Police transformation begins in Austin as City Council approves millions in budget cuts, reinvestments, commitments

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

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

Austin Police Department will have significantly less money this upcoming year after City Council voted Aug. 13 to shave $150.3 million from the police budget for fiscal year 2020-21, a reduction of around 35% from City Manager Spencer Cronk's original proposal. The budget, which reinvests some funds into community programs and reassigns some typical police functions to separate departments, marks the most dramatic police budget cut in memory.

City Council approved the budget unanimously Thursday morning after spending 12 hours the day before listening to public comment and discussing various changes to the police budget.

The community, City Council and city staff have mulled significant police cuts since June in the wake of local and national demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism. Community activists have since been calling to reduce the APD budget by at least $100 million and to reinvest those funds into the community and forms of public safety that do not require an armed law enforcement officer.

This year’s budget process, which was compounded by the economic pressures of the coronavirus pandemic, was focused almost exclusively on public safety and policing, with little public conversation regarding other department budgets or city initiatives and programs. Overall, the city approved a $4.2 billion budget with a $1.1 billion general fund—the portion of the budget funded primarily by property and sales taxes.

City Council also approved a tax rate of $0.446 per $100 valuation. The typical homeowner with a non-senior homestead exemption would pay $121.30 per month in property taxes, a $3.90 increase over last year. With all fees and utility costs, the same homeowner could expect to pay $348.03 per month, an increase of $6.75 over last year, though the success of a Project Connect bond in November would significantly change those numbers.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar said City Council’s vote marked, “without a doubt, the most significant change to Austin’s public safety priorities in generations.”

The roughly $150 million cut to the police department comes in three forms. About $21.5 million has been cut from the police department through, among other things, canceling three future cadet classes and reducing the overtime budget. Council approved an immediate reinvestment of this $21.5 million into community programs, such as bolstering EMS response, mental health crisis intervention and permanent supportive housing, all of which they said will enhance public safety.

City Council separated another $79.6 million out of the police budget in the form of functions such as the forensics lab, 911 dispatch and internal affairs. Council put these operations into their own budget, and city staff have been instructed to officially separate them into independent departments by the end of FY 2020-21. The essence of these operations will remain the same, but they will no longer report to the police chief. They are a cut to the police budget but not a cut to the functions themselves, council said.

Council voted also to separate an additional $49.2 million from the police budget in the form of typical police operations and expenses, such as traffic enforcement, training and overtime pay. These will be the subject of a more in-depth and broad community process that will look at the essence of these dollars and functions and decide whether they could be better spent or alternatively performed.

The Austin Police Department budget for FY 2020-21 now sits at roughly $284 million—a reduction of just under 35% from City Manager Spencer Cronk’s $434.3 million proposal in July, which already cut 30 sworn officer positions and stripped funding for roughly 70 vacancies that the city determined it could not reasonably fund within the next year.

City Council initially planned to only authorize six months of funding for the police department, which would have forced them to come back by March 2021 and discuss any further changes they want to implement—likely ideas gathered during the broader community conversations set to take place—before green-lighting another six months of funding for the department. However, City Council decided against it, choosing instead to authorize the full police budget at once.

Too far and not far enough

Some city activist groups—which have been at the forefront of calling to fire Police Chief Brian Manley, defund the police and reinvest the money into community programs and alternative forms of public safety—have had mixed reactions to City Council’s approved budget.

Chas Moore, executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, an organization that has led discussions around police reform and criminal justice issues in Austin for years, said Aug. 12 he was proud of City Council. Moore’s group has been pressing for at least $100 million to be cut from the police budget.

Moore said adopting this budget is a big step but that it also represents only the start of a larger conversation and effort toward transforming public safety in Austin. He further criticized those who believe the city will turn chaotic with fewer police, saying that the city has long been chaotic for Black and brown communities because of over-policing.

Ahead of City Council’s adoption, local organization Just Liberty called the budget a “good proposal.” In a lengthy post on its website, the group said it was “far less than what’s needed, but a good start.”

Hilda Gutierrez, a representative of Communities of Color United, said Aug. 12 that the budget City Council was considering fell well short of what many in the community are calling for. She said although it appeared City Council was cutting $150 million from the police department, only a sliver of the funds was being reinvested into the community.

“After the death of George Floyd, all the City Council members came out and spoke [about] the issue of structural racism so eloquently, ... but to see these numbers coming back to us is very disheartening,” Gutierrez said. “We have to seize this moment, and we have to have people who have power to see that.”

Grassroots Leadership, a criminal justice organization that has worked on police issues for years, said City Council’s work “does not meet this moment” and criticized the budget for only reinvesting $21.5 million into community programs. In conjunction with Communities of Color United, Grassroots Leadership pushed for a $220 million cut to the police budget—just over 50%—and a full reinvestment of the dollars into the community.

“What we got instead was a meer [sic] $21.5 million in immediate cuts and reallocations,” Grassroots Leadership’s Maria Reza said in a statement. “While there are worthy things that were cut and funded today, there were no significant investments in the priorities that abolitionist [Black, indigenous and people of color groups] have identified towards creating a foundation of safety without policing.”

Reza characterized the $79.6 million reassignment of functions and the $49.2 million reimagining budget as an “accounting change.”

Corby Jastrow, president of the Greater Austin Crime Commission, a group that has long advocated for police interests in Austin, said in a statement that the group was “reassured” that the community would have input in the process to reimagine public safety. However, he said they were concerned over the reductions to police positions “when crime is increasing and response times are slower.”

As of Aug. 12, APD had 203 vacancies and counting, according to GACC Executive Director Cary Roberts.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that City Council only authorized six months of funds for the Austin Police Department.
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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