Hundreds pressure Austin City Council to go further in police budget cuts

Austin City Hall was one of several downtown buildings to be vandalized during May's protests. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin City Hall was one of several downtown buildings to be vandalized during May's protests. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin City Hall was one of several downtown buildings to be vandalized during May's protests. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

After almost two months of calling for a significant slash to the local police budget, Austinites by the hundreds called City Council on July 23 to voice frustration over the minimal reductions to the budget proposed by City Manager Spencer Cronk, pushing the elected officials to go further in meeting their demands.

The virtual public hearing afforded the community its first opportunity to weigh in on the proposed fiscal year 2020-21 budget since Cronk published his 900-page proposal on July 13. Many members of the public took aim at Cronk for what they considered to be a milquetoast approach to budget reform. Over the more than 12 hours of testimony, Austinites called for Cronk and police Chief Brian Manley’s firing and threatened to vote City Council members out if significant budget changes are not accomplished.

After forecasting in the spring a police budget of $445.6 million, Cronk proposed a $434.3 million allocation. Although it was an $11.3 million, or 2.5% cut, from the forecast, Cronk’s proposal represented less than a $200,000 reduction year over year.

Since the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police jolted the country into a reckoning over police brutality and institutional racism, activists across the country have called for governments to “defund the police.” Locally, advocates have pushed for a $100 million slash to the Austin Police Department budget, almost 25% of the department’s fiscal year 2019-20 allocation. On July 23, speakers pushed further, calling for a 50% cut to the police budget.

All City Council members have publicly committed to a “transformational change” in local policing but have had mixed reactions to the calls for such a dramatic cut. District 6 City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan wrote on Twitter that council members would be laying out “more concrete proposals” in the coming days.

Weeks ahead of publishing his proposal, Cronk said although he heard the calls from the community to cut the police allocation, the city was too late into the months-long budget process to make such dramatic changes. City Council members have committed to proposing significant budget amendments ahead of their vote to adopt the fiscal year 2020-21 financing plan in mid-August.

“Over the last few months, we have seen a national reckoning with racist institutions, including the deep legacy of racism here in so many parts of Austin, especially in the criminal legal system,” said Bob Libal, a District 7 resident and former director of local advocacy group Grassroots Leadership. “This is not a time to acquiesce to the way things have always been. It is time to say, unequivocally, that Black lives matter and to back that phrase through the moral document that is our city budget.”

Many of the speakers called in with the same message, calling the current budget proposal “unacceptable” and saying they stood with local advocate groups Communities of Color United and Grassroots Leadership in calling for a budget cut between $100 million and 50%, or roughly $220 million, and reallocate the funds into homelessness, health care and housing programs. Many speakers signed off from their calls by saying “Black lives matter.”

Calls to defund the police department represented a large majority of the July 23 public testimony, but it was not unanimous.

“The calls for defunding the police by $100 million or $200 million ... I can’t understand that,” District 4 resident Dakota Haines told City Council. “If you think decreasing the [police] budget by 50%, if you think that’s a good solution, I really don’t know how much common sense you have. That’s laughable.”
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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