Policing in El Paso, Part I: Police Department Funding

07-03-2020

After the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black lives at the hands of police, communities across the nation are engaging in a reckoning over the future of policing.

 

Violence by police against Black people and other people of color is a systemic problem rooted in our nation’s history of racist violence. Recent events have made it clearer than ever that structural change is needed.

 

Nationwide protests have sought to make the point that police departments receive an outsize amount of funding and are tasked with addressing a broad range of societal issues, including mental health, domestic violence, violent crime, drug-related offenses and homelessness. Many activists argue that police brutality will continue unless the budgets and roles of police are fundamentally reconsidered together with increased funding for that could better address the root causes of societal conflict, like inequality, gender-based violence and lack of access to housing and healthcare. 

 

Because policing is ultimately a simple solution to an incredibly complex reality--and because the culture of policing has directly resulted in violence against people of color, especially Black people--re-evaluating the role and funding of police may be the most direct way to stop such violence from occurring.

 

Recent Reform Efforts

The House of Representatives recently passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which bans chokeholds and no-knock warrants at the federal level, curbs a practice called qualified immunity that shields police from being personally liable for misconduct and establishes a national registry to track police misconduct, among other things. The bill is unlikely to pass in the Senate, where Republicans introduced their own, more limited bill. You can read more about the House legislation and the Senate legislation here.

 

Ultimately, the most powerful reforms will happen at the local level. City governing bodies have immense influence over the budget and conduct of local police. In El Paso, the Mayor and Council can determine the police department's annual budget and contract with the police union, question the department about its practices and hold police accountable for excessive use of force issues. The City Manager is responsible for the hiring and firing the Chief of Police. In this Frontera Facts, the first in a series on policing in El Paso, we examine the El Paso Mayor and Council’s power over the police budget.

 

Who decides the police budget in El Paso? 

The process of determining the city budget is complex and ongoing and involves many officials and city departments, as well as the public. Budget determinations play a hugely significant role in determining the quality of life of a city’s residents. 

 

In El Paso, budgeting is informed by the priorities of the Mayor and City Council and the citywide Strategic Plan, which lays out priorities such as improving parks and streets, keeping residents safe and developing the economy. The budget process is overseen by the City Manager based on Mayor and Council’s guidance and input received from city departments and the public. 

 

The Office of Management and Budget analyzes the revenue from taxes, fees, etc. that the city can expect to receive each year and guides the process of determining what resources the city will be working with. Each city department reviews its needs and goals, submits a budget request and holds meetings with the City Manager. At the culmination of this lengthy process, the proposed budget is made available to the public for comment. Finally, the budget is voted on by the Mayor and City Council, who have the ultimate say on which initiatives will be funded and prioritized.

 

The budget process for the next fiscal year is underway. The City recently released its proposed 2021 budget. Public hearings will begin in August 2020. Once hearings are held, the City Council will vote on the proposed budget and adopt the necessary tax rate.

What is the budget for the El Paso police department? 

The city budget for fiscal year 2020 was voted on by the Mayor and City Council in August 2019. It allocates $157,607,717 to the El Paso Police Department, an increase of approximately $26 million since 2015. This money includes funds allocated from city coffers and federal policing grants that bolster specific policing functions, such as combating drug trafficking. The 2021 proposed budget would increase the police budget by nearly $5 million, to $162,428,365.

 

Police staffing has also increased significantly in the past five years. The department currently has 1,175 officers, an increase of 150 officers since FY 2015 and part of a ten-year plan that envisions hiring even more officers in the next several years.

How does the police budget compare to the budgets of other city departments? 

City agencies receive funding from local sources (such as taxes and fees) and federal or state grants. Each year, a given departmental budget is determined both by availability of these grants and the Mayor and City Council's willingness to devote local funds to the agency's mission. The police department budget dwarfs the budgets of other departments that contribute to the health and welfare of El Paso residents. 

 

The Community and Human Development Department is responsible for combatting homelessness, managing housing and social services for low-income El Pasoans, providing neighborhood revitalization services and implementing programs such as the Foster Grandparent program in public schools. The FY2020 adopted budget for the entire department was $13,624,668 with a significant portion coming from federal grants and about $1.2 million coming from dedicated local funds. The department's entire budget is only slightly more than the amount budgeted for a single police regional command center in 2020. And while the police budget has increased steadily over the past several years, the budget for community and human development has been drastically reduced from almost $18 million in 2016. The 2021 proposed budget only slightly increases the development budget to $13,710,830.

 

The Public Health Department manages health education and promotes healthy behaviors in El Pasoans. It is also responsible for managing outbreaks of disease like the current coronavirus pandemic and an outbreak of tuberculosis at a local high school in 2019. $17,071,712 was budgeted for public health in 2020, down from $19,043,778 in 2016. Like community and human development, the public health department receives a significant percentage of its funding through federal grants rather than from the dedication of local funds. Public health also received approximately $84.2 million in additional funding from the federal government for the coronavirus pandemic response. The 2021 proposed budget would increase the budget to $17,638,624, a paltry amount considering the challenge that the pandemic will continue to pose into the future. 

 

Initiatives within the police department that are meant to provide an alternative to traditional policing have also been underfunded. For example, in early 2019, the police department implemented a crisis intervention team (CIT) system at the direction of the City Council. Under this new program, uniformed officers and mental health specialists respond jointly when they receive calls about an individual struggling with a serious mental health crisis. $969,000 was allocated for the CIT program in 2019 and $1.8 million was allocated for FY2020. 

 

While the CIT program is a positive development (and a step that over 2,700 communities have taken), EPPD reported in September 2019 that it was only able to respond to half of the mental health crisis calls it received. For the other half, regular patrol officers responded to calls without the support of a trained mental health professional. 

 

Why does this matter in El Paso? 

Police are deployed too often to address issues that ultimately stem from inequality and a lack of community services. For example, a family whose members have lost jobs and are struggling to afford housing may experience conflict that results in the police being called. If robust social services such as affordable housing, job placement services and family counseling were available, it’s likely that conflict and a call to the police could be avoided and the family would ultimately be safer and better off.

 

El Paso has a low rate of violent crime that has declined steadily over the years, but other quality of life indicators--such as the poverty rate, availability of physical and mental healthcare and the number of children not getting enough to eat--show that many in our community are struggling to access the basic necessities of life.

 

23.5% of people living in El Paso County have experienced poor mental health for 5 or more days and 13% experience frequent mental distress. Nearly 23% of people are unable to afford to see a doctor. The rate of childhood food insecurity is an alarming 22.9%. And this was before the pandemic changed the El Paso landscape entirely.

 

The City recently allocated $1.5 million from federal CARES Act funding to support cash assistance for struggling families who were left out of the federal stimulus. While this funding is critically important and was paired with other forms of assistance such as rent, mortgage and utility aid, the amount allocated for cash assistance is roughly equal to the amount budgeted for fuel and lubricants for the police department in 2020. It is important to note that the source of these funds are different (cash assistance came from federal funds while the police budget comes from local funds), but it is indicative of the Council’s ability to establish and fund its priorities. 

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these issues as many people in our community are experiencing job loss, sickness, mental distress or a combination of the three. In June, the official unemployment rate for the El Paso region was around 14.5% (and likely much higher). Latino communities like ours have been especially hard-hit by both the virus and economic hardship and underlying inequities have compounded the suffering.

 

Conclusion 

Every community is grappling with how to address racism and police brutality and every community will ultimately need to understand its own history and vision for the future in order to create change. What works in one community may not work in another. 

 

What we know in El Paso is that the police receive an immense amount of money every year, while other departments that provide critical functions such as affordable housing, homelessness support and public health have seen their limited funding reduced over the years. Additionally, functions within the police department that offer an alternative to traditional policing--like crisis intervention teams--are underfunded, leaving them without the resources needed to respond effectively to mental health crises that police are not equipped to handle.

 

As El Paso families continue to grapple with a global pandemic that has caused widespread hurt to the most vulnerable--and as local governments deal with a sharp reduction in revenue--it’s important to understand how impersonal, administrative documents like city budgets can have an enormous impact on wellbeing and reflect the values and needs of a community. It’s up to us as El Pasoans committed to a more just future to educate ourselves about how departments are funded and how our tax dollars are used.

 

We’ll keep you informed about how you can provide input to the budget process. One way you can make your voice heard is to call your local El Paso representative or write an op-ed in a local outlet about what you think should be prioritized in the budget. City council meetings happen every other week and you can review the agenda beforehand and watch the live video here. You can also sign up for public comment here. Feel free to reach out to hhollandbyrd@hopeborder.org if you’d like other ideas about how to get involved.

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