Houston Chief: Delay in COVID Relief Imperils Police Reform

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Texas police at the 'fallen heroes' memorial in Wash DC Photo by Elvert Barnes via Flickr

Unless Congress moves quickly to renew emergency COVID relief, the nation faces a “world of hurt” that will strain the resources of law enforcement called on to deal with resulting social dislocation, warns Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.

Art Acevedo

“Without Congressional action, we are going to be in a world of hurt in terms of everything we do,” Acevedo told a webinar Wednesday, noting that his agency was concerned about the shortfall in funds to pay for everything from personal protective equipment to training for new police recruits.

And he predicted that the uncertainty about future funding would have a long-term impact on hopes for police reform.

He said many police departments across the country were in similar “dire straits.”

“Not only will we not ‘reinvent’ policing; I think we’re going to go back in time as it relates to the job that we’re doing for the American people.

“[We  will be] in deep trouble.”

Congressional leaders are still deadlocked over the terms of renewing economic relief measures under the CARES Act, which is scheduled to expire before the end of the year.

But as the politicians wrangle, the shortfall in funds combined with budget cutbacks already imposed by many cities hit by the loss of revenues during the pandemic effectively represents more of a “defunding” threat than any of the changes called for by some police reformers, Acevedo suggested

His warning was echoed by former Salt Lake City police chief Chris Burbank.

“When you talk about all the rhetoric around defunding, what is being described is exactly what’s been going on already in terms of reprioritizing resources,” said Burbank, who is now vice president for law enforcement strategy at the Center for Policing Equity.

What ends up being cut because of budget issues are programs that have involved  support for police services to the homeless and mental health outreach, he warned.

“These are critical to community and police relationships…things that have significant impact,” Burbank said.

Both men were speaking during the final program of a series of Webinars examining the impact of COVID-19 on the justice system. The program is organized by the Center on Media, Crime and Justice, publisher of The Crime Report, and supported by the Jacob and Valeria Langeloth Foundation.

According to Acevedo , the biggest long-term threat posed by the financial crisis caused by the pandemic was the loss of training funds, which in turn imperiled operational changes many law enforcement executives have instituted in response to nationwide protests over excessive use of police force.

He noted that several cities claimed to be heeding calls for defunding  are “in fact doing it because they don’t have the money anyway.”

“It has to do with the fiscal reality these cities are facing, whether it’s New York or L.A.”

Acevedo said the emergency relief funds provided under the federal CARES Act this year helped him avoid  cutting incoming classes at Houston’s police academy, but its future was now once again uncertain.

“Next year, I think, we’ll be in deep trouble.”

Houston’s police department has put into effect significant policy changes that have resulted in reduced arrests and reduced jail populations, Acevedo said.

To relieve pressure on staffing, the city’s Fire Department has been tasked with enforcing some of the state’s regulations limiting occupancy in businesses during the pandemic.

Similar responses have been registered in many other police agencies.

According to a recent survey of 1,000 agencies, 72 percent of respondent have switched to “virtual responses” to  calls for service, Jennifer Zeunik, director of local programs at the National Police Foundation, told the Webinar.

But Zeunik said that efforts to rethink the scope of police services required more support and understanding on the part of policymakers.

“There is a large lack of understanding on the breadth and depth of the services [police now perform], “she said. “Just cutting funding isnt the answer; there needs to be a thoughtful process to figure out how to address these issues.”

But the renewed surge in infections in Texas and elsewhere in the country is straining everyone’s ability to cope, Acevedo said.

Acevedo said his agency, one of the country’s largest with 5,300 uniformed officers, had recorded over 700 people infected with COVID-19. Three sworn officers have  lost their lives to the disease.

But he noted that hiring levels have been frozen for decades even though the growth in Houston’s population had added the equivalent of a new small city to the metro population. He warned that without additional help, the agency would be in “dire straits” next year.

“There’s a lot of fatigue across the entire nation, and that includes inside law enforcement,” he said.

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