Houston City Council voted unanimously Wednesday to approve a 2021 budget that includes a $20 million increase for the Houston Police Department, as the sounds of hundreds of protesters demanding reforms outside City Hall could be heard from inside the council chambers.
Protesters chanted slogans like “we have nothing to lose but our chains,” and held signs critical of the Houston police and Chief Art Acevedo, with many echoing calls across the country to defund the police after the death of George Floyd.
Despite that pushback, Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said the decision to increase funding to the police was a response to people throughout Houston who have called for more police resources, including people in his own neighborhood of Acres Homes.
“We have been working feverishly to increase that number, and it’s been the general public, the people in your districts, the people who you represent who ask for more police in their districts,” Turner said during the council meeting. “When I came in as mayor, one of the first things I said as mayor is that we need to invest in communities that have been underserved and underresourced, like the community that I grew up in and still live.”
Houston has fewer police per capita than New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia. The $5.1 billion budget, which raised police funds to $964 million in Fiscal Year 2021, also raised the fire department’s general fund to about $517 million.
Council Member Letitia Plummer, who represents the council’s At-Large Position 4, introduced two amendments to the proposal. The first, providing an independent police oversight board with subpoena authority, was voted down after Turner said his administration would not support such a measure.
The council member’s second amendment would have allocated funding to implement a mental health crisis intervention program that would not rely on law enforcement. The amendment was referred to committee, and will not be included in the budget.
Floyd was killed by police on May 25, a death caught on video by a bystander and which sparked protests across the country when it was revealed a Minneapolis police officer had kept his knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as the prone man repeated “I can’t breathe.” Three other officers were captured looking on.
Derek Chauvin, the former officer shown on top of Floyd, was charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. The other three officers were charged with aiding and abetting.
Floyd was a former Houston resident who grew up in Third Ward and attended Jack Yates High School. He was a student athlete, and musician who performed under the name Big Floyd with Houston hip-hop legend DJ Screw.
Mourners gathered at Houston’s Fountain of Praise church over two days this week to honor his life, before Floyd was buried in Pearland next to his mother on Tuesday.
In his remarks at Floyd’s funeral Tuesday, Turner said more funding for community initiatives would help decrease police presence in neighborhoods.
“When we invest in communities that have been underserved and underinvested in, where we haven’t done the investment,” Turner said, “then you don’t have to spend as much on policing if you take the necessary funds and invest in our communities.”
But on Wednesday, Turner pushed council to increase police funding, after hours of public testimony from Houstonians calling for the city to reduce police funding and spend the money on public health and other departments they argued were more beneficial for the community.
Turner has announced plans to form a task force to study police reform, but Houston Black Lives Matter founder Ashton Woods said he isn’t expecting that to result in policy changes because Turner announced a similar task force in 2017 to consider removing Houston’s confederate monuments and that initiative hasn’t produced any recommendations. “He is trying to pacify people,” Woods said. “They’re trying to shut us up, and now it’s time to make them uncomfortable.”
Turner also signed an executive order mirroring the “#8CantWait” campaign, banning chokeholds and strangle holds among the police, requiring de-escalation techniques, mandating a verbal warning before shooting, instituting a duty to intervene for officers who view inappropriate force from colleagues, and other reforms.
The Houston Police Union on Twitter said that the use of chokeholds has been banned for decades.
Chief Acevedo, at a press conference after the council meeting, thanked Turner for the executive order, and said it makes such rules permanent.
“What you’re doing here today is building trust, and building legitimacy, and breaking down even the perception of bad policing,” Acevedo said. “This codifies the expectations of this mayor and this council in terms of what the police department is supposed to be doing, and I believe that is a first.”