A white Dallas police officer steps out of the passenger side door of a cruiser, marked with Dallas Police department insignia. In Texas police budgets far exceed those for community services.
AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

Texas Cities Prioritize Police over People

Fort Worth spends six times more on criminal justice than community services.

by

If city budgets are a reflection of what a community holds precious, one thing is glaring in Texas: Policing and incarceration are cities’ crown jewels. 

Texas’ five largest cities—Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, and Fort Worth—spend far more on criminal justice than on community services, and in the case of Fort Worth, more than six times as much. This is according to a recent study by the Social Movement Support Lab that analyzed the budgets of the largest cities in the United States to determine the ratio of spending on mass criminalization—including police departments, court systems, and corrections departments—to spending on community care—services like affordable housing, parks and recreation, and mental health programs. 

“What we must offer is a vision of true public safety with reliable services that actually prevent violence and crime at their roots,” said Eduardo Martinez, mayor-elect for the city of Richmond, California, during a press conference ahead of the report’s release. Richmond was used as a case study in the report. “Most issues do not require a badge and a gun to solve.”

Fort Worth spent 6.3 times more on criminalization systems than community care in 2022, about $1,289 per household versus just $205, the study found. Fort Worth is one of more than 60 Texas cities with a “crime control and prevention” district. Put in effect in 1995, this district is funded by sales taxes that are earmarked for crime control. This insulates the funding from the discretion of city officials, but some of these funds also go to community services like parks. 

“When we don’t fund parks … when we don’t fund our school programs greater than the police, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”

Fort Worth City Council member Chris Nettles, who took office in 2021 and unsuccessfully advocated for police oversight in Fort Worth earlier this year, told the Texas Observer he supports the police and supported the most recent budget, which allocates more than half of the general fund to police and fire services. But, when asked about the report’s results, he said he thinks community services like after-school programs and gun violence prevention shouldn’t be overlooked in the quest to ramp up public safety. 

“There’s a notion in cities such as Fort Worth and other pro-police communities, they want to send a message that ‘we support the police,’” Nettles said. “The issue is, when we don’t fund parks … when we don’t fund our school programs greater than the police, we’re setting ourselves up for failure.”

Houston’s budget is similarly lopsided, with policing and courts eating up 4.8 times more of the city’s budget than community services. In 2022, the city spent $1 billion on what the study calls “mass criminalization,” compared with just $213 million on community care. Most of this money—about 80 percent of total spending in both categories—went to the Houston Police Department. The largest community care bucket, the Department of Parks and Recreation, got only 8 percent of the pie. Adjusting for inflation, the study found that spending on the criminal legal system in Houston has risen 148 percent since 1980. 

Christopher Rivera, outreach coordinator for the Texas Civil Rights Project, focuses a lot on the Houston area. He told the Observer it makes no sense for agencies to request bigger budgets as they grapple with vacant positions and other systemic issues. (In Harris County this fall, a bitter budget debate included a request for millions more dollars to go toward sheriff personnel.)

Advertisement
Advertisment

In Dallas, where city officials have boasted of an increase in community alternatives to the legal system—like Dallas’ Office of Integrated Public Safety Solutions, mentioned in the report, which includes the city’s civilian and officer mental health response team—funding is still much more likely to be funneled into traditional crime prevention methods. The office has a budget of about $5 million. The Dallas Police Department’s budget is more than 100 times as large. 

The study found that Austin and San Antonio come closer to parity, spending 1.2 times and 1.6 times as much on mass criminalization as services, respectively. 

In places where the biggest disparities exist, they’re also more likely to persist. Activists and city officials who want to rethink public safety, particularly those who want to focus more on mental health and community services than policing and incarceration, face a massive obstacle: the optics of “defunding.” 

In 2021, Texas passed a law that effectively bars cities from reducing their police budgets (or even appearing to do so).

In the midst of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020, cities began to toy with the idea of reducing police budgets. In some places like Austin, the measures were widely supported. But in 2021, Texas passed a law that effectively bars cities from reducing their police budgets (or even appearing to do so).

In Austin, the funding shakeup would’ve parceled out civilian-staffed functions, like 911 operations and forensic testing, away from the Austin Police Department. It looked like the capital city was itching to set a new tone for public safety, but these attempts were stymied by the usual suspects: high-level Texas conservative politicians, police propaganda machines, and widespread misunderstanding about crime statistics. After House Bill 1900 was signed in June 2021, Austin walked back its reforms, reallocating more than $130 million to the police. (The city council was, however, able to successfully disentangle forensics from the department in 2022.) 

Elsewhere in Texas, police budgets went up in the wake of the widespread social unrest. In Dallas, it appeared at first the city council would move funds away from the police department when they voted to reduce the department’s overtime and new hire budgets in 2020. But in reality, a good portion of the budget cuts were simply reallocated to other places in the police department. Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson was firmly against any defunding efforts, publicly saying the city needed more police officers. The council passed a budget in 2021 that reversed its previous cost-cutting measures. 

Rivera said when a budget is skewed toward policing and incarceration, that’s a sign that “the city has neglected to actually hear its constituents and the residents. … If they were listening, they would understand that there’s a need for housing, eviction protection, debt relief, health care, pollution control—things that keep the community safe,” Rivera said. “When I see a city spending on policing and increasing the jails … I see that there’s some kind of other interest involved that’s pushing a narrative.”