Austin mayor pushes for new ideas in policing, $100M cut to police budget during State of the City address

Austin Mayor Steve Adler (Courtesy ATXN)
Austin Mayor Steve Adler (Courtesy ATXN)

Austin Mayor Steve Adler (Courtesy ATXN)

As is typical in his annual State of the City address, Austin Mayor Steve Adler spread his speech across a wide breadth of topics, from the coronavirus and Project Connect to homelessness and institutional inequities. This year, however, he also used the moment to stake his ground in the debate over reimagining policing in the city.

Since George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody May 25, the country, as well as the city of Austin, has faced a reckoning over police brutality. The movement has drummed up calls fundamentally rethink public safety and to “defund” the police. For activists in Austin, calls to defund translate to cutting the police budget and reinvest the money into non-policing public safety measures. Calls for cuts have ranged between $100 million and $220 million.

With opposing pressure from criminal justice advocates and police union interests, Austin City Council will vote on the fiscal year 2020-21 budget Aug. 12. Several proposals have been floated regarding the police budget, from cutting future cadet classes to completely restructuring the department’s operation. Several council members have put forth ideas for cuts that would achieve a $100 million reduction; others have supported the idea that City Council authorize only six months' worth of funding to allow the city to vet some of the more radical ideas; some council members have said both could be done.

During his Aug. 5 address, Adler said he supports authorizing only half the year’s police budget, requiring city staff to analyze the more heavy-hitting proposals and City Council to come back around March 2021 to vote on implementing. However, he also said he believes the city can cut and reinvest $100 million from the Austin police budget by next week.

Adler said he was committed to rethinking policing, but walked the line between the immediate changes called for by activists and the slower, thought-out process proposed by city bureaucrats.

“I’m anxious for us to put the politics and hyperbole aside and actually think through the choices surrounding the desire to make us all more safe, their implications and the pathways for whatever we want to do,” Adler said. “I do not see how we actually make any of these things happen right away. ... Ultimately, there will be no lasting reimagination realized and sustained without putting in the time, resources and deliberation required.”

Although supporting the long-term effort, Adler said he was prepared to move $100 million from the police budget next week by way of a handful of proposals already put forward by other City Council members. Adler said he supported moving the internal affairs department and the forensics lab out from under the purview of the police department and into civilian roles. He said the city should look into cutting the police overtime budget, cancel at least the November police academy cadet class and expand funding for emergency medical services and family violence prevention.

Adler painted a picture of each scenario, and ended with the same urging each time.

“It seems like many, if not most calls answered by the police ... are health-related calls,” Adler said. “This is what EMS does. Maybe they’re more trained for this type of call? Maybe increasing the number of EMS personnel would mean there’d be less we’d be asking the police department to do. Maybe such a change in who responds to medical calls might save the taxpayers money. We should find out.”

Adler also took a moment to address public leadership, a topic that has been top of mind for many in the community since this latest reckoning over police brutality began. Unlike a majority of City Council members who have called for Police Chief Brian Manley to step down, Adler has shied away, saying his priority is results. Adler does not control whether Manley keeps his job; that is up to City Manager Spencer Cronk under Austin’s city manager-council form of government. Rather than Manley, Adler has placed all the pressure on Cronk to deliver results.

“We need not only an openness to consider change by a keen desire to move past the status quo and to look at public safety more broadly than even mainly focusing on ensuring we’re best equipped to deal with unsafe moments when they occur,” Adler said. “We need more just a willingness to accept change if it happens; we need a champion for change at its best.”

Adler later clarified that he is not calling for a new chief; rather, he is calling for a chief who meets the job requirements he laid out.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to accurately reflect Adler's support for looking into cutting the police overtime budget.
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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