Sep 20, 2022 - COVID

COVID-19 relief money goes to Texas cops and prisons

Illustration of a police officer standing on the highest pile of coins in a row.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Several Central Texas cities are among local governments nationwide using federal COVID relief dollars to shore up their police departments and other law enforcement efforts.

Catch up quick: Through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), President Joe Biden gave U.S. cities and counties $350 billion to recover from the pandemic.

  • Few limitations were put on how local governments could spend ARPA funds.

The big picture: The Marshall Project found that local governments have allocated around $52.6 billion for revenue replacement, a vague catch-all category, and nearly half of that went to projects that mentioned police, law enforcement, courts, jails and prisons.

  • Less than 10% went to public health.

Zoom in: Texas directed tens of millions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief money toward law enforcement — a shift from initial pledges to address affordability of health care in the wake of the pandemic.

  • Across the state, millions were earmarked for jail renovations, updates to police buildings and revenue replacement to cover staffing.
  • In Bastrop County, nearly $74,000 went toward public safety services, including the salaries of police and fire officials. The county also used funds to pay for rapid test kits and vaccine clinics.
  • The city of San Marcos requested $135,000 for a "FARO system," which allows police to document crimes and crashes in 3D.
  • Bedford submitted a report to the Treasury Department to use more than $800,000 to upgrade its law enforcement center with improved secure storage for ballistic vests, patrol rifles and charging stations for body-worn cameras.
  • In Harris County, commissioners approved $25 million in ARPA funds to transfer incarcerated people eight hours away to a private prison.

What they're saying: At the national level, Biden is embracing the law enforcement spending as evidence that Democrats don't support defunding the police.

Yes, but: A lot of relief funds are going toward non-policing efforts locally.

  • Williamson County is set to get nearly $10.9 million to pay for mental health services, including funding for families without insurance to help pay for their children's psychiatric care and construction of a 24-bed psychiatric wing for youth in crisis and in need of mental health treatment.
  • Austin used millions to support local arts organizations and at least $10 million for housing projects and workforce services to help individuals experiencing homelessness.

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