TCCRI's recently published Criminal Justice & Government Reform Task Force Report examined the topic of maintaining adequate police forces in Texas cities. What follows is an excerpt from the Report on that topic.
The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020 sparked nationwide protests and riots across the United States. Calls for racial justice sometimes include demands to “defund the police.” Rep. Cori Bush, a Missouri Democratic congresswoman, defended expenditures for her private security detail in 2021, arguing that ““I get to be here to do the work, so suck it up — and defunding the police has to happen. We need to defund the police and put that money into [the] social safety net.” Author Ibram X. Kendi, in praising another author with whom he was conversing, stated “I think one of the overarching points that you just demonstrated in so many different ways is: The theory that police can reduce harm or create safety is fundamentally flawed, because the police inherently are harmful.”
Unsurprisingly, accusations of widespread racism and calls to defund the police affected police morale. As the city’s former police chief said in an October 2021 interview: “The defunding movement in many ways makes people so demoralized. I know in Seattle when officers left, many of them on their exit interviews laid the blame mostly at the city council for not supporting them through budget and other avenues.” Since 2020, over 400 Seattle police officers either quit or retired, leaving just 1,137 officers as of June 2022. Crime in Seattle, as in many other U.S. cities, rose in 2021 and, as of June 2022, had continued to rise in 2022. The situation deteriorated to the point that, in June 2022, the Seattle Times reported that some sexual assault cases were not being investigated due to police staffing shortages. Eventually, the City Council recognized its error and reversed course; in August 2022 it approved bonuses of up to $30,000 for newly-hired officers.
The city of Austin was also sympathetic to calls to defund the police, although as discussed below, the Legislature has taken steps to ensure that a Seattle-style debacle does not happen in Texas. In August 2020, the Austin City Council unanimously voted to slash $150 million from the police budget of $434 million, with much of the funding being directed to social services. The Texas Tribune reported that this reduction was among the largest percentage decreases in the nation in 2020. The budget cuts resulted in the elimination of 150 officer positions.
In September 2021, the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV reported that problems had arisen in the wake of the reduced funding. Police response times increased; several City Council members acknowledged that unprecedented attrition had left the police department with a barebones patrol staff; the city recorded its highest murder rate ever; and some residents expressed fears over declining quality of life as police officers focused their energies away from relatively minor infractions such as public intoxication and noise violations.
For the fiscal year beginning October 1, 2021, the city reversed the $150 million in budget cuts, although it did not reinstate the 150 police officer positions. Due to the passage of House Bill 1900 (87R; Goldman, et al.) earlier in 2021, the city of Austin will suffer penalties if it attempts to reduce police funding in the future.
HB 1900 addresses cities with a population over 250,000 that reduce their police budget unless such reduction was either in proportion to reductions in the city’s overall budget, or was approved by the criminal justice division of the office of the governor. The bill penalized these “defunding” cities by limiting their annexation and property taxation powers, as well as deducting from the city’s share of sales tax revenue the funds that the state spends on law enforcement activities in the city.
Although HB 1900 was a positive step, it does not prohibit all attempts to circumvent the spirit of the law. For example, defunding proponents could attempt to re-classify expenses that have traditionally been outside of police budgets (e.g., mental health workers) as part of the police budget, which would then enable them to slash funding for police officer salaries without running afoul of HB 1900. Or they could steer existing officers to “desk” duties rather than enforcement.
Senate Bill 23 (87R; Huffman), applicable to counties with a population of more than 1 million, limits potential circumvention attempts by generally requiring counties to hold an election before reducing the budget of a law enforcement agency (other than a 911 call center) with primary responsibility for policing, criminal investigation, and answering calls for service. An election is also required if funding or resources for such a law enforcement agency are diverted to a different law enforcement agency.
The Legislature should consider imposing a “floor” on the number of police officers a city employs per 1,000 residents. Of course, a number of factors can affect the optimal size of a given city’s police force; population density, crime rates, and response times are just a few of the variables that could be relevant. The optimal number of police officers cannot be precisely determined for every city, but it is self-evident that every city requires a minimum officer to resident ratio to protect public safety.
Averages, both in Texas and the U.S. as a whole, suggest that a floor of 2 full-time police officers per 1,000 residents is sensible. That requirement could be accompanied by a provision that officers spend at least 35 of their time on community engagement. If a city satisfied the minimum ratio but its officers spent (for instance) 90 percent of their time responding to service calls, then the city would be obligated to hire more officers.
Policy Recommendation: Maintain a 2:1,000 police officer to resident ratio.
Cities in Texas should be required to maintain a ratio of at least 1.5 full-time police officers per 1,000 residents, and set a minimum percentage of community engagement time for officers to ensure they are not overloaded.
You can read this and the rest of the report here.
Note: Citations were removed from this excerpt, but are present in the full report linked above.