Austin lawmakers commit to reimagining policing and public safety with set of unanimous votes

A police officer rides past a protester during the June 7 Justice for them All March. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
A police officer rides past a protester during the June 7 Justice for them All March. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

A police officer rides past a protester during the June 7 Justice for them All March. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin City Council unanimously pushed forward a set of four policies and commitments June 11 aimed at responding to the growing momentum around police and public safety reform. All 11 elected officials also signed off on language that said they have “no confidence” that police leadership intends to implement the necessary changes.

Following several hours of citizen testimony that largely supported City Council’s action, and, in some cases, pushed them to go further, the officials approved policies aimed at eliminating racial disparities in traffic stops; limiting use of force tactics and weapons; and committing to reducing next year’s police budget to fund social service programs that advocates and council members make the public safer without need for a sworn officer with a gun.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said she was heartened by the verbal commitments of City Council members to implement real change following weeks of historic protests, across the country and in Austin, against police brutality and institutional racism. However, she said the real work still lies ahead.

“These votes were easy compared to the ones coming up,” Garza said, referring to the budget decisions City Council will have to make this summer. “Our community is at a boiling point.”

The votes resulting in the most immediate effect were District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar’s resolution curtailing use of force tactics, and District 6 City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan’s ordinance that created the City Council Public Safety Committee.

Casar’s resolution, which the mayor and each City Council member signed onto as co-sponsors, addressed at the methods used by the Austin Police Department during the protests between May 29-31, during which officers fired bean bag bullets into crowds of protests and deployed tear gas. Casar’s resolution effectively bans use of tear gas outright—tear gas is banned as a weapon of war by the Geneva Convention—and forbids bean bag bullets from being used on protesters or crowds. The police department will also have to reduce its stockpile of military-grade equipment, to the greatest extent possible, significantly curtail use of no-knock warrants and is forbidden from using chokeholds or facial recognition technology.

“Over-policing and mass incarceration have been pitched over decades as a method to keep us safe, but the effect has too often been the opposite of safety,” Casar said. “That same principle, I think, applies to our budget.”

Throughout the protests and weeks of public testimony to City Council, leaders, community members and advocates have called for significant cuts to the city’s police budget. Many have called for at least a $100 million slash. On June 11, City Council committed to cutting the roughly $400 million budget, with plans to reallocate the money to other social programs focused on health care, mental health, homelessness and equity.

Part of cutting the budget will be reassigning responsibilities currently handled by police officers and giving them to other departments or public agencies. The marquee duty most talked about on the dais was responding to mental health crises.

District 5 City Council Member Ann Kitchen said she was committed to demilitarizing and reimagining the police “in a way that is better aligned with the city’s values and focus on equity.” She said the nation has “failed” those with mental illness and she plans to ensure such programs receive adequate funding and attention this year.

Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, the police officers’ union, said budget cuts and a reduction in resources for an already understaffed department will make the community less safe. The department has 170 vacancies and Casaday expects more—he said morale “couldn’t be lower” and many officers are looking to retire, resign or find work in a different city.

However, City Council members said the reallocation of money would make the community safer by putting money toward root problems, such as homelessness, healthcare, mental health, housing, job opportunity and racial equity.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said, if taken in soundbites, City Council’s June 11 action could be used as “political pulls.” He said it’s much greater than that.

“Few would disagree that we need to act and that we need to act in a big way,” Adler said, calling it a “once-in-a-400-year” opportunity to finally tackle issues that have disproportionately impacted black and brown communities in the country.
By Christopher Neely
Christopher Neely is Community Impact's Austin City Hall reporter. A New Jersey native, Christopher moved to Austin in 2016 following years of community reporting along the Jersey Shore. His bylines have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun, USA Today and several other local outlets along the east coast.


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