Policing, criminal justice issues at the forefront in Dallas County race for Texas House

An already combative race for an eastern Dallas County statehouse seat grew even more contentious this week when Republican challenger Will Douglas questioned Democratic incumbent Rhetta Bowers’ support for local police.

“I’d like to push back on on the idea that Rep. Bowers supports local services,” Douglas said during an interview Monday with The Dallas Morning News’ editorial board. “I’m pretty sure Rep. Bowers chose not to sign Gov. [Greg] Abbott’s pledge to not defund the police. That brings me to another point of where representative Bowers and I differ. I’m a strong supporter of our law enforcement.”

“So am I,” Bowers cut in.

Douglas’ snipe came after Bowers fielded a question about her opposition to last year’s bill to cap a local government’s property tax revenue increase at 3.5%. Bowers said she opposed it because the city and county officials in her district told her it could harm their ability to fund public services like police, fire and emergency responders.

Bowers, who accused Douglas of being divisive, said he is distorting her record.

“My opponent has been very accusatory of me, not knowing me at all,” she fired back. “I am not about defunding the police. I fought hard for law enforcement when I was in the Legislature, and I took it as a great honor, and still do, to serve.”

Support for police has become a wedge issue since activists began calling for “defunding the police” after the death of George Floyd in May at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. The issue gained more attention as cities like Austin began reallocating resources away from policing and toward social services to address issues, like homelessness and mental illness, that police encounter on a regular basis.

Abbott, a Republican, seized on the political opportunity to create a ‘Back the Blue’ pledge and asked lawmakers and citizens to sign it to show their support. The GOP sees the issue as an easy way to peel off voters in competitive races like House District 113, where Bowers is facing her first re-election campaign. The district covers parts of Dallas, Balch Springs, Garland, Mesquite, Rowlett and Sunnyvale.

Douglas, who has a Black father and a white mother, said reducing funding for police would impact communities of color that are most impacted by violent crime. He said Bowers is trying to stay away from calling it a “defunding” but the end result is the same.

“If your boss tells you he’s going to reallocate your paycheck, I think you’re going to consider yourself defunded,” he said.

Bowers said she has pushed back against the moniker of “defunding the police” because it sends the wrong message. But Bowers, who is also Black, said Douglas is oversimplifying a complicated issue.

Police leaders in her district have told her they need help with homeless people. Because of that, Bowers filed a bill last session that required more training for officers on how to interact with homeless people. The bill did not pass.

After Floyd’s death, Bowers put together a listening tour to hear from law enforcement. She said police leaders vowed to help her tweak her bill to make it more acceptable to police.

“I was having those conversations that are necessary in a civil manner,” she said. “To come to a solution that works for everybody and I think that’s the best thing I can do as a legislator is to try to find common ground.”

But Douglas said he’s the one who’s been able to score police group endorsements.

“If the Dallas Police Association wanted to work with Rep. Bowers, they would have endorsed her. They endorsed our campaign,” he said. “I’m also endorsed by the Texas Municipal Police Association, because they know that I am going to support them.”

Bowers said her local police appreciated the way she fought for them on the property tax revenue cap bill and that her work on police-community relations predates her run for office.

As a part of Project Unity, which was formed after the July 7, 2016 shooting of police officers in Downtown Dallas, Bowers said she worked to build bridges between police and communities of color through events like “Together We Ball” where police officers and community members come together over a shared love of basketball.

“I’m an African American mother. I took proactive approach to this even as I watched many youths be killed,” she said. “It hurt me so much that I was trying to find solutions before I was elected.”

Douglas said he recognizes the need for changes to the policing and criminal justice system and that he he won over police unions by showing he’d have honest conversations about what reforms need to happen. But safety comes first.

“Right now we cannot afford to defund the police. We are seeing crime at unprecedented levels around the country,” he said. “It’s also an economic issue. Small business will not come back in cities with high crime.”

He said he would support police reforms around tactics like chokeholds and would work for more de-escalation training requirements.

Bowers, who is part of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, said the caucus has already started working on tackling these issues. Voters don’t need to ask her about her commitment, she said, they can look at the work she did last session.

Douglas said all that will take more money, not less, and he’s the candidate willing to provide it.

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