Over the past two weeks daily Black Lives Matter protests across San Antonio and the nation have called attention to police violence, demanding justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Marquise Jones, Charles “Chop” Roundtree and thousands of others killed by the police. Police violence is a significant public health problem with far-reaching implications for black lives, including physical health and mental health. As non-black criminology, demography, and social work scholars, we stand in solidarity with protesters demanding an end to police violence. 

Police violence is, however, only one form of injustice harming black people in the United States. In fact, policing is often a response to inequities rooted in anti-black racism woven into American social structures and cultural fabric.

Within our own academic fields, we study social determinants of health: the relationship between health and social factors such as economic opportunities, legal and education systems, and neighborhoods that are shaped by policies and culture. While individual biology and behaviors matter, decades of research provide strong evidence that social conditions shape individual health and health risk factors. Evidence tells us that we must simultaneously eliminate police violence and social conditions that for too long have reproduced racism and racial disparities, suppressing black people’s opportunities to live healthy and flourishing lives

San Antonians have the resources to remedy these structural injustices. In 2019, we allocated the largest portion of our city’s general budget to policing. This approximately $479 million budget is larger than the budgets for streets and infrastructure, parks and recreation, libraries, human services, neighborhoods and housing, 311, historic preservation, and planning combined. The way a community allocates resources speaks volumes about its priorities and values. San Antonio’s budget indicates how much, as a community, we value policing over all programs and services.

So, we asked ourselves: If we used social determinants of health evidence to guide us and centered on our black fellow San Antonians, how would we reinvest a mere 20 percent of the police budget ($95 million not mandated under the police union contract) to ensure a safer and healthier city for all of us? The results truly shocked us. 

One obvious way to spend the $95 million is to increase funding for the already successful local justice reinvestment strategies that redirect resources from criminal justice to public health. Since more than half of all prison and jail inmates report a mental health problem, a part of the funding could expand the reach of the Southwest Texas Crisis Collaborative. The initiative has dramatically increased our community’s capacity to expedite access to psychiatric care for medically stable emergency detention patients in police custody. Additional funding could expand its scope and also include access to quality substance use services, which are currently difficult to access, especially for those who are uninsured. Another local organization these funds could support is The Restoration Center, which provided critical detoxification services to more than 50,000 persons for years. Providing a public health response, rather than a law enforcement response, saved taxpayers more than $50 million through cost avoidance associated with jails, emergency rooms, and courthouses. The approach is consistent with evidence from a recent nationwide study which found that as the number of local nonprofits focused on community life increased, violent crime and property crime rates decreased. 

Perhaps a less obvious way to reinvest the $95 million is to look further upstream and reinvest in education, housing, or community development. For example, we could provide a yearly $100,000 grant to all 509 schools in San Antonio to hire a restorative justice coordinator and associated activities in each school. Restorative justice approaches can interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, improve school climate, and increase academic success, ultimately increasing graduation rates, but schools often lack resources to implement restorative justice well. The remaining $47 million dollars could fund full tuition and living expenses for 450 black and brown students pursuing degrees in education every year, resulting in 4,500 teachers of color in San Antonio schools in less than 15 years. 

We could also reinvest the $95 million in housing. In 2019, there were 2,892 homeless individuals in San Antonio, including 523 children. The median two-bedroom monthly rent in San Antonio is $1,070 or $12,840 per year. At this cost, $95 million could cover full rent for all homeless individuals in San Antonio, with slightly more than $60 million left. This approach is consistent with the housing first models, which have strong evidence for increasing housing retention rates and decreasing homelessness and interactions with the criminal justice system and emergency services. The remaining $60 million dollars could be used to implement and rigorously evaluate behavioral health services that directly respond to the needs of the newly housed individuals and other local populations by doubling Haven for Hope’s $20 million annual budget. Finally, with the remaining funds, we could double the current $34.4 million affordable housing budget and respond to the alarming shortage of low-income housing in San Antonio. Even after all of this reallocation of funds, there would be still $2 million left. 

Moving further upstream, to ensure more economic opportunities in San Antonio, we could allocate $50 million every year to the UTSA Institute for Economic Development to support black and brown small and green business development by providing affordable start-up funds and support services. Another $45 million could fund three initiatives like PUSH Buffalo in the zip codes that need the resources the most. PUSH Buffalo, with an annual budget slightly over 4M, has been an effective approach to mobilizing residents to create strong neighborhoods with quality, affordable housing; build community control of resources; expand local hiring opportunities; and advance economic and environmental justice. 

Reinvesting only 20 percent from the San Antonio police budget into community infrastructure and resources could change thousands of lives, starting with black lives. Imagine what an even larger share of the $479 million could be used to support. Over the next few weeks, San Antonians will have an opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed FY 2020 Budget. We encourage our fellow residents to participate, but we ask that you first reflect on your values, the livelihood conditions that grant you true safety, and on scientific evidence. By redistributing our community resources, we can build a healthy, thriving, flourishing, and equitable community rather than a policed one. 

Rogelio Sáenz helped review this commentary.

Jelena Todic

Dr. Jelena Todic is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Work at the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy. She studies place-based health equity interventions that target social...

Chantal Fahmy

Chantal Fahmy is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at The University of Texas at San Antonio.

Ying Huang

Dr. Ying Huang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Demography at the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy. Her research focuses on urban sociology and population health. She is interested...

Bonita Sharma

Dr. Bonita B. Sharma is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Social Work at the UTSA College for Health, Community and Policy. She studies health and wellbeing within the context of built and natural...