Resisting calls from activists and some council members to defund or curtail law enforcement, the City of Houston this week approved a budget that includes increased spending for the police department in the state’s largest city.
The $5.1 billion dollar budget for Fiscal Year 2021 includes a $19.4 million bump for the Houston Police Department (HPD) and will allow for the city to conduct five new police cadet training classes.
Submitted by Mayor Sylvester Turner and unanimously approved by the 16-member city council, the increase came after more than two weeks of protests and unrest following the alleged murder of Houston native George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25.
Prior to the budget vote, many protestors and activists had been demanding that the city defund or dismantle its police force, and one council member, Letitia Plummer, had offered budget amendments calling for an elimination of 199 vacant HPD positions as well as one of the five police cadet classes.
Mayor Turner resisted such calls, however, and last week told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he would not support defunding or reduction plans since the Houston community both needed and wanted more, not fewer officers, but also voiced support for reforms that would lead to “good policing.”
Turner appointed a task force to review city law enforcement policies, and on Wednesday issued an executive order for HPD that calls for use of de-escalation techniques and prohibits chokeholds, firing on a moving vehicle, and no-knock warrants. The order also requires all uses of deadly force by police officers to be reported to the Independent Police Oversight Board.
The signing ceremony for the mayor’s executive order included Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and a representative from the Houston Police Officer’s Union which had endorsed Turner for re-election last year.
Neither the mayor nor the council accepted Plummer’s call for giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena powers and expanded investigation authority.
Since Floyd’s death, demonstrations in Houston have at times turned violent with protestors throwing rocks, damaging property, and injuring both attendees and members of law enforcement. Hundreds have been arrested, and while District Attorney Kim Ogg dropped most charges, she said her office would be prosecuting those who intentionally hurt others or destroyed property.
Chief Acevedo, while supporting and welcoming protests related to the George Floyd incident, has vigorously opposed efforts to defund or reduce law enforcement in Houston and elsewhere.
In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee this week, Acevedo said that “History has shown that underfunding the police can have disastrous consequences and hurt those most in need of our services.”
“We cannot…let the actions of bad cops let us lose sight of the fact that most cops are good.”
The chief has come under fire for not releasing videos related to officer shootings in the city, but those videos are subject to a state law that requires consent from victims or victims’ families for public release, permission Acevedo says has not been granted.
Houston’s police department has also been under scrutiny since the January 2019 Harding Street Raid when officers executing a no-knock warrant allegedly shot and killed a couple in their home.
HPD Officer Gerald Goines has been charged with felony murder and civil rights violations in the case, and is also under investigation related to his law enforcement activities dating back to 2008. The Houston Police Officers Union initially defended Goines and paid his legal fees, but discontinued support for the disgraced officer in August of last year.
Acevedo said he supports funding for better officer training and recruitment, but also called for more efforts to address the “social economic reality faced by the poor and disenfranchised.”
The HPD chief has often been vocal about rising crime rates in Houston and problems created by lenient bond policies. He opposed emptying the county jails due to coronavirus concerns and has publicly sparred over law enforcement policy with former county sheriff and now county commissioner Adrian Garcia.
On the day before the Houston budget approval, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved a slew of law enforcement-related measures that could lead to decreased funding for the county’s sheriff and eight constable’s offices.
The county is preparing to create its own independent police oversight board, possibly with powers to subpoena, launch investigations, and discipline law enforcement officers.
Earlier this year, a proposal from Commissioner Garcia to end the Harris County Contract Patrol Program triggered a strong show of diverse community support for law enforcement in the Houston-Harris County region.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.