Debate over defunding the Houston Police Department heats up after Austin slashes budget

HOUSTON – Calls for police reform have grown louder since the death of George Floyd nearly three months ago. Many of these calls have coalesced into a “defund the police” movement in cities across the country, including in Houston.

“We’re talking about making sure there’s money in programs where it’s needed,” said Ashton Woods, the head of Black Lives Matter Houston. “What about if we could feed people? What about if we could keep people housed and clothed and address homelessness with that same money that’s being used to militarize the police.”

Shockwaves in Austin

Questions like those did prompt change in Austin, where last week, the city council voted to cut $150 million from its police budget. Councilman Greg Casar says he tried for years to shift money from police to community-based initiatives. But it wasn’t until George Floyd’s brutal death and recent criticisms over Austin police tactics that his council colleagues decided it was time to try something different.

“The grounds politically have shifted under our feet,” Casar said. “The movement for Black lives has sparked a modern-day civil rights movement.”

Houston increases police budget

But it doesn’t appear a similar change is on the horizon in Texas’ other large cities, including Houston, despite some groups pushing for it.

“We actually got a $20 million increase to be able to fund our five academy classes so we can continue to add police officers on our streets,” said Joe Gamaldi, president of the Houston Police Officers Union. “(Families) want to feel secure taking their kids to school, they want to be able to go to the park, and they want to be able to run their business. But we can’t do those things if crime is out of control.”

‘Defund’ vs ‘redirect'

But defunding is not the only layer to the debate. Dr. James Douglas, President of the Houston NAACP, wants to see HPD spend its money differently.

“I hate using the term ‘defund’,” Douglas said. “Policing is more than just arresting people. Policing is putting together a program that is sufficient to reduce crime.” Douglas believes providing more psychological services to weed out problem officers and the creation of an independent oversight board to review all of HPD’s policies and procedures will create a better department.

“Just arresting people alone is not going to reduce crime,” he said.

When we asked Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner for his thoughts, he said he believes the budget is in line with the city’s needs.

“Every city is different,” Turner said. “And you got to evaluate every department based on the needs that exist.”

Reform recommendations coming

Next month, a task force created in June, after more Houston police officers were indicted in the fatal botched Harding Street raid, is set to deliver its list of recommended changes for the department. Among the areas the task force is looking at is the current Independent Police Oversight Board, which Channel 2 Investigates reported on in June. But what impact it will have and whether any changes will be implemented remains to be seen.

About the Authors:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”