Monday, May 17, 2021

Might "anti-defund" legislation demilitarize and redefine 21st century policing? On the predictable if unintended consequences of micromanaging city budget decisions

Grits has been thinking about "defund the police" legislation (HB 1900) at the Texas Legislature, which seeks to punish Austin's budget decisions from last year shifting money from police to EMS and making the crime lab and 911 call center independent. The bill would punish cities that reduce police budgets unless the overall budget reduces by the same proportion. If the overall budget increases, the police budget must increase to retain its prior, overall percentage of spending. In other words, henceforth, in cities with more than 250,000 population, every new investment in roads, parks, housing, infrastructure, mental health, addiction treatment, homeless services,  etc., would have to be matched with increases to the police budget.

On its face, this would bind Texas cities' hands and make them all but unmanageable. After all, the biggest problems they face stem from the fact that their predecessors over-invested in police, jails, and prisons to confront social problems instead of investing in other solutions (e.g., mass transit, mental-health-and-addiction services, transitional housing and services for the homeless).

I believe that's the goal: A feature, not a bug. Governor Abbott intends to make Texas cities unmanageable and then blame Democrats for mismanaging them. If Republicans ever regained control of these jurisdictions, his office would cease to enforce the "defund" strictures (it's 100% at his discretion), and I wouldn't expect these requirements to ever be imposed on Republican-led cities, even though several of them in recent years have reduced their police-department budgets.

But for large cities which for the foreseeable future are governed by Democrats, this creates a conundrum. Big-city police chiefs have been complaining for the past decade that their officers are being asked to impose criminal-justice solutions to what are essentially social and healthcare problems they're ill-equipped to handle. Now, though, the Legislature is poised to insist cities can only confront these problems with police: A full-blown Catch 22 from a management perspective. They're leaving cities with no good options to address urban problems, which again, Grits believes is the point.

That said, I also believe this ham-handed attempt to bludgeon city leaders underestimates the variety of tools at their disposal and the wide array of methods available for cities to get around any strictures.

I'm sure there are many options, but here's my first thought: If the anti-defund bill passes, cities should begin to deploy unarmed officer cohorts whose primary functions fulfill the needs they'd otherwise fund in other parts of the budget.

Anyone who's traveled to the UK has seen unarmed police officers ably enforcing the laws as surely as American cops do with guns, and when they're needed there are special armed squads which can be called out or beat officers can be armed in a pinch. 

Here, though, Grits suspects squads of unarmed officers might be deployed much differently. For example, using money diverted from the police budget, Austin has begun having EMS respond to certain mental-health calls, with impressive early successes. If they're not allowed to expand that going forward because money must be spent on police, that won't obviate the need for non-carceral solutions to untreated mental illness. 

So what should they do? No one but fools think Texas can arrest its way out of these problems. And once legislators go home (without having expanded Medicaid, I should add, which might pay for non-carceral mental-health treatment), cities will still have to confront these issues with whatever tools are left in their toolbox. 

Consider the possibilities of unarmed social-or-health workers with a badge but no gun responding to homeless and mental health calls, possibly working closely with or even for the expanded EMS cohort recently created for mental-health first response and various city service providers. Whereas past protocols put officers in charge when they were on site with EMS, those roles could just as easily be reversed, particularly for the squad of unarmed officers whose primary role isn't arrest-and-incarcerate.

Such a program could include specialized recruitment and training to get people with relevant backgrounds in health care or social services who want to, say, work with the homeless or the mentally ill but don't want to carry a gun, enforce traffic laws, fire bean-bag rounds at protesters, etc..

These unarmed officers could always call their armed colleagues if needed but would primarily be deployed at tasks where it's not. Over time, cities could identify other activities where unarmed officers could fill roles that, in a more rationally governed state, might not normally be associated with law enforcement. But if cities are only allowed to fund cops, don't be surprised if the definition of "cop" inevitably expands.

The governor and his allies intend to box cities in, but I suspect they're making a strategic error. There's a bit of common military advice dating to Sun Tzu: Never completely surround an enemy's army; surround them on three sides and leave open the path you want them to take. The "defund" legislation does the opposite, attempting to surround cities completely and give them no path at all to move forward. Sun Tzu counseled that this could lead to either a) desperation and a bloodbath or b) creative tactics by the enemy that exploit one's army's overreach.

The latter is where I think this is headed: The Legislature meets only once every two years while city councils meet all the time and deploy vast bureaucracies to find ways to bypass legal barriers erected at the capitol. There will be several obvious workarounds, but here's a starting point: If the "punish defunders" legislation passes, Grits believes it will mark the beginning of a transformation of the definition of "police officer" as cities deploy services under the policing banner to confront problems they're not allowed to pay for in other parts of the budget.

If cities can only spend money on cops but the problems they must confront are only tangentially crime-related, inevitably they will begin to adjust what police do to deploy the only resources at their disposal at the biggest problems facing their constituents.

If I'm right, the "defund" legislation could have an unintended consequence of rapidly altering the definition of what it means to be a "police officer" in this state. How ironic would it be if this train wreck of a policy, promoted in the name of defending law enforcement, ends up being the trigger that launches its devolution into a less militarized, more service-focused 21st-century institution?

That outcome's not inevitable - the police unions would fight it, just as the Roman legions resisted pounding their swords into ploughshares - but Grits wouldn't be surprised: As the prophets foretold: The arc of history is long, but bends toward justice.


Andy W said...

Agree the legislation doesn't make sense. Over the years many PDs I've worked with employ these types of social service agents directly -- so if you made a pie chart of "police budget" vs "everything else" they would probably already be included in the police slice. This includes violence interrupters and social workers. (Not 100% sure about non-pd going to mental health calls, I believe they are on the police roll though for Plano at least.)

It is part of what exasperates me about 'police' vs 'public-health', these high level labels are often false dichotomies. Is a violence interrupter not public health if their paycheck is signed by the PD? It really only makes sense to talk about specific interventions.

You could make arguments they should/should not be in the police coffers (I haven't witnessed any obvious problems with places that have them as PD employees, I could foresee issues though). But it is silly worrying about shifting around money like this from a budget perspective.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Excellent point about just putting other stuff like violence interrupters IN the police budget. Cities should definitely do that. Ditto for anti-violence, anti-addiction, anti-recidivism grant programs.

On non-PD at mental health calls: Austin began sending EMS to certain categories of those calls in last year and anecdotally it's been working really well so far, though it's new and we haven't seen the initial, formal evaluations. CAHOOTS in Oregon and its copiers also go out w/o cops in other states. So it's a workable mode, just not how it's done in TX.

Gadfly said...

Why "unarmed officers"? Why not just hire some social workers, straight up, not even call them "unarmed officers," and flip Abbott and Goeb the bird?

Anonymous said...

That would also result that social workers, mental health specialists, community educators, community mediators, etc would FINALLY be paid at the same scale as police officers.

Please don't throw us in that briar patch, Gov Abbott!

Bad Wolf said...

Just do what the State does. The TCEQ is a revenue generating Agency and gets all its operating income from licensing, fees, and fines. Every session the Leg would force them to allocate some of their funds to other Agencies to cover operating expenses.

Just put money in the police budget and earmark it for Parks and Rec.

Anonymous said...

Changing he definition of "cop" won't work.

If they are going to do law enforcement-type things, by statute, many of those duties have to be performed by licensed peace officers. So you would still have to send these non-cops 'cops' to an academy and become legal 'cops.' And you probably want them to have some level of training, because your social workers have some fairly serious 4th Amendment authority and attendant liability if they are going to start taking on some of functions that cops do.

Even if they are unarmed, you would still be required by state law (TCOLE rules) to train them in weapons and have regular requalification.

And then the Legislature would probably (and rightfully so) prohibit local agencies from having unarmed peace officers. And circumstances would eventually force cities to arm, if for self defense alone, some of these 'non-cop' positions, which many cities already do. And we already have armed (but unsworn) social workers at the state level.

The flip side is that many agencies already use non-sworn employees for support functions that don't legally require an officer, like taking some reports, collecting evidence and other similar functions. Agencies have been doing this for years because its cheaper than using a relatively expensive cop, from a budgetary standpoint. But some functions legally require sworn officers and there is no chance at all the Legislature will budge on that.

Adding non-cops for niche demand functions is also a good way to inflate budgets. Most of the state, large cities included, doesn't have enough 24-hour a day demand for some of these services to be staffed seven days a week, around the clock. Which is why patrol officers get trained in those things and act as "generalists." As inefficient as they are, police agencies are pretty good at tailoring specialized assets like that to peak demand times and if there was an actual need, they likely would have already staffed it. At all other times, the lowly patrol cop handles everything else, and still would.