Houston City Council unanimously approves new budget with boost to police funding

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Houston City Council unanimously approved a new budget Wednesday afternoon, including an increase in funding for the Houston Police Department.

The boost in funding was approved as protesters and activists gathered outside City Hall to urge Mayor Sylvester Turner and elected officials to defund or divest HPD’s budget. 

Funding for HPD will increase from $945 million to $965 million, a two percent increase, according to the proposed budget for 2021 (the final budget approved Wednesday, which may or may not include small changes to expenditures, has yet to be uploaded online). 

Fiscal year 2021 proposed budget, City of Houston 

In 2021, funding for police will represent about 17 percent of Houston’s total expenditures ($5.5 billion). Police funding will make up about two-thirds of all public safety expenditures, which includes the Houston Fire Department, Houston Emergency Center, and municipal courts. 

The boost in police funding comes as the city has been battling a recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and weak oil prices. Last month, Turner furloughed 3,000 workers, deferred all police cadet classes, and committed the entirety of the city’s rainy day fund to balance the budget

“There is no question that we do not have enough police officers to cover and patrol and protect all the people of this city,” Turner said recently according to the Houston Chronicle. “The question becomes, how do we pay for them? And that becomes a question for every Houstonian.”

Katya Abazajian, a Houston activist who attended the rally outside City Hall and helped organize Houston DSA’s DefundHPD campaign, told the Signal the national conversation has already moved from police reform to police abolition.

“The Mayor and City Council tried to explain to us that we’re already among the most lean and innovative police departments, just because we have the only mental health unit in the state and officers don’t use chokeholds, but they fundamentally misunderstand that what we’re saying is that we don’t believe that the police department is capable of running the programs they do have or fulfilling their primary role of protecting public safety,” Abazajian said.

Shortly approving the budget, Turner and city council members held a press conference where the mayor signed an executive order that banned chokeholds and strangleholds, requires comprehensive use-of-force reporting by police, and requires officers to exhaust all alternatives before shooting.

“This is not the end,” Turner said. “These are steps that are being put in place right now … we still welcome the citizen input.”

Earlier this week, Turner committed to forming a police reform task force by the end of June. He said the task force will provide recommendations within three months of being formed. 

Harris County Commissioners Court voted to pass similar measures Tuesday evening. 

A package of 11 criminal justice reform proposals was passed by commissioners court hours after George Floyd’s funeral. Among them, a study examining the effects of cash bail and criminal fines on low-income communities, a request for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office to submit monthly public reports on use-of-force incidents, and a study to see if county-level emergency responders can address mental health and substance abuse crises instead of police. 

The latter seemed to open up the possibility of divestment from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, or at least that was a concern of Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzales who said during the nine-hour commissioners court meeting that he feared those responsibilities may end up falling on police anyway if new country programs are poorly funded or poorly executed. 

“We have to be thoughtful in our decision making, and not just say ‘we need more money, we need more people. the end’,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said to Gonzales. 

“Maybe you keep people safer and produce less crime when you don’t just lock a bunch of kids up … you produce less criminals if instead of arresting those kids, you treat them,” Hidalgo continued.

“We’ve spent decades in this country just fueling and fueling the fire and we’re not safer than other countries that don’t incarnate 25 percent of the world’s population,” Hidalgo said. “Nobody is saying we should be less safe. We’re saying we can be safer and more cost-effective.”

Photo: Jose Maria Hernandez/EyeEm via Getty Images

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