Eric L. Johnson, mayor of Dallas, Texas, discusses local leadership during times of crisis and uncertainty, drawing on his experiences as mayor during the recent protests against police brutality, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other events.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon to all of you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. We’re delighted to have participants from forty-six states with us today. Thank you for taking the time to be with us.
Today’s discussion is on the record. As you know, CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher focusing on U.S. foreign policy. Through our State and Local Officials Initiative we serve as a resource on international issues affecting the priorities and agendas of state and local governments by providing analysis on a wide range of policy topics. And we also publish Foreign Affairs magazine.
We’re pleased to have Mayor Eric Johnson with us today. We previously shared his bio with you so I’ll just give you a few highlights on his distinguished career. Mayor Eric Johnson was elected mayor of Dallas, Texas in June 2019. Previously he represented Dallas as a member of the Texas House of Representatives from 2010 to 2019. During his tenure in the Texas House, Mayor Johnson served on numerous legislative committees and is the chairman of the Dallas Area Legislative Delegation. And he is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
So welcome, Mayor Johnson. Thank you very much for being with us today. The past three months have been quite challenging—ranging from COVID-19 pandemic, protests against police brutality, and so much more. So it would be terrific if you could talk about how you approach local leadership and what you’ve done during these really tremendous times of turmoil.
JOHNSON: Well, thank you very much, Irina, for that introduction. And thank you for the opportunity to be with you all today. I appreciate you having me. Incredibly honored to speak to my fellow CFR members for the very first time. And I’m also quite honored to speak to my fellow state and local government officials from around the country.
We are having this discussion at a very consequential time in both world and Dallas history. Because of everything that’s been happening, I’ve had very little time to reflect until last week when I celebrated the first anniversary of my inauguration as mayor of our nation’s ninth-largest city, which sits at the heart of the fourth largest metro area in the United States. I grew up here in Dallas, and it’s a tremendous honor for me to serve as its mayor. It’s been a trial by fire, not just for the past three months but right from the very start. I came into office on the heels of a significant spike in violent crime. While Dallas is undoubtably safer than it was when I was growing up here, we saw violent crime totals last year that we had not seen in this city in more than a decade.
And during all of that, we had the trial of a Dallas police officer who entered the wrong apartment and shot and killed the young Black man who lived in that apartment. That case had the very real potential to spark the kind of unrest that we’ve seen around the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. And then in October, Dallas was hit by an EF3 tornado that the Insurance Council of Texas called the costliest tornado in our state’s history. We incurred more than $2 billion—with a B—billion in property damage from that tornado. And now we are, of course, dealing with the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, all while our country grapples with the legacy of centuries of slavery, and Jim Crow, and systemic racism that we’ve never really fully addressed as a nation, let alone as a city.
So I’m going to start by talking about COVID-19 and our response here locally. We started preparing for COVID-19 in earnest back in late February when we started hearing about the terrifying potential impact of this disease. I convened a meeting of some of the biggest decisionmakers in Dallas to talk about their COVID-19 preparations. We engaged our K-12 schools, our higher education institutions, all of our transportation agencies, and our hospitals, of course. We felt prepared in some ways, but we also felt that to some degree we were at the mercy of something that we really couldn’t control. We were working hard to prepare for what was coming with very limited information.
The situation became real about two weeks later when I faced a very difficult decision that seems rather obvious only in hindsight. And that was whether or not to cancel our city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, which attracts about a hundred thousand people to a relatively small area within our city. At the time, the answer was not so clear cut. We guessed that COVID-19 might already be spreading throughout our community, but perhaps only on a limited basis. The problem was we didn’t have the testing to prove that. Nobody did, in fact. Tests at that time still had to be sent to the CDC for confirmation. And we had done only a few tests, and they had all come back negative. The city of Austin had just cancelled South by Southwest, which seems like a turning point now, in retrospect. But that decision wasn’t as applicable at the time to other cities.
Austin based its choice on the face that South by Southwest was a festival that brought in an extraordinary amount of travelers from around the world, including places where COVID-19 was prevalent. Our St. Patrick’s Day parade, by contrast, was primarily a local event, one at which people would be partially spread out and it would take place mostly outdoors. We weren’t getting very much guidance from the CDC at that time. The federal government had not provided much in the way or warning or resources. We were a city reacting to truly global forces. We had not yet had any confirmed cases of community spread. Our public health authority, Dallas County, was hesitating to give us any recommendation. Our city’s medical team, when pushed by me for a recommendation, suggested that the parade could actually move forward as planned.
But my gut was telling me to cancel the parade. Compounding the difficulty of that decision was the fact that I’m someone who tends to like to rely on expert opinions. I asked those hospital leaders, that I mentioned before that I convened a meeting with, what they thought. And they told me that we should not risk it and that we should cancel the parade. Finally, our public health authority concurred, and we cancelled the event. Later that same day, we started to see a cascade of similar decisions nationally. Event cancellations piled up. The NBA season was suspended literally as teams were preparing to take the court before full arenas.
What we had in the days in that followed were extremely difficult decisions. In no way was I excited to shut down our city’s vibrant economy. Public health came first, but we had much at stake economically. In the Dallas area, our gross metropolitan product is $620 billion, the fourth highest in the United States behind only the Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York metro areas, and ahead of the Washington, D.C. metro area. If the Dallas area were an independent country we’d be in the top twenty-five in the world in terms of GDP.
And we were growing very fast before COVID-19. We had just attracted Uber’s second headquarters to our downtown area. They were planning to bring 3,000 jobs to our city. Goldman Sachs just announced they were expanding their footprint in Dallas. And we were in talks to bring several other major companies’ headquarters here. Dallas was a city on the rise, but to preserve what we built we knew we had to put our economy into a coma.
The stay-at-home orders we implemented helped us make strides in testing and prepare our public health response. We coordinated numerous philanthropic efforts during this time and worked closely with our congressional delegation. We helped get an overflow hospital at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center ready, and also a socially distanced homeless shelter. And I required data on testing and hospitalizations be reported to the city. We released that information to the public every single day. That kind of transparency has been critical to our understanding of COVID-19. And I’ve seen other jurisdictions follow our lead in the weeks and months since then.
I also appointed two city council committees focused on different aspects of our COVID-19 recovery. Those committees facilitated the creation of a $19 million relief package for small businesses and residents, and an ordinance to help slow the evictions process. I also knew we would need to galvanize our private sector. So I asked Richard Fisher, the former president and CEO of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank and a former deputy United States trade representative, to lead a taskforce focused on our economic recovery. And I appointed a highly respected health care executive to serve as our city’s COVID-19 czar.
One aspect of this person’s job was especially important to me, analyzing disparities for underserved communities, including communities of color. You heard me mention earlier that I grew up in Dallas. I’m from a working-class family. And the neighborhoods where I grew up, West Dallas and Oak Cliff, were historically underserved. Early on we saw disparities in national numbers of COVID-19 cases. Black and Latino communities suffered disproportionately worse outcomes. I worried about neighborhoods like those I grew up in, and people of color who were economically disadvantaged and preexisting health conditions and lack access to quality health care. I pushed for data, and I’ve been a strong advocate for greater testing and access in our city’s most vulnerable communities.
These kinds of systemic issues are, I believe, at the core of the protests that followed George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. This movement is not new, but we seem to have reached a tipping point where what has been talked about extensively in the Black community for many years is finally gaining acceptance in mainstream conversation. I have to admit that I was surprised to see the national outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter. The movement has clearly gained allies that or years sat on the sidelines as the list of names of Black men and women killed by law enforcement steadily grew.
Perhaps it’s because people are more reflective right now as the world has slowed down due to COVID-19. Maybe seeing those eight minutes and forty-six seconds was all the evidence anyone needed to finally say: Enough is enough. Regardless, I am very pleased to see the peaceful protests that are taking place literally all over the world. In Dallas, we had some early issues with rioters and looters using these protests and cover to cause mayhem. And we had an inadequate police response in the beginning, to be frank. I am also still waiting on complete and official answers about the use of rubber bullets and teargas by our police department during a peaceful protest that took place on June 1st on the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge in Dallas.
Since then, our protests have been largely peaceful and without incident. And their message has been clear: That the status quo is unacceptable. Our city council will have to tackle these difficult issues soon. And we have a community police oversight board in Dallas that will play a critical role. Oversight is often overlooked, but it is one of the most important functions of government. As the mayor in Dallas, in our somewhat unusual form of government, I do not decide who the police chief is. But I can do my best to hold our law enforcement leaders and other decisionmakers accountable. We can create all of the policies we want, but accountability is the only thing that will bring about true change.
Now we have to figure out where we go from here. I’m committed to building a more equitable society in Dallas. I grew up as a person of color in some of our city’s most dangerous and underserved communities. What we’re talking about today are issues that have hung over us for my entire forty-five years of life. But turning protest into policy is not easy. I’ve been a policymaker for ten years, and even some commonsense legislation—such as a bill I authored when I was a state legislator to require the reporting of police shootings to the state’s attorney general—took extraordinary effort to pass. This dialogue we’re now having as a society will require us not to retreat into our respective camps.
Meaningful change does not occur in echo chambers. And this is going to require a sustained and principled effort. There is no easy cure here. No single plan is going to solve everything. We are not just talking about police misconduct and brutality. That is merely a branch. We have to be willing to talk about the tree that is racism in America which, yes, has its root in slavery. We have to look beyond slogans and talk about the whole of our priorities. And public safety will always be at the core of what city governments do.
Like I said before, we were in a violent crime wave just a year ago. And our budget last year reflected the concerns of the people in Dallas, including those who live in historically underserved communities. So we invested more in retaining and recruiting new police officers after watching hundreds of our officers leave over the past few years because of pension issues and low pay. We also will be facing a budget shortfall of at least $60 million in the next fiscal year and will have to make some very difficult decisions about what our priorities are and what will have to be cut.
Now I want to close by talking a little bit about the future. I know that everything is so uncertain right now. We are still in the middle of battling COVID-19 and, at the same time, dealing with the daily protests in response to the killing of George Floyd. In the absence of broad federal action, cities like Dallas are leading the fight against both the pandemic and systemic racism. I’ve read a lot lately about the presumptive exodus from cities after this, the idea that people will flee dense population centers because of the pandemic and civil unrest and seek the space and tranquility that suburban or rural living provides.
Maybe we will see that, in some isolated cases, but I generally do not believe that’s going to happen. For one, because I do not believe people who are afraid of COVID-19 are going to want to live in places where you won’t find anyone wearing a mask or where level one trauma hospitals are hard to come by. But I also believe cities are going to continue to thrive because of those statistics I mentioned before about the economic vitality of the Dallas area. We are going to recover. When the jobs come back, they’re coming to a city like Dallas, that has problem solving in its DNA, and the infrastructure in place for now and for the future.
They will go to the places where the gross metropolitan product is the highest. And when it’s safe to do so again, people will once again fill our restaurants, and our museums, and our symphony halls. Cities are built to be resilient. Dallas especially has proven to be incredibly resilient. We have an extraordinarily diverse economy and we have all the assets to bounce back quickly. This latest pandemic has changed a lot of things in the short term, but it will not change the fact that we are built to last.
Thank you so much. I appreciate you having me here today. And I’ll now turn it back over to Irina to handle the Q&A. Thank you so much.
FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Mayor Johnson. We really appreciate your remarks and thoughts on leadership, and racism, and dealing with the pandemic.
So let’s now go to the group.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
So let’s go to the group. And we already have hands held up. We’ll go first to Representative Scott Holcomb.
Q: Thank you, Irina. Good afternoon, Mayor Johnson. This is Scott Holcomb from Atlanta. The background noise is I’m the floor of the Capitol right now but couldn’t miss an opportunity to be with you.
My question is, how would you rate the federal government’s response and assistance to helping you navigate the pandemic and the associated economic issues accompanying that?
JOHNSON: First of all, it’s great to see you virtually, Representative Holcomb. It’s been a long time, and I do appreciate you taking time from the Georgia House floor to join this call. You’re a great leader and I just am deeply appreciative of our friendship. And I appreciate the question as well.
I think the federal government’s response has no shortage of people willing to discuss and talk about, you know, where they’ve fallen short and where they’ve even done OK, and where they’ve done a great job. And I think there are people who, you know, are all over the map on that. But let me tell you from my experience as the mayor of Dallas, because I’m not really here to give you any punditry about what I think they’ve done around the country.
The first experience that we had, I think, with the federal government in this entire process was in dealing with trying to get testing—trying to get testing set up where we have some idea of where this disease was in our community, how it was spreading, whether or not we had community spread or if it was still being spread only by people who had traveled abroad or other places. And it was just extremely difficult early on to get any answers about testing, to get any clear guidance about when we’d be able to get our testing capacity increased, about, you know, when we were going to be able to get more testing kits. It was just—testing was just, early on, really, really not handled well.
And what we really needed was some strong leadership and, I think, a national framework for getting testing. Eventually we started to see more resources from the federal government deployed to help increase the amount of testing we were doing. But there was a lot of confusion about the right testing protocols, and who should be eligible for testing. Should we just be testing first responders, which is I think how we started. You know, only folks who are going to have to be interacting with the public because it as their job, frontline workers were added to that list. And when I say frontline workers, I mean frontline retail workers and others. But initially I think it was just first responders.
And there’s just always so much confusion around testing and, you know, who was able to get tested. We did eventually get some help, but I want to give the government some credit here. We did get two federal drive-through testing sites relatively early on in the process for folks to be able to have access to testing if they met certain criteria for being symptomatic, and some other things. And so we were appreciative of that, and we’ve had a couple of extensions. They were planning to leave Dallas a couple of times, and they’ve actually extended, every time we’ve asked them, their stay here. So I’m appreciative of that.
But as far as federal help with other aspects of our pandemic response, the last thing I would mention is the federal government did help us stand up an overflow hospital that we’ve not had to use yet, but I mentioned in my remarks, at our convention center. Initially the U.S. Navy was here, the National Guard was here to help us get that stood up. And it’s available for use. I think it can expand to a few thousand hospital beds if necessary. And so we are appreciative of that.
But what we’ve needed, and I think we still could use help with, is even more testing availability and help with contact tracing. That continues to be a very elusive and difficult thing to do. It requires a lot of manpower. It requires resources that, frankly, cities like ours do not have in their budgets to do and are dealing with several other aspects of this pandemic response. And we could use some federal resources in that regard. And so I’d say it’s been a mixed bag, for sure. And we probably could have used some—a lot more help early on with testing.
We could probably use some help with messaging on the importance of mask wearing. And that would be the last thing I’d say, Representative Holcomb, is that it’s been difficult in a state like Texas where, you know, you have a lot of local control, and a lot of local autonomy, and local leaders saying one thing, and then the governor and the local leaders are not always on the exact same page. And then you have the federal government saying in some cases nothing, in some cases sending contrary messages about mask wearing and its importance.
So it’s challenging. It is challenging here at the local level. But that is the full answer to your question. It’s been a mixed bag.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Martha Robertson.
Q: Hello. Thanks, Irina. And thank you, Mayor Johnson. My name is Martha Robertson. I’m a county legislator for the last nineteen years in upstate New York, centered in Ithaca, New York. Any of those city-dwellers who think they’re going to come to the—up to the county—up to the country and have great broadband and cell coverage, they might want to think again about that. So my question is, you mentioned the federal help and the mixed bag. And of course, you’re a city of more than six million, so you’ve gotten some help that lots of the rest of us haven’t even—hasn’t even—you know, we haven’t even smelled it.
How do we get the federal government, how do we get the Senate I think in particular, to recognize that you can’t just bail out big corporations? You can’t even just bail out small businesses or families, but that local and state governments run our schools, our hospitals, our contact tracing, you know, everything. So how can we convince—and I’m really frustrated that the message has to really come from, let’s be honest, the red states, because I don’t think Mitch McConnell’s listening to anybody from a state like New York. What would you suggest? How do we get that message across?
JOHNSON: First of all, I have been to Ithaca, New York. And I really love your city and your area. It’s beautiful.
JOHNSON: And I appreciate you being on the call today. So thank you for the question.
So, look, I mean, I’m loving this discussion. And I’m going to give you what is my humble opinion about these things, but I do not hold myself out to be an expert on federal advocacy. I’ve never been a registered lobbyist at the federal level, or—but I am a mayor who spent quite a bit of his first year on Capitol Hill lobbying for various issues and things that are important to my city. So I will share with you just some of my experience and what I think can be done.
I think first and foremost, you have to rely very heavily on your local congressional delegation. And I think you have to do it without regard to the party of the members of your delegation. You have to engage both sides, red and blue. And you have to come to them from the perspective that I’ve come to them with in Texas. And I will say that I think I have a really strong working relationship with all of our members of Congress, especially from our North Texas area, whether they are Republican or Democrat, because I come to them with this perspective: I tell them, these are our mutual constituents.
These are people who are counting on us to make their lives better. And they are dealing with a situation that is not of their own creation and is causing all sorts of mayhem in their lives. It is causing death. Physical death, and it’s causing economic destruction like we have never seen. I mean, truly like we have never seen. And they need help. And this is an issue we’ve got to put down, the R and D, red/blue labels and work together on. And I’ve gotten a great response in terms of the appreciation for that attitude.
Now, translating that into what does that mean for policy, here’s what I’ve been telling our congressional delegation. I’ve been telling them: Look, guys, what we need more than anything is flexibility in how any aid that comes from Washington is used. The last round of CARES Act funding that came to our city—and I would point out that you mentioned Dallas is a city of six million. That’s our entire metro area, is about seven million. Dallas itself is about a million and a half. Still, it’s the ninth largest city in the U.S. as a stand-alone city. It’s a large city. It’s the fourth-largest metro area in the country. It’s a big area.
And I’ve emphasized to the folks in our delegation that we need the flexibility to be able to use CARES Act funding in however we see fit to replenish lost revenue. And that is different than saying we can use whatever money we get from the CARES Act to reimburse us for coronavirus-related expenditures. And I’ll give you an example of what I mean by that. Because of coronavirus we’re having to do all sorts of things that we didn’t have to do before. I’m just going to give you a simple example. You know, we’re having to clean City Hall, you know, however many times a day that we didn’t have to do before. You know, that’s hiring a private contractor to come in and do—that’s a cost that we would not have incurred, but for coronavirus.
The CARES Act money is clear, that we can use it to reimburse us for costs like that, up to the amount that we received. But what is also clear in the CARES Act that really needs to be changed in any subsequent round of funding, is we can’t use it to offset the gaping hole in our budget created by the fact that we had to shut down our economy when we went to stay at home that caused people to stop being able to spend money in our restaurants, in our bars, and at retail establishments that really hurt us badly at the municipal level, that depends on sales tax. In Dallas, sales tax is nearly a quarter of our—of a four-legged, you know, stool of taxes and fees. And so, you know, we really were hurt badly by the stay-at-home orders that we all agreed needed to be done that, you know, everyone in the country did it, for the most part. Wasn’t something unique to Dallas, but Dallas is really paying a price for that decision.
But we can’t plug holes in our budget that were created by that decision. So now that we’re having to go through rewriting a budget, you know, what do we do about our libraries? What do we do about our parks? What do we do about providing all the different services that our city has come to expect of us, not to mention public safety and things like that? We’re missing a large chunk of our revenue. And the current CARES Act does not allow us to just use CARES Act money to plug those holes. And it probably ought to—it definitely ought to, if you ask me.
So we are advocating, through our congressional delegation, for that type of thing. But we’re also utilizing organizations that we are members of. And in your case, if you’re a county elected official I’m sure you’re a member or you’re familiar with the National Association of Counties. We have National League of Cities. I’m a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. And we do a lot of advocating as a group nationally for these priorities. And I would encourage you to do that as well.
But the overarching theme that I can’t emphasize enough—and I think, honestly, makes me a little bit different than some of the mayors around the country who may be elected on a partisan basis, who may be on a slightly different posture, or maybe other elected officials at different levels of government who are certainly partisan, is I have thoroughly embraced and enjoyed the nonpartisan nature of the role of mayor of Dallas. And I do not participate in what I believe are efforts to advance one party’s interest or the other at the other’s expense. I’m about this pandemic and how we respond to it and getting this right for our people.
And I think if you take that attitude, as hard as it can be at times particularly when you have that red-blue dynamic within your own state—but if you take that attitude and you try to embrace that spirit of bipartisanship in your advocacy and say: Guys, you know, this disease doesn’t care if you’re red or blue, or Democrat or Republican. And mask wearing shouldn’t be a red or blue issue. It’s just factually it works. Scientifically it works. If you keep that attitude, I think that’s the best chance you have to being successful in advocating for your community in Washington.
Q: Thanks so much, Mayor. And look forward to having you in Ithaca again soon.
JOHNSON: I can’t wait to get back. I love those gorges up there.
FASKIANOS: (Laughs.) So many hands raised. Let’s go to Gregory Rose next.
Q: My name is Gregory Rose. I’m the city manager for University City, Missouri.
And I want to first start out by thanking Irina for having me. And Mayor Johnson, I’m going to put in a shameless plug. I actually graduated out of Carter High. So it means a little different when I say: Go Cowboys.
JOHNSON: Oh, wow, you’re a Carter cowboy, for real?
Q: I certainly am, right in south Oak Cliff.
JOHNSON: Oh, wow. That is incredible. Thank you so much for joining.
Q: Thank you for being here.
You know, one of the things about the Black Lives Matter movement is that one of their central focuses is on police reform. So I’m just curious as to what your thoughts are relative to what do you think are the key focus points for reforming police?
JOHNSON: Thank you for the question. And thanks for joining the call. Got to love David W. Carter High School in Dallas, Texas.
Q: That’s right.
JOHNSON: So, you know, look, I think it would be disingenuous with a group of folks this sophisticated to pretend like this—I think actually mentioned this earlier—you know, there are no easy answers here. This is not going to be a simple there’s one change we can make and this problem is going to go away. And it has to do with the fact that I firmly believe that police brutality and the issues that the George Floyd killing as sort of brought in the mainstream are really just a branch of the tree that I call the tree of racism in this country. It’s a bigger issue than just police brutality. And we’re going to have to address some of those systemic issues.
But specifically with regard to policing and reforming our police departments, I think the first thing that, you know, we probably have to go through in every—and I will acknowledge right now, with a call full of state and local government officials—I understand every one of your jurisdictions is different. And I respect that. I do not mean by any stretch of the imagination to imply that anything I’m about to say applies to every single one of your jurisdictions in terms of, you know, some of you are further down the road than others in terms of reform. I’ve done some of these things already, so take all this into account when you think about what I’m saying.
But I think some acknowledgement of the presence of implicit bias throughout our society has to be part of this discussion. It’s just long overdue. The United States of America never had anything like a truth and reconciliation process when it came to American slavery and the legacy of it as manifested in Jim Crow and subsequent discrimination throughout our society. We’ve never really had the true conversation about how being Black in America is different, makes life different, no matter—and this is a conversation I’ve had with so many people, people who are not Black. I think most Black people get this, but a lot of people who aren’t Black just are surprised to find out how universal some of our experiences are.
There’s just no insulation against the racism that you will encounter throughout your life at different points if you’re African American. Being wealthy is not a shield. There’s no geographic shield. There’s no—there’s no educational shield. Oh, you know, I went to this school, so racism is not going to happen to me. Serving in the military is not shield. There’s nothing you can do to change the fact that in this country being African American presents a set of challenges. And the fact that we’re having that conversation right now is great, but there’s going to have to be some real acknowledgement in the halls of power.
And that means Congress. That means state legislatures. That means city councils. That the implicit bias that throughout—through no even intention of an individual is just present in our society, from the imagery we see in the mass media, in movies, in television, to all kinds of things. Until that’s acknowledged and addressed, it will continue to seep into all sorts of institutions, including but not limited to our police departments. So we’re going to have to acknowledge that.
The second issue, I think, that we have to acknowledge is that there probably needs to be in most jurisdictions some analysis of use of force policies, and the use of chokeholds and strangleholds, and when it’s OK to use various types of force. And I think that’s a conversation that a lot of activists have been asking us to have for a long time. Different departments are at different places with that. But that’s a conversation that is definitely taking place here in Dallas right now and is probably taking place in a lot of your jurisdictions. And that’s an important conversation to have.
And, you know, I think the conversation around community policing and the reliance on law enforcement for various tasks that if you ask even people who are in law enforcement whether or not they thought they’re the most qualified to be doing, you will get in some cases, I think some of you might say, surprising answers. We have become—in Dallas, as I can attest to, and I’m sure in many of your jurisdictions—we’ve become reliant on the police for a great number of things that maybe they are not the best suited for. Maybe people who are trained to arrest criminals are not the best people to send to respond to a mental health emergency. Maybe not every call to 911 needs to be responded to by a uniformed police officer. There are different types of 911 calls.
How sophisticated is your 911 system at, you know, triaging those calls, and winnowing them out, and sending the ones that require, you know, an armed police officer to from the ones that require a different type of response? Because we’ve seen situations where, you know, situations have escalated from neighbors calling the police on neighbors because of noise or something like that, that have escalated to people being shot. Well, there are ways to address that to prevent them from ever escalating in the first place.
So I think those are all things that are going to be discussed here in Dallas, and they’ll be discussed across the country. And they’re all great places to start. But we can never forget that at the end of the day this is a conversation that’s been being asked for for a long time by our African American community. And I think it’s long overdue. And I’m glad that we’re having it.
Q: I was just going to say, I think that whatever we do we will need to greatly reform policing. That the same personality that you hire to go into a very dangerous situation where bullets are flying may not be, as you’ve indicated, the best personality to address mental health. So I do believe that social workers will have a place up under the policing umbrella in the future. But thank you so much.
JOHNSON: Do you mind if I, I just as a follow up, Irina, to that, just ask kind of a quick question for the caller?
FASKIANOS: Sure. Sure.
JOHNSON: Because I’m very curious, because one of the things we’re going to have to discuss in Dallas, and this is getting into—you state and local government folks are probably loving this, because it’s a little bit what we do, getting into the weeds like this. But I’m curious, in your jurisdiction, University City, how much do you guys get into social services? Do you do health? Do you have a health department that’s city run? Do you do a lot of—are social workers within your jurisdiction? Because I can tell you that the Texas model is primarily dependent upon the countries for things like mental health. Most of that funding comes from the state via our counties to address those issues. So cities are severely limited in the resources that they have to actually address a lot of these types of reform issues that involve using different types of personnel.
Cities have spent a large portion of their budget traditionally in Texas. Dallas is in line with the major cities in Texas in spending about 60 percent of its budget on law enforcement total. And that’s not—I should say, on public safety total. Not just the police, but also fire, and our ambulance services, and things like that. But that’s largely a product of just, as I said, social services and mental health being primarily the county responsibility here. How does it work in Missouri and in University City?
Q: In University City the structure is roughly the same, that we are heavily reliant on the county in order to provide those services to us. And often, right or wrong, the county’s focus in typically on unincorporated areas, and they leave the incorporated jurisdictions kind of on their own. So we’re going to throw out that whole model and do two things. One is to be crystal clear with our delegation, both at the state level and at the federal level, these are our needs. No matter who provides it, the needs aren’t going to change. It’s how do you address them? And right now, our needs are not being addressed. So we are going to become in the future less reliant on another jurisdiction or another entity to provide those services. We want to take greater control over our own destiny in that area. And be crystal clear as to the services, the social working, whether it’s health, whether it’s dealing with the homeless population. I think that we have to look at all of those areas that impact our ability to be successful and have more hands-on in those areas.
JOHNSON: I appreciate that.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go next to Police Chief Rodney Brimlow.
Q: Good afternoon. Thank you for taking the call. So I’m in Deerfield Beach, Florida, which is just north of Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
We have similar funding issues of what you’re talking about as well, where county gets monies and cities kind of do their own thing. From a police chief perspective, and a lot of my colleagues share my thoughts similarly, we agree that there are many types of calls for service for which we are either ill-equipped or that would better be handled by other entities. You know, the difficulty and the danger for our calls for service, whereby we bring force to every call for service—just armed presence, with firearms, and secondary weapons. That’s our presence, is a presence of force. Is wholly inappropriate in a lot of situations, anywhere from 25 to some places up to 40 percent of the calls for service are perhaps not the best calls for law enforcement to respond to.
Unfortunately, we are neither in charge of the funding for those programs that would better suit folks in our community, and we also are very weak at being able to push that because most of us work for city managers. Sometimes we work for a strong mayor, depending on the governmental structure of the city. But even organizationally we are very weak at being able to try to get society, the communities, the government on board with providing appropriate mental health services, appropriate drug addiction facilities, appropriate outreach to the people who are experiencing homelessness, alcohol—all of the problems that we end up coming into.
We even have seen nationwide some jurisdictions that won’t respond to calls for service that involve mental health issues because the problem is, is there may be a mental health crisis, and then suddenly we bring force there by our very nature, which agitates the situation. Now suddenly the person in crisis picks up a crowbar, some other weapon, or whatever, and now we have a lethal situation. How do police chiefs get into the game here to really put pressure on the governmental entities to begin to go backwards, perhaps, in time, and begin funding the proper programs, once again, to address these situations?
Law enforcement should not be the group that is just putting a lid on the problems that society’s dealing with. And it seems like we have really gone far away from funding the right kinds of programs, and certainly having the right kind of professionals in there to deal with folks who are suffering a variety of issues—lack of education, whatever it might be. And unfortunately, because we are the ill-appropriate mechanism in place, we’re also the ones that are going to suffer the consequences of being there. So I just would like to share that with the group and get input on that for you.
JOHNSON: Well, first of all, Chief, I appreciate you joining the call today. And my response would be that I think it depends, again on the form of government you’re in how much you can do what I’m about to suggest. I’m not sure, you know, which of you police chiefs who are on the call report directly to mayors or which ones report to city managers. But I would say this: I think it’s probably true across jurisdictions that police chiefs get a lot of respect before legislative bodies. And by legislative bodies, I mean the United States Congress. I mean state legislatures. When I was a state legislator and I was involved with the public safety committee, and I remember when chiefs would come and testify people perked up in our chairs, and we listened. Because, you know, chiefs carry that weight. And I think it’s true with city councils as well.
And so I think as a police chief you should use that authority and that weight to make it very clear what it is that you believe you really need to do your jobs well, and what you don’t need, and what you think would be better spent the ways we’ve been talking about on this call. And so here’s what I mean by that. I think for a long time law enforcement has benefitted from a lot of presumptive goodwill from most law abiding citizens. And so when it comes to funding police departments, hasn’t been that tough of a sell. You know, the police say they need it and so the public says we’ll give it to them.
Well, I think we’re entering a period now where people still respect the police and will still listen to the chiefs, but they’re saying now—you hear people say things like defund the police. I’m not a defund the police person, to the extent that that means—you know, I read an article in The New York Times recently that says that, at a minimum, slashing police budgets by 50 percent but it really means abolish the police. You know, wherever you fall on that spectrum, from cutting 50 percent to cutting it to 100 percent, I’m not there.
But here’s where I am, and I think I’ve said this on this call other different ways, but I’ll say it again. I am for looking at what we’re asking the police to do, figuring out where everyone can agree that there are better folks to do that job, and then taking the parts of the police budget that are associated with supporting those types of services and reallocating it towards the places where it needs to be so that those services can be provided by the right folks.
We’re going to need police chiefs to tell us what—their perspective is going to be important to us policymakers to understand where those areas really are. We can’t listen to only one side of this discussion. There will be people who believe that the police shouldn’t respond to anything, essentially. I mean, there are abolish the police movements out there. And there will be people who think that the police ways that it works now, the status quo, is working just fine. Somewhere between those two, I believe, is the answer. And police chiefs are going to have to be a part of that conversation.
So we’re going to need you to be able to come before our city council, or our state legislature, or the U.S. Congress as a group—I’m sure you have national organizations, or state organizations, or individually if your mayor or your city manager blesses that decision if you can’t make it autonomously. And use the weight of that office that you hold and that responsibility that you have for people’s safety to say: I think it would make our community safer if we spent $5 million less on X, Y, and Z, and put that into a blight reduction program or improving the lighting in certain areas, or a violence interrupters program, or something that’s going to reduce crime but use less police resources. That, I think, will be well-received. And I think people will trust you and take your lead on it.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s go to Debra Cates.
Q: Hi, Mayor Johnson. My name is Debra Cates and I’m from Fulshear, Texas. I’m the city council member here in Fulshear.
And so I’m glad to be on this call. My question to you is I do—I do think it’s very unfortunate with regard to the George Floyd situation. My question, though, is in your opinion there was another individual. And his name was David Dorn, seventy-seven, a Black police officer in St. Louis, right? He was shot in cold blood by a Black. And his life, in my opinion—and I watched all the coverage, as probably everybody else did—did not get the attention. And he was a good man. He was a good man from everything I see. He was doing everything that he could possible, even at his last breath. So why, in your opinion, did his life not get the celebration and the coverage as well? That’s my question. Thank you.
JOHNSON: Well, Ms. Cates—Council Member Cates, I appreciate you being on the call as well.
I will do my best to answer that question from my perspective. Again, I keep using that as a preamble, because I’m not an expert. I’m a guy who’s a father of two boys and a husband and who happened to get elected mayor of Dallas. And so I’m doing the best I can to work through a lot of complicated, messy issues, the same way everyone on this call is. And I don’t presume to know any more than anybody else on this call. But I will tell you, you know, look, I’ve been mayor for a year, and I’ve been a legislator for ten. And I still can’t account for why the media makes the decisions it makes. So I will never be able to tell you why they cover certain things more than others. I feel like they should cover a lot more of the stuff that I’m doing at city hall than they do here in Dallas. But that’s sort of above my pay grade, what they decide to cover.
But as far as how people have reacted, here’s what I do think. I think that at some point in this conversation that I’m saying needs to be had between folks who are African American, like myself, and those who are not but who want to have the conversation in earnest and go through the truth and reconciliation process that we’ve never really had in this country, are going to have to face what is a—just an accepted belief amongst those of us who are African American, for the most part. And that is at some point it should not matter. It should not matter what a person did for a living, or what our assessment of their morality, or the existence of a prior criminal record, or anything else when it comes to the moment that we are looking at, on video in this case, of someone’s life being taken.
Either it was right, or it was wrong. Either it was justified, or it was not. And that is really all that matters. We don’t want to—I don’t—look, I don’t want to be in the business of assigning worth to people’s lives and saying that, you know, someone on this call who I think is less of a nice guy than I am’s life is worth less than mine, or anybody else’s. I think we have to look at each of these situations for what they are and determine whether or not we believe that justice was done, and whether or not we believe what was right was done. And we can’t get into, you know, what their past is, or their value to society.
And I mean that very sincerely, meaning I don’t think it should matter that I’m the mayor, of that I’m anything else, that I’m an educated person. My life doesn’t matter more than one of the homeless residents of my city if we’re talking about being unjustly killed by the police. I don’t think that that really should factor in at all. So I think what people are responding to in the George Floyd case is the sheer cruelty of what they saw on that video. It’s nearly nine minutes of someone kneeling on another human being’s neck while other people watched and pled with that officer for that man’s life. The man himself, who was on the ground, pled for his life. He called out for his mother, who’s deceased, in his last minutes on Earth, as he felt his life slipping away. It’s just, how do you watch that and not feel pain and hurt?
So I don’t think it matters. I’ll just be honest; I don’t think it matters what his criminal record. In that moment, what was happening to that man was cruel, and it was unjust, and it was wrong. And I think that’s what people are reacting to.
FASKIANOS: One—oh, sorry about that. I’m back. I just hit my unmute and I stopped my video. So sorry about that.
We are out of time, but I just want to take one last question. We have so many, and I’m sorry we couldn’t get to you all, from Iowa Representative Charles Isenhart. And if you can make it brief, sir, so that we can—and Mayor Johnson, you can close it out.
Q: Thank you. I’m at an outdoor coffee shop. Hopefully you can hear me. You addressed very early in the remarks there was a question regarding the city’s relationship with the County Board of Health. How have you seen that evolve? And what continuing role does there need to be, assuming there’s going to be more public health issues in the future. Relationships between the county boards of health and county governments and cities when it comes to responding to these emergencies?
JOHNSON: I’ll be as brief as I can here. I think it’s been written about in economics books since we’ve had cities and counties. There can be a free-rider problem in counties, particularly in counties that contain within it a large municipality. And too often in Dallas, and I bet it’s the case in—and I’m sure I’m upsetting some of the folks here from the country, but I got to tell it like it is from the perspective of a municipal mayor—too often we are left holding the bag or asked to foot our own bill for things that our county should be helping us with because they figure, hey, they’ve got money over there at the city. They can handle that.
But the reality is we really don’t have money for that. We need the counties to step up. And, in the case of Dallas, we need help with contact tracing. We need help with expanded testing. We need help with getting messages out, and all that type of thing, that the counties are just better situated to do. They have the money to do it. They receive CARES Act money to do it. And we can’t—and in fact, even enforcement of our health orders, in many cases, end up falling—in the case of Dallas—that they fall into our local city code compliance officers and our police officers. We just need them to help us foot the bill for the things that are rightly within their jurisdiction. And so I’m a big believer in everyone doing their part. And we work together. But the free rider problem and the economics, there’s a real problem when it comes to cities and counties.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Mayor Johnson, for being with us, and to all of you for your questions and comments. I’m sorry we could not get to you all. We will continue this discussion and this forum, but it’s really great to hear what you’re doing in your city of Dallas. We appreciate your leadership and service, and for this frank and candid conversation. I think candidness and clear communication is so important during these challenging times. So we all need to strive to do that. So thank you again.
We will be sending a link to the video and transcript of the webinar to you all soon. So look out for that. And you can follow Dallas mayor’s office on Twitter at @DallasMayor. So you can check out what he’s doing there, including his milk initiative, which is so interesting, and it looks like it’s a great success. And please, to all of you, let us know what else we can do for you. Send your ideas of speakers and topics you want us to continue to cover in this forum to [email protected]. So thank you all, again, for joining us. Stay well. Stay safe. And we will meet up again.