Earlier this month, after Mayor Mike Rawlings took the blame for the city’s crime increase, he didn’t get much forgiveness from Charles Terrell, longtime chairman of the cop-boosting group Safer Dallas.
The city has “done a horrible job of keeping up with public safety” in recent years, Terrell told the mayor.
“I don’t think you need 50 more officers,” Terrell said. “You need 200.”
That almost certainly won’t happen. Dallas has steadily added new officers to its force for years. But a proposal for more cops this year is just one need among many that the Police Department has. Recent hiring hasn’t kept pace with officers who leave. Salaries aren’t competitive. Billions of dollars are potentially at risk because of lawsuits and pension mismanagement.
All of those demands have come up at the same time in a city that has already squeezed more value — and 12 years of decreases in overall crime — out of its police officers than many cities of comparable size, according to a Dallas Morning News analysis.
Now, city officials have to decide what kind of police force they want — and what kind they can afford.
“We just can’t do all of them,” council member Lee Kleinman said. “We’re going to have to prioritize.”
More money urged
Chief David Brown, who has led the department since 2010, has never asked for more police officers until this year. He said he wanted to be a team player for city leaders.
“I’ve had this feeling since being appointed
chief that I needed to be a great steward of taxpayer dollars,”
Brown said. “I knew that coming into the job.”
The city has estimated that sustaining 50 additional officers will cost a few million dollars more every year.
The other needs are more daunting. City officials are trying to avoid bailing out the pension fund and covering the cost of a pay lawsuit that together could equal billions of dollars.
Police salaries, meanwhile, are thousands — in some cases tens of thousands — of dollars behind departments in other North Texas cities where Dallas cops are looking for new gigs. Plano, for instance, pays nearly $20,000 more a year in starting salary than Dallas.
Kleinman wants to save money by requiring officers to stay for a few years or pay back their training costs if they leave for another city. But he said he may not have much support for the idea.
He said politics appears to be shifting toward giving more money to police. Crime is up, and the police chief simply wants more cops and better starting pay. The city’s elite have been vocally “backing the blue.”
Kleinman said public safety is still “without a question” the city’s No. 1 priority. But the council nowadays has other necessary expenses, including billions in deferred maintenance on streets, buildings and other basics.
Streets are hurting
“People are starting to feel streets,” he said. “They’re starting to feel other areas where they want to see maintenance.”
Former City Council member Gary Griffith, the president of Terrell’s Safer Dallas group, said he understands the budget process is difficult. But he said police should always come first.
“It’s a cornerstone of the services any city should provide its citizens,” Griffith said. “Public safety is fundamental to all aspects of life in the city. And you have to continue to supply resources to it every year.”
The Police Department technically grew by hundreds of officers over the last decade. A crime drop accompanied the hiring.
This year, the budget is $451 million, up from about $290 million in fiscal 2004. In 2004, the department’s budget made up about 35 percent of the general fund. This fiscal year, police take up about 39 percent of the fund.
When it comes to comparable cities, San Antonio, Austin and Phoenix spend slightly bigger shares of their general funds on their police departments than Dallas.
Los Angeles, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Houston, spend less as a percentage of their budgets than Dallas does.
In real dollars this year, Dallas doesn’t stand out as much. San Diego and San Antonio, with roughly the same population as Dallas, spend similar amounts on their police departments. San Diego and San Antonio, however, each have at least 1,000 fewer employees.
Dallas employs more than 3,400 officers and 550 civilians. That means it gets roughly the same bang for the buck as Houston, Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C.
But Dallas may not be able to maintain that value if officials increase police pay. Officer groups, who are negotiating a pay deal, say it’s time to be competitive to keep officers from leaving and taking their experience and talents elsewhere.
“We’re lagging behind other cities in how we take care of police officers,” Dallas Police Association president Ron Pinkston said.
Kent Kerley, chairman of the University of Texas at Arlington’s criminal justice department, said police officers have been historically underpaid and overworked in large cities. The added stress of the job (even well-paying Austin is having trouble with a staffing shortage) will make hiring more difficult, especially in light of increased scrutiny, he said.
And thanks to the last recession, police departments don’t have many areas where they can cut to free up funds for increased pay, he said.
Squeezing out savings
Brown has shifted how he schedules and assigns officers and has relied on technology as officers have left the force and new recruits haven’t come on as replacements. Rawlings said Brown is down to using scalpels rather than axes to find savings nowadays.
Rawlings, who had called for limiting the growth of the public safety budget in recent years, said that in the face of the violent crime increase, it’s time to give the chief more money for new officers.
But, said police consultant Alexander Weiss, the police hiring booms of the past are probably over because of all the competing demands, especially from underfunded public pensions.
“Policing has gotten very expensive,” Weiss said. “A lot of communities are saying, ‘We can’t continue to increase the staffing levels like we did in the past.’ ”