March 7, 2021 22:05

Houston Chief: Delay in COVID Relief Imperils Police Reform

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 loss of funds to pay for everything from personal protective equipment to training for new police recruits.

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

“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 existing economic relief measure, 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.

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.

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

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

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