this year.
There was little concern when a city council committee first heard about it as recently as May 26. But after two weeks of loud protests, members delayed the request in a 13-to-2 vote.
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Councilman Omar Narvaez made the motion.
“We have a different lens now in our city,” Narvaez said. “It’s a good time for us to tap the brakes.“
Members who supported the delay said they did not support dismantling the police department, but believed a stronger focus on social programs was necessary.
“This is a new day, not only in Dallas but in this country. I believe that this movement is making us really reevaluate what is in front of us,” Councilman Adam Bazaldua said.
The current level of spending on police in Dallas was approved in a unanimous city council vote on Sept. 18, 2019. Demonstrators in the room that day calling for a ‘poverty budget’ were ignored.
Council members Adam McGough and Cara Mendelsohn were the dissenting votes in Wednesday's decision.
Mendelsohn said it was an unnecessary delay for scoring political points.
“There's a lot of kowtowing to pressure, people seem to be getting, and the reality is we're on the right track. We are addressing poverty issues,” Mendelsohn said.
She cited $23 million in other items on Wednesday’s agenda about affordable housing and other community support services, along with other programs already in the works.
The city manager’s 11-point plan for police reform, among other things, calls for expanding the “Right Care” program which already exists.
In current form, the program has just one police officer who works with paramedics, social workers and behavioral health professionals for a different type of response to mental health calls in the South Central patrol area, instead of sending regular patrol officers.
Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune said the plan was the triple the Right Care program to reach all of the city.
“It’s a program to be able to come along side the police department with resources that are non-traditional law enforcement,” he said.
In the past year, Fortune said there have been 15,000 mental health calls that were generally fielded by police. Critics argue police response to such calls may result in jailing people who need medical help instead.
Supporters of Wednesday’s police funding delay said they want other programs devised to improve conditions in impoverished Dallas neighborhoods.
“We need to remain focused on getting at the root cause of violence, the root cause of crime and having a police officer on every corner is not the way to go,” Councilman Jaime Resendez said. “We live in city that is the leader in this country in terms of childhood poverty. We live in a city that is a leader in terms of pockets of poverty, in terms of economic and racial segregation. Something is not working.”
Councilman Casey Thomas said he was absolutely not calling for doing away with the police department.
“But there are innovative ways we can go about doing this,” Thomas said. “It's not a matter of going with the current. Many of us have been saying these things for years.”
Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Reich said there is sufficient money in the police budget to pay the extra officers until August when the $6.5 million transfer will be reconsidered.
The city is also grappling with a $25 million shortfall in the current budget due plummeting sales tax revenue during the coronavirus pandemic. Many cuts may be required in the current budget and even more in the next one when the gap may be as high as $130 million.
“We have a lot of work to do to re-imagine how we are going to do public safety, working with all of you,” Reich said.
Another budget meeting is set for June 17.
The new 2020-21 proposed budget will be presented to the city council for review in August with approval required by the end of September. That is where the bigger changes are expected in the re-imagination of Dallas public safety.