We Must Make Policing Better Without 'Defunding' or 'Dismantling'
By the time I heard a local activist leader shout that he had brought a group of protesters outside my house to make my children, wife, and neighbors “uncomfortable,” I had mostly given up on the idea that meaningful systemic changes would come out of the movement sparked by the brutal murder of George Floyd.
I am an African American man who grew up in rough neighborhoods in Dallas during the most violent period of our nation’s history. Before I became mayor, I had successfully pushed for police accountability measures and expanded educational opportunities during my nine years in the Texas Legislature. I was raising two Black boys in America (and have added a daughter since then). I was horrified by the death of George Floyd. And Eric Garner. And Philando Castile. And Tamir Rice. And Michael Brown. And on and on.
But like many of my fellow mayors across the country, I had become the enemy because I didn’t believe in slashing the budget of our police department — which had already shrunk by hundreds of officers during the previous five years — amid staggering increases in violent crime in Dallas.
The movement, which began with bipartisan support and captured hearts and minds across the country in a way I had never before seen, was hijacked by elitist and extremist talk of “defunding” or “dismantling.” The loudest voices eschewed common ground and common sense, opting for sloganeering and an air of insatiability that repelled rather than persuaded. Many positive changes, including better use-of-force policies, came out of the movement, but many other opportunities have been squandered.
It didn’t have to be that way. And it still doesn’t.
Cities and states can implement programs now that provide for equity, improve policing, and make us less reliant on law enforcement to solve every social ill. And the federal government could support these ideas through a 21st century crime bill. Whereas the 1994 Crime Bill centered on punishment, a new plan could focus on prevention and policing.
Now is the time to take action in a comprehensive way. Violent crime is up across the country, and underserved communities and minorities are disproportionately the victims. They deserve safety and justice. During the pandemic, I was a member of the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice, and we collected data that showed aggravated assault rates in the U.S. increased 7%, gun assault rates went up by 22%, and homicides spiked by 24%. In Dallas, the numbers were even higher.
Police can help stop violent crime and bring criminals to justice. Over and over, defunding activists claimed that police only show up after a crime is committed — an absurd notion that suggests that all crimes are just one-offs, and that there is no such thing as repeat offenders and no need for detectives.
There are bad people in this world. Maybe some people could have been saved and still can be once they are in the criminal justice system. But once they victimize someone, they must be stopped. That’s why we need police, and why defunding — whatever it means — is a mistake. We also need solutions that reduce our dependence on law enforcement and prevent crimes from occurring in the first place.
Here is how we can fight crime and make our police departments better and more responsive:
- Demand and develop crime reduction plans. Every city’s police chief should have an annual strategic plan to reduce violent crime and to engage the community. This may seem simple, but when I became mayor in June 2019, it became apparent that the police brass of the ninth-largest city in the country simply didn’t have a comprehensive crime-reduction plan. I had to demand one. That also meant that policymakers had nothing on which they could base resource allocation decisions and had no real way to assess accountability or let their constituents know what steps were being taken or why. Accountability must start at the top.
- Offer competitive pay for police. Simply put, you get what you pay for. Policing poses many potential dangers for both suspects and the police, and the pay isn’t always commensurate with the risks and skills required to do the job. In 2019, we supported market-based pay increases in Dallas after years of losing some of our best young officers, who we paid to train, to growing suburban cities with salaries that were $10,000-$15,000 a year more than what we offered. If we want good community policing, we must set high standards and pay accordingly.
- Improve accountability measures. Those who can’t meet those expectations need to find other work. The stakes are too high. A civilian police oversight board can be an important way to hold our police officers accountable. We have enhanced ours in Dallas and hired a monitor to help review cases and recommend policy changes in line with evolving community expectations. We also need to double down on body cameras, which have allowed prosecutors, grand juries, juries, and the public to cut through the noise and see issues more clearly.
- Expand training for police officers. Those cameras also give police something that has been used for decades in sports: game film. Video is an important training tool. And training must be intensive. Police are expected to think like lawyers, criminologists, psychologists, and athletes. No police department worth its salt should be adhering to only the minimum prescribed state standards as they exist now. Boost the requirements, give the best available training, and correct mistakes.
- Address environmental factors that cause crime. In August 2019, I formed the Mayor’s Task Force on Safe Communities to make recommendations for policies that could reduce crime without the involvement of law enforcement. After reviewing policies in some other cities, the Task Force recommended improving lighting and remediating blight in high-crime areas. Crime tends to exist where criminals believe no one is watching and that no one cares. We need to eliminate havens for violence. We have begun implementing these recommendations through our newly formed Office of Integrated Public Safety Solutions, and the early returns have been promising. Cities should move swiftly on place-based crime reduction strategies that don’t involve law enforcement.
- Provide counseling services, early and often. My Task Force on Safe Communities also recommended two policies aimed at changing behaviors: implementing social and emotional learning (SEL) curriculum in schools and employing violence interrupters in targeted neighborhoods. Both programs are meant to help people learn to deal with conflict in nonviolent ways. We recently hired Youth Advocate Programs to run a violence interrupter program, and other cities have started similar programs. And Dallas ISD has expanded its SEL program, which has produced positive results.
- Handle mental health calls the right way. Police are not equipped well enough to deal with mental health emergencies. In Dallas, we have created and expanded our RIGHT (Rapid Integrated Group Healthcare Team) Care program, which deploys mental health professionals to calls, accompanied by police. Other cities have similar programs. They are worth the cost and help cities deal with their most vulnerable residents in a caring and understanding way.
- Create and expand summer jobs programs. These programs are primarily meant to give young people some money and teach them life and job skills. But they also help reduce crime. One federally funded 2017 study showed that New York City’s Summer Youth Employment program participants were 17% less likely to be arrested during the summer and 23% less likely to be arrested for a felony. In Dallas, we are scaling up my summer jobs program for youth called Dallas Works and hope to see similar results.
These are real solutions that do not require defunding or dismantling anything. They are about building for a better future.
They also reflect the on-the-ground reality that mayors deal with every day. We know very well that public safety is our residents’ top priority. We know that our residents must feel safe to thrive and that they want to be able to call 911 and get an appropriate response when they’re in a crisis. We can’t expect people to strive for the American dream if they can’t sleep safely and comfortably. And we can't expect people to feel safe if they don’t have trust in our police officers to correctly respond to difficult situations.
The status quo isn’t working for many people. It’s not working for crime victims or for the victims of police brutality. We can and must do better for them and for our children. And in this country that has seen too many divisions, we must do it in a way that brings people together.
Eric Johnson is the 60th mayor of Dallas, Texas. He previously served in the Texas House of Representatives from 2010-2019.