The passage of House Bill 1900, a new state law penalizing local governments “defunding” their police departments, has hobbled flexibility over the police budget, city leaders said. The legislation goes into effect two months before a new ballot measure developed by the Save Austin Now political action committee could further inflate the department’s budget, if approved by voters Nov. 2, by tying police staffing to population.
Alongside those recent policy updates, Austin has seen more homicides as of late July than in all of 2020 while APD’s headcount remains dozens of officers short, according to department data. Both interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon and supporters of the ballot measure have labeled the department’s staffing a crisis.
“At this point we need more officers. At this point we need our officers to be properly trained when they walk into a situation not to immediately see it as threatening,” said Bill Spelman, a former University of Texas urban policy and criminal justice professor and Austin council member. “We need to change police [training], but we also right now need a few more police than we’ve got.”
Austin’s fiscal year 2020-21 budget planning process was marked by the removal of around $150 million from APD through hard cuts and other reallocations. HB 1900 forced the city into the opposite approach this year with a record-setting police allocation of $443.07 million, a nearly 45% increase over the department’s estimated FY 2020-21 spending.
The state law in effect as of Sept. 1 applies to “defunding” cities of 250,000 people or larger and would remove some of their autonomy and funding. The law sets a 10-year ban on new annexations and allows areas annexed over the past 30 years to vote to leave, and caps tax rate and city-owned utility increases.
While local officials have largely referred to last year’s shift as a reimagining or shifting of resources, City Manager Spencer Cronk said the severe provisions of the law pushed his police budget proposal in line with HB 1900.
“At the end of the day, once it did pass, it impacted our ability to really have the budget that was needed for the city overall because we needed to comply with it,” Cronk said. “Certainly we know what’s the law, and we’re going to abide by the law.”
Despite the budget boost on paper, Chacon—one of three finalists for the police chief job—said the funding will maintain APD operations rather than bring significant change over the coming year. Cronk and Chacon said police retirement system adjustments and restored cadet academy classes were some notable changes from the 2020-21 plan, while staffing and other operations will not see major shifts.
Given the effect of HB 1900, most resident input provided to council members leading up to the budget’s passage ranged from worry to frustration over seeing APD’s funding jump $10 million over its fiscal year 2019-20 total.
“This is not the direction that we, the city of Austin, chose,” Grassroots Leadership organizer David Johnson said during a virtual budget discussion.
Reaching a full force
While APD’s funding is set higher than ever, its officer count remains well below its current capacity. Of the department’s budgeted 1,809 full-time sworn officer slots, the department tracked just over 90% filled as of mid-August, and staffing dipped even lower at points over the past year. A surge in departures also accompanies the vacancies, with separations doubling from 72 in 2019 to 144 in 2020; 89 were tracked as of mid-June.
“It’s not good,” Chacon said. “We’ve continued to lose people. I need to graduate as many officers out of that academy as I can, but that won’t be until late January of 2022. So in the meantime, I continue to have officers that are retiring, that are resigning from the department at a higher attrition rate than we’re used to, and I don’t have anybody to backfill those positions.”
Dennis Farris, an Austin Police Retired Officers Association board member, said the staffing, budget and public perception of police have contributed to discontent among current and former APD officers.
“Speaking to any officers in general, even the retired officers, they can’t believe how bad it is. The morale is probably as low as it’s probably ever been,” Farris said.
With current and planned academy sessions months away from producing full-time officers, Proposition A on the Nov. 2 ballot—pushed by Save Austin Now and several law enforcement entities—could bring hundreds of new officers to the force over the coming years. In addition to training and incentive items, the measure would set an APD staffing level of two officers per 1,000 city residents at all times, well above current ratios.
Austin Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo said in August the city would likely have to plan for a higher ratio of 2.13 to 2.35 officers per 1,000 if the measure passes, given a margin of assumed vacancies. Those figures could cost between $54.3 million and $119.8 million annually, per city staff projections, representing a 12% to 27% increase over APD’s record FY 2021-22 budget. Proposition A does not include funding details.
Sentiments on safety
Reactions to contents of Proposition A have so far been divided. Representatives of the PAC and supporting police groups, including the Austin Police Association, said the officer ratio and training proposals are necessary to improve public safety in Austin, while dozens of community and civil rights organizations say the measure would damage city finances and public safety efforts.
Outside of policy discussions, murders have risen in Austin despite overall crime being down, according to APD data. Those jumps mirror a national trend of rising homicides through 2020 into 2021 tracked by several large cities’ police departments and are a top reason some proposition promoters say it should pass.
APA President Ken Casaday noted that both retirements and resignations kick more work down to the officer level, which has led APD to become a “reactive department” in response to 911 calls and crime, Casaday said.
Chas Moore, founder and executive director of the racial equity and policy organization Austin Justice Coalition, called the link between violent crime rates and police staffing “propaganda” from the department and APA. Instead, he pointed to social support and violence intervention programs as keys to reducing crime that could be funded instead.
“It’s just one of those instances where people take a ... bad situation or a difficult situation and use it for their own agenda,” Moore said. “This notion that we don’t have enough cops and we need more cops to keep us safe, that’s not a fact.”
Spelman said he believes the answer lies in between, partially given his research showing no tie between last year’s murders and officer counts in large cities nationwide, a fact he testified on before council Aug. 11.
“If the motivator behind locking us into a large number of police officers is to reduce the murder rate, that’s just darn stupid. It’s not going to work,” he said.
Chacon, who said APD is developing a data-based model to estimate the city’s officer staffing needs, said he has already had to reorganize officer patrols due both to lowered staffing and rising response times to high-priority calls. Average 911 response times are stretching longer than APD goals and are another trend Chacon said he hopes to address as “the most important thing that a police department does.”“The fewer officers that we have out on the street just means that there’s a feeling, essentially, that there isn’t that presence. It can lead to the feeling of greater ability to go ahead and commit crimes,” he said.