State, local efforts look to unravel Austin's changes to its police department

Local and state pushback to Austin's Reimagining Public Safety initiative have risen this month. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Local and state pushback to Austin's Reimagining Public Safety initiative have risen this month. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Local and state pushback to Austin's Reimagining Public Safety initiative have risen this month. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)

Nearly one year since the start of Austin's Reimagining Public Safety process, efforts at both the local and state level to curb some changes implemented through the initiative could limit how the city continues such actions in the future.

Save Austin Now, the political group behind this spring's successful Proposition B election, announced its expansion in the public safety sphere May 26 with the launch of a petition to place a police resourcing and oversight proposition on the ballot in Austin's November election.

If the group gathers the thousands of signatures required for that campaign, Austinites would vote this fall to tie the Austin Police Department's officer count to the city's population; hold multiple police cadet classes annually; mandate new officer training and community engagement; and require the completion of citizen police workshops by elected officials.

Days earlier, House Bill 1900, a measure that would limit a city's taxation and annexation powers if the state determines it is, in the bill's words, "defunding" its police department's budget, passed through the Senate 23-3 on its way to Gov. Greg Abbott, who has indicated he will sign it into law. HB 1900's passage was followed by that of Senate Bill 23, a similar bill aimed at county governments.

Officer benchmarks


Both measures are aimed at the city's reimagining process that has resulted in growing concerns over safety and police staffing among some city residents, while others continue calling for significant changes to the culture and focus of policing in Austin. Save Austin Now's leaders said their new "Make Austin Safe" petition was crafted in response to rising levels of crime locally with the proposed solution of setting an APD staffing benchmark of at least two sworn officers per 1,000 city residents.

If passed, that ordinance would establish a police force of nearly 1,960 sworn officers, based on 2019 U.S. Census Bureau population estimates, in addition to setting new training requirements. The department was budgeted for 1,809 full-time officers in 2020-21.

“Citizens recognize that we can implement reform to drive accountability without pretending that somehow policing has become unnecessary," Cleo Petricek, a Save Austin Now co-founder, said at a May 26 event announcing the group's ballot petition.

That staffing floor is one the city has considered in the past, although its correlation to safety in Austin is unclear. A city-commissioned report by the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum in 2012—when Austin was home to around 150,000 fewer residents than it is today—identified such measurements as of "little value" especially in comparison to other cities, with analysts stating that refining APD job functions and workload were of more relevance than a rigid department size.

"Although the two-per-thousand ratio is convenient and provides dependable increases in police staffing as the city’s population rises, it does not appear to be based on an objective assessment of policing needs in Austin," the report said.

Skepticism over a hard officer count and its relation to public safety has also been shared by those in the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force charged with developing community-backed public safety reform recommendations since last summer. Chas Moore, founder and executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition and a Reimagining Public Safety Task Force member, said he believes the Make Austin Safe outline amounts more to fear-based "propaganda" than a data-based approach.

"You look at New York, they've got the 2 [officers] per every 1,000, their crime rate is higher, so where is this idea of having more officers keeping everybody safe coming from? There’s no data to prove that at all. There is data that shows that if we have mental health social workers ... access to jobs and health and childcare, those link to crime rates going down," Moore said. "It’s about maintaining the status quo ... and it’s also about keeping and making one area, one fragment, one sector of Austin feel safe."

Reimagining pushback

City officials embarked on the reimagining process last June and solidified some of its goals through reducing APD spending by around one-third in the city's fiscal year 2020-21 budget, including a cut of 150 vacant officer positions.

The budget reduction was largely facilitated through the shifting of non-law enforcement functions out of APD, as well as around $20 million in straight cuts. District 4 Council Member Greg Casar said some of those changes were aimed at supporting police operations by reducing workload and allowing for more targeted responses by all public safety workers.

“We want to have a police department that is able to respond to incidents in progress, to violence that happens. ... We want the right level of staffing at the police department, and that means we also want the right level of staffing for EMS and for fire and for mental health responders," he said. "An infinite number of police officers is not going to solve many of our city’s greatest challenges.”

As with this spring's Proposition B, Save Austin Now leaders and supporters also highlighted their new proposal as a rejection of current city government and law enforcement leadership. Council voted unanimously in August for the city budget—including APD's cuts—and District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly is the only one on the dais to publicly back both the recent homelessness proposition and new policing petition.

“The direction we’re going today is not the direction that I wanted to go," Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday said during the Make Austin Safe announcement. "I wanted to see leadership out of our city council and our chief of police demanding that we start more police academies and hiring more officers. Unfortunately, after speaking with the chief last week and certain City Council members, there is no plan. That’s why I’m moving forward with Save Austin Now and the plan that they’ve come up with."

Alongside some community calls for the return of officer positions and training, the city's reimagining efforts may also be hampered this year by financial considerations brought on by HB 1900. After the bill is signed into law, the legislation could force the funneling of money back to APD this year and will likely have a notable effect on the city's next budget. Whether the bill's legality will be challenged in court, and how the Austin City Council will approach policing in the next budget cycle, remains to be seen.

“I think that there’s going to have to be another overhaul of the police budget because we can’t just go back to 2019. We can’t just go back to the way things were," Casar said. "We're just going to have to rewrite the budget in a way that conforms with the law but also conforms with the values of our community as they were expressed.”

Moore said he and members of the Austin Justice Coalition worked to support other bills related to law enforcement reforms in the legislature this year, but that many efforts were unsuccessful with lawmakers' focus on items such as HB 1900. With its passage, he said he hopes to see a legal fight over the "over-reaching" bill due not only to its limit on the city's engagement with changing public safety, but the broader issue of local control between Texas and Austin.

“I think Austin—and I’m not talking about City Council, I’m not talking about the powers that be—we the people of Austin need to be very aware that there are people using fear tactics, misinformation, to rob us of the unique liberal label that we have in this state," Moore said.

Matt Mackowiak, Save Austin Now's co-founder, said during the May 26 event that although he supported state lawmakers' work on HB 1900 and SB 23, he also hopes to see a renewed focus on policing locally regardless of this legislative session's results.

"We have to solve this problem here. This is an Austin problem created by Austin politicians who don’t care about the city," Mackowiak said. "If you care about public safety, you need to join us. We’re not going to get this job done at City Hall."


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