Have Calls To Defund Police Drowned Out Cries For Social Services In Dallas?
Community leaders and activists in Dallas have demanded city leaders divest from the police department and invest in social services. But council members say public safety is still the top priority despite moving to increase spending on DPD.
How should a city spend its money? Well, most folks in Dallas agree public safety should be a top priority. What that means and how to provide it is being debated.
Currently, the city of Dallas spends over a third of the $1.4 billion in the city's general fund on the police department — more than $500 million. The public outcry this summer around policing and racial justice has some activists and community leaders asking why.
Activists say there are other needs that aren't being met. They've demanded that the city council divest from the police department and instead invest in things like social services and infrastructure.
'We’re Barely Making It. We’re Maintaining.'
South Dallas native Tiara Cooper said she believes city leaders have let homelessness, food insecurity, joblessness and addiction overtake her community.
“You come to South Dallas, and that’s all you see," Cooper said. "You see liquor stores on every corner. You see people who you know are in need of help that are constantly policed instead of rehabilitated. You see all that.”
The 27-year-old community organizer with Faith in Texas said people in South Dallas are "too deprived." Standing on the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard, not too far from Fair Park, she recently led a voter registration event with several volunteers.
"Right now, we’re only making it, we’re barely making it," she said. "We’re maintaining. No one is actually thriving in my community.”
Then Cooper looked down at the sidewalk she's standing on and pointed out that it's crumbling beneath her feet. After that, she glanced at the road nearest to her. It was littered with potholes and garbage.
"What we’re trying to tell T.C Broadnax and the City Council is that this is violence! This is a crime!" Cooper shouted. "We’re not talking about something that the police can address. It’s something that our budget can address.”
Cooper said the state of the neighborhood is not just happenstance.
"Some communities are created to be this way," she said. "It’s no coincidence when people in this district wind up in prison, wind up in jails or on the streets homeless.”
South Dallas is overpoliced and underfunded. Cooper said. That’s why she’s demanding city leaders defund the police and use that money differently.
The Council's Response
Cooper's city councilman is Adam Bazaldua. As the representative for Council District 7, he represents South Dallas and parts of East Dallas. Bazaldua also thinks that policing needs to change.
“We have continued to invest in a model that has not given us positive results," he said. "And I don’t say that as a dig to the police. I say that as a dig to the system.”
That’s partly why he worked with his colleagues to shed $7 million from the police department’s overtime budget in the next fiscal year.
Still, Bazaldua said systems adapt slowly in this city. And he said groups like Faith in Texas, the In Defense of Black Lives Coalition and Our City, Our Future need to be realistic when trying to reimagine public safety. He said asking city leaders to cut $200 million from Dallas Police Department's budget is not realistic.
“Until we get to a place where there is more [of a] support base and acceptance to go a little bit harder for these other solutions, where there’s not a fear, I don’t believe we’re in a place to make drastic changes,” he said.
Drastic changes are not something Council member Jennifer Staubach Gates wants. She represents District 13. It's located in one of Dallas’s wealthiest areas, home to NorthPark Mall and lush, tree-lined neighborhoods like Preston Hollow.
Staubach Gates said the people in her community do not want her to defund or divest from the police.
“I don’t hear that from my constituents. I hear that they don’t feel safe enough, nd they would like more police presence," she said.
Staubach Gates shared that perspective with several Dallas residents last week during a virtual meeting hosted by the Grassroots Law Project, a criminal justice reform group that’s been lobbying Dallas leaders in the runup to approving the city’s next budget.
Organizers said Staubach Gates was one of only three of the city’s 14 council members to meet with the group. Many others, organizers said, never replied to their invitation.
During the meeting, Staubach Gates shared a sentiment voiced by at least four other council members during discussions of the city’s next budget — she needs proof investing in social services actually decreases crime.
“Until we get good data that we can reduce crime by investing," she said, "I don’t think we can reduce some of the budgets you’ve suggested on reducing.”
Skepticism On Both Sides Of The Debate
The skepticism voiced by some in the Dallas City Council that spending on social services will lead towards safer communities is also shared by many in Dallas law enforcement.
"Dallas is a big city. It's a really big city, so there are always going to be drugs nd there is always going to be an illegal element out there," Dallas Police Officer Terrance Hopkins said. Hopkins is a senior corporal who’s been with the department for 30 years.
"You know, some people have talked about eliminating the vice or narcotics units to save money," he explained. "And if the city wants do that, if they say, 'Hey! We don't want any officers dedicated to this at all.' Then that problem skyrockets."
However, the "skyrocketing" Hopkins described has not been proven. Some activists argue that eliminating those units could decrease arrests for low-level offenses like drug possession, sex work, homelessness and substance abuse, and that could decrease a different financial burden on the city.
“You can put some social services in place, but what you find, really 9 times out of 10, they’re not seeking social services," Hopkins said. "They just see it as a means to an end to make money. They want to do what they do.”
That point of view illustrates the fundamental divide in Dallas’s budget debate. On one side, some residents fear for their safety and worry about their future. And on the other side, city leaders and law enforcement are resistant to radical change.
While this debate will likely continue, right now it looks like any large-scale transformation in spending could be many budget cycles away.
The city council will vote on the budget for Dallas’s next fiscal year on Sept. 23.
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