Millions in Austin Police Department cuts ignite city’s experiment in reimagining public safety

Austin's elected leaders voted to reduce the APD budget following months of community pressure. They said it will help improve safety and justice in the city. (Photo by John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper. Design by Miranda Baker/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin's elected leaders voted to reduce the APD budget following months of community pressure. They said it will help improve safety and justice in the city. (Photo by John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper. Design by Miranda Baker/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin's elected leaders voted to reduce the APD budget following months of community pressure. They said it will help improve safety and justice in the city. (Photo by John Cox/Community Impact Newspaper. Design by Miranda Baker/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin’s police department will have much less money this year after City Council voted Aug. 13 to remove roughly $150 million from the police budget for fiscal year 2020-21, a reduction of about 35% from City Manager Spencer Cronk’s original July proposal.

The move, which marked the most dramatic police budget cut in memory, reinvested some funds into community programs and reassigned some typical police functions to separate departments. Austin is the only major Texas city to make such a cut to its police budget.

City Council’s unanimous budget approval, which included cutting 150 vacant sworn police officer positions, followed not only 12 hours of public testimony and debate the day prior but also 2 1/2 months of compounding pressure from the community to significantly reduce the budget and reform the department.

Discussions around police budget cuts began in the immediate wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd while in custody of Minneapolis police officers. Floyd’s killing spurred at times violent clashes between protesters and police in cities across the country, including Austin, and renewed a national movement against police brutality and systemic racism.

Locally in the following months, Austin City Council listened to countless hours of calls from the community to address what they considered fundamental issues in police culture. Protests continued in city streets for weeks.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said it was “encouraging” to see many new people engaged in the process but condemned those who cast indictments of all police based on the actions of a few.

“I want to be clear that this budget is not punitive. It is not intended to punish police,” Adler said. “We’re going to improve public safety in Austin together. If we do this together, when we do this together, we’re going to reach a much better place.”

However, the Austin Police Department has been under a microscope since before this national movement gripped the local community. APD, which has long experienced issues with handling sexual assault evidence and racial disparities in traffic stops, underwent a third-party investigation earlier this year at the behest of City Council, which unearthed what the investigator called a racist and sexist culture among the department’s ranks. City Council also initiated a still ongoing audit of the police training academy after concerns arose that it bred an aggressive “warrior” mentality.

Then, on April 24, Austin police officer Christopher Taylor shot three times and killed 42-year-old Austin resident Michael Ramos, an unarmed Black and Latino man. The case is set to go before a grand jury after a new Travis County district attorney takes over next year.

A majority of Austin City Council members and many in the community have since called for Austin Police Chief Brian Manley to resign or for Cronk, who as city manager has sole authority over Manley’s job, to remove him. Manley told reporters following the budget cuts that the changes are more significant than anything he has seen in 30 years with the department but that he is “absolutely” the chief to lead APD through reform.

Historic changes

This year’s budget process, compounded by the economic pressures of the coronavirus pandemic, was markedly different from years prior in that it focused almost exclusively on public safety and policing, with little debate over other department budgets and programs.Immediately after City Council’s 11-0 vote on the budget, District 4 Council Member Greg Casar marked the moment as historic.

“I think this is, without a doubt, the most significant change in Austin’s public safety priorities in generations,” Casar said. “This was only possible because we’re in the midst of a local and national civil rights movement. I think we’ve shown that we are shifting away from over-policing our community’s challenges, instead funding community solutions.”

The roughly $150 million cut to the police department comes in three forms and will go into effect throughout the fiscal year. About $20 million has been cut from the police department through, among other things, canceling the next three cadet classes and reducing the overtime budget. Council approved an immediate reinvestment of this money, plus about $1.3 million from debt servicing on ambulances into community programs city leaders say will enhance public safety without using armed law-enforcement officers.

Among the investments are an effort to bolster the city’s EMS teams with new equipment and 46 added full-time positions to help with pandemic response and meet the needs of a growing city; eight new health professional positions to address homelessness and mental health crises; millions in permanent housing solutions for those experiencing homelessness; a commitment to open an Office of Violence Prevention, which will focus on gun violence intervention and programs to reduce harm to sex workers, other “evidence-based violence prevention” and the creation of a new family violence shelter.

City Council separated another $79.6 million out of the police budget used for typical police functions, such as the forensics lab, 911 dispatch and internal affairs, and placed the money into a separate budget. City staff will have to officially move 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 also separated into its own budget an additional $49.2 million in the form of typical police operations and expenses, such as traffic enforcement, training and overtime pay. Although these operations will remain the same for now, their ultimate fate will be up to a more in-depth and broad reimagining process. Over the next six months, the community will look at the essence of these costs and functions and decide whether they could be better spent, alternatively performed or altogether cut.

Quarterly updates on the process will be provided to City Council, culminating in a second budget process by March to officially implement the changes. Manley said for a police department that has struggled with vacancies as the city has grown, a major component to the budget cuts was the elimination of currently vacant sworn officer position.

Manley said the change would set the police department back to the staffing level it had in 2015. During his press conference after the budget vote, Manley said, despite the cuts, APD’s patrol and 911 response units would remain at full staff; however, it would require pulling officers from special units.

“This will require some work with me and my team to address that staffing level so that we can ensure we provide the highest level of public safety we can to the community,” Manley said. “I want to ensure this community that if you call 911, our officers will respond. That is one thing I know is the hearts and minds of our police officers and they are committed to serve this community.”

Too far and not far enough

Activist groups at the forefront of public safety reform debates in the city had mixed reactions to City Council’s budget decisions.

Corby Jastrow, president of the Greater Austin Crime Commission, which advocates for police interests, voiced widespread concerns over how the canceled cadet classes and cut of currently vacant sworn officer positions would impact safety in a rapidly growing city already suffering from an understaffed police department.

In a statement, Jastrow said although he was “reassured” the community would have input in the process to reimagine public safety, he remained concerned over 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.

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 he was proud of City Council. Moore’s group had pressed for at least $100 million to be cut from the police budget.

He said the budget marked only the start of a larger effort toward public safety reform. Moore criticized those concerned that the city would turn “barbaric and chaotic” with fewer police.

“For many people that look like me and many people in the brown community, things are chaotic because of people that wear a uniform that have a badge and have a gun,” Moore said.

Hilda Gutierrez, a representative of Communities of Color United, said City Council’s moves fell well short of community demands. She said although it appeared City Council cut $150 million from the police department, the council only reinvested a slice of the funds back into the community.

“After the death of George Floyd, all the City Council members came out and spoke [to] 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 elected leaders for only investing $21.5 million from the cut back into the community. With Communities of Color United, Grassroots Leadership pushed for a $220 million cut to the budget—just over 50%—and a full investment of the money into community programs.

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

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott called the decision irresponsible and promised to bring legislation that would punish cities that cut their police budgets.

“[Cities] will never be able to increase property tax revenue again if they defund police,” Abbott said in an Aug. 18 press conference. “Cities that endanger residents by reducing law enforcement should not be able to turn around ... and get more property tax dollars. ... If we have police brutality, we don’t need fewer police—we need less police brutality.”

The 87th Texas Legislative Session is set to convene on Jan. 12.“I strongly urge the Texas Legislature to take up this important issue next session to protect their constituents and ensure law enforcement have the resources and support they need to protect their communities,” Abbott said in a statement.
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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