A Texas Referendum Provides an Early Window Into Battles Over Police Budgets

Voters in Fort Worth will decide on Tuesday whether to renew a sales tax that funds the police, and local advocates want people to “reimagine” which public services boost safety.

James Russell   |    July 10, 2020

Fort Worth Police Department/Facebook

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Voters in Fort Worth will decide on Tuesday whether to renew a sales tax that funds the police. Local advocates want to “reimagine” how public spending can foster safety. 

Amid the national reckoning over police budgets, opposition is building in Fort Worth, Texas, against a sales tax that has funded law enforcement programs for more than two decades. Voters will decide on Tuesday whether to renew it, and the Black Lives Matter movement’s concerns about policing are front and center in the campaign.   

The tax, which is called the Crime Control and Prevention District (CCPD), raised nearly $80 million in 2019 and funds police equipment, salaries, and various initiatives. If renewal fails, it would significantly reduce the resources of the Fort Worth police.

Voters have renewed the CCPD four times since it was established in 1995; it received 85 percent of the vote in the most recent referendum, in 2014. But this year’s election (Proposition A) is playing out in a different context marked by more visible activist calls to shrink the presence of the police department.

“Policing is necessary when people’s needs are not met,” Jen Sarduy, an organizer with Fort Worth Futures, an advocacy group formed this year that is urging voters to reject the tax, told the Appeal: Political Report. 

The group has in recent weeks released graphics on social media about the sort of public services that the city should boost to “reimagine public safety,” including public housing investments, programs for the city’s elderly  residents, and expanded public transit access, as local transportation advocates are demanding

Strengthening these services instead of funding police, these advocates argue, would improve safety outcomes. “When our money is so tied up in crime reaction and control, we are not addressing the root causes of violence or investing in building safer communities,” Sarduy and Lizzie Maldonado, another local activist, wrote in a commentary piece this week. 

Fort Worth’s referendum is just one of the electoral tests for this perspective in Texas next week. On the same day, Austin is voting for its next district attorney, and one candidate is running by making a case for strengthening systems other than criminal justice. “Public safety is a good job, it is access to healthcare, it is a good school to send your children,” the candidate, José Garza, told the Political Report last week. 

Austin’s City Council already approved a measure last month to transfer some police funds to social services as part of a broader public safety package. Because of pressure from the Black Lives Matter protests, city leaders around the country are envisioning similar moves as they rethink the roles usually assigned to police.

Fort Worth is more conservative than Austin and many of those municipalities. It is a rare big city with a strong GOP presence—the mayor, Betsy Price, is a Republican who supports the tax. But that has led to a  set of unlikely bedfellows in the push against the CCPD: progressives seeking police reform and conservatives intent on reducing taxation.

The Texans for Freedom PAC, a group that campaigns against bond packages and tax ratification elections, has jumped into the Fort Worth debate. “No more police tax,” says a website it created for the CCPD campaign. A representative for the PAC did not answer a request for comment. As opposed to progressive advocates seeking to spend the tax elsewhere, the conservative group wants this revenue source eliminated altogether. 

Still, some residents motivated by anti-tax politics are connecting this issue to the protests against police brutality.

“As a Libertarian, I’ll always vote against taxes, but there’s a lot of great reasons to vote against this particular tax,” said John Spivey, former chairperson of the Tarrant County Libertarian Party.  “Much of the $80 million in CCPD funds have been used to militarize our police which in turn is used to terrorize people of color. … Instead of militarizing the police, I’d rather seek ways to end feeding the always hungry prison industrial complex with a steady stream of people of color.”

Proponents of the CCPD, which include Price, Police Chief Ed Kraus, and the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, a police union, point to a substantial decline in crime since the district’s creation to  say the tax helps fund crime prevention programs that are essential to public safety. Crime plunged nationwide over that same period.

Protests against police practices have been simmering in Fort Worth long before the latest wave. In 2016, Jacqueline Craig, a Black mother of two, called the police to report a crime. Instead, a white officer aggressively handled and arrested her, resulting in an uproar. Three years later, a white officer killed Atatiana Jefferson, a Black woman, in her home, occasioning further protests

In response to Craig’s arrest, in 2017 the city formed a task force to study racial inequity and bias in housing, transportation, workforce development, criminal justice and other areas, and released recommendations in 2018. The only three criminal justice reforms included were civilian oversight of the police, more people of color in the ranks, and a Police Cadet program recruiting high school students.

Pamela Young, an organizer for United Fort Worth, a group that pushes for policing changes and is now calling for a vote against the CCPD, says these recommendations left gaping holes such as effective community oversight, and that grassroots groups should have been more involved.

United Fort Worth released recommendations of its own. “We wanted to get what we were asking for, not a top-down approach,” Young said. “Problems arise when the city refuses to take the advice we are giving.”

Young views the CCPD in a similar way. “The underlying issue is there is no community involvement,” she said, noting that City Council members who run it take donations from the police union, which can influence how the revenue raised through the tax district is spent. 

Jason Adams, a graduate student at the University of North Texas studying public administration, agrees that those donations are evidence that “we cannot trust that the council will place any substantive value on community input in the allocation of CCPD funds.”  Last month, he helped delay a public meeting regarding the police union’s  agreement with the city to allow for more public input.

Even some beneficiaries of the funds allocated through the CCPD are now opposing the tax. 

LaTasha Jackson-McDougle, the founder of Cheryl’s Voice, a group that educates children and families about domestic violence and that receives grants from the CCPD, came out on Facebook against renewing the tax.

“We as citizens need to vote NO on prop A and have a citizen meeting with adjustment of allocation of funds,” Jackson-McDougle wrote.

Sarduy, of Fort Worth Futures, also assails the city for allocating revenue without community input, but stresses that local advocates are now “keeping track” of the budget and eager to transform the city. 

“We want a different definition of public safety,” Sarduy said. “This is where we’re starting.”