Houston OKs $5.1B budget that increases police spending despite calls to 'defund' HPD
Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3% raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December
By Dylan McGuinness and Jasper Scherer
HOUSTON — City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Mayor Sylvester Turner's $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, slightly increasing funds for the Houston Police Department even as some cities are under pressure to cut law enforcement spending amid nationwide protest over police violence and the death of George Floyd.
As the council took up budget, chants of "Black lives matter" and "No justice, no peace" could be heard from protesters outside City Hall. Dozens of police reform advocates had asked city council the day before to divert funding from HPD's massive budget to other services, such as health care and affordable housing.
Instead, the $965 million approved for HPD represents a 2%, or $19 million, increase over the current year. The overall city budget is up 1%.
The police department takes up more than a third of the tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city's day-to-day operations. Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3% raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December.
Turner, who later Wednesday signed an executive order on police reform, offered a passionate defense of the HPD budget, arguing that Houston has a shortage of police officers compared to other large cities. He often has pointed out that Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people and an area of more than 650 square miles, has 5,300 officers; Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million and 275 square miles, has about 12,000.
The mayor also said he has spent his five years in office advocating for under-served communities, contending that an increased police department budget does not mean he is ignoring those areas of the city. He pointed to a new multi-service center in Alief, more parks in the south central neighborhoods that make up District D, and an unspecified push for more grocery stores in east and southwest Houston.
The point that I'm making is that investing in communities that have been under-served and under-resourced has been a mainstay of this administration since I have been here," Turner said. "It is not secondary. It's been at the top of the list. So this is not a new cry for us... It didn't take a police shooting for that to be on our list."
Turner last week announced he would appoint a task force to review HPD policies with an emphasis on accountability and transparency.
It is important for us to be as transparent as possible.— Sylvester Turner (@SylvesterTurner)
I am working to put together a task force, which will be citizen driven, because individuals want us to listen rather than dictate the recommendations.
I want them to take a look at what we have and how we can improve.
At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment that would cut 199 vacant positions in the police department and redirect that money toward a slew of reforms, including giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena power and boosting funds for mental health units and re-entry programs. Plummer's amendments failed without the support of any other council member.
At one point, Plummer held up a heavily redacted HPD use-of-force policy, which she said the department gave her office when it requested a copy.
We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history," said Plummer, who addressed the protesters outside after the vote. "That is the most important takeaway. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the (mayor's) task force accountable."
The mayor did support an amendment from Councilmember Ed Pollard that would set up a public website where residents could browse complaints about police misconduct. The mayor said the site could work alongside the executive order he signed later Wednesday, and Pollard's amendment was referred to the legal department for implementation.
Mayor on Wednesday signed an executive order enacting restrictions on how Houston police officers can use force and no-knock raids, and he promised more reforms are on the way.— Dylan McGuinness (@dylmcguinness)
“Nobody is taking a victory lap,” Turner said.
Turner's executive order requires Houston police to use de-escalation techniques, give a verbal warning and exhaust all other options before using deadly force. The order also mandates that officers intervene when they witness misconduct; forbids choke-holds and bars police from firing at moving vehicles. It also requires the department to report uses of force to the city's Independent Police Oversight Board.
Several of the requirements — the duty-to-intervene requirement, ban on chokeholds, and prohibition on firing at moving vehicles — already were HPD policies, and some experts have cast doubt on whether such reforms have resulted in measurable progress in the cities that have adopted them.
Chief Art Acevedo said the reforms were meaningful in that they now are codified at City Hall, meaning that a new chief cannot undo the policies without going through the mayor's office.
The approved budget also avoided dire cuts originally envisioned by Turner, whose original plan called for spending cuts, the furlough of 3,000 city workers, and would have exhausted the city's $15 million rainy day fund. Those measures were needed, the mayor said, to fill an upcoming $169 million budget shortfall caused in part by a sharp downturn in sales taxes from the COVID-19 pandemic and plummeting oil prices.
Millions in federal coronavirus relief dollars helped the city avoid that fate. Turner said the city used $56 million of those funds to pay for employees that were redeployed to help manage the pandemic, freeing up some space in the budget. Officials are covering the remaining gap largely by drawing from the city's reserves, which are separate from the rainy day fund devoted solely to storm recovery.
The overall budget marked a 1% increase from the previous year. The general fund, at $2.7 billion, was down 2%.
The council considered dozens of budget amendments beyond the police reforms, most of which called for various studies or spending cuts and were withdrawn or sent to committees for review. At Large Councilmember Sallie Alcorn won approval of an amendment that sets up a working group to study how Houston and Harris County can consolidate duplicate services. That was a key recommendation from the PFM Report, a city-commissioned study from 2018 on how to structurally balance its books.
"The benefit I'm looking for is to save some money," Alcorn said.
Turner applauded Alcorn's amendment, but was less receptive when she suggested about $356,000 in cuts from his spending plan. The proposal would have trimmed several departments' budgets for travel, printing, food and other line items, which Turner interpreted as an effort to "micromanage" the city.
"You are now reaching into my territory as the CEO and manager of this city," Turner said to Alcorn. He suggested that he would vet the council members' own budgets if they passed the amendment, adding that "respect goes both ways."
Alcorn defended the proposal, arguing that it is customary for council members to suggest ways of cutting spending, even though it is the mayor's job to assemble the annual city budget. District G Councilmember Greg Travis, meanwhile, noted that Turner already requires council members to get spending approval from his chief of staff on their own budgets.
After the budget passed, Turner said he did not intend to suggest Alcorn's amendment was disrespectful.
City council approved several other amendments, including one from Councilmember Abbie Kamin that set up a vote on whether to give tax incentives to businesses that build so-called green infrastructure, which is aimed at reducing stormwater runoff.
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