What’s next for policing in Austin?

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Austin Police Department cadets at the re-start of academy training in June 2021, following an overhaul of the curriculum (Photo by APD)

The status of APD staffing and funding after the resounding defeat of Prop A

The defeat of Proposition A in the election November 2nd repudiates Save Austin Now’s plan for a significantly larger police force while leaving considerable uncertainty around the future sizing of the force.

Austinites rejected the proposal for a minimum staffing ratio by a vote of 106,232 to 49,580, or 68.2 percent to 31.8 percent.

That outcome thrilled progressives, who led the charge against Prop A, while shocking the largely Republican supporters’ coalition led by Save Austin Now. At an election night watch party, Save Austin Now supporters learned of the results with disbelief. Televisions at the downtown patio bar where the event was held played the World Series, not election results.

Save Austin Now purported to be a bipartisan coalition, and it invested in ads targeting Democrats as well as Spanish-language outreach, with the aim of breaking Democrats’ unity on the measure. Its messaging played up fears around a rising murder rate and lengthening 9-1-1 call response times. The organization’s success in a spring campaign over public camping gave it reason for hope.

Opponents of Prop A celebrate at an election night watch party at Cherrywood Coffeehouse (Twitter/Katie Naranjo).

But the lopsided outcome Tuesday suggests that the vast majority of Austin Democrats—the dominant party in the city—didn’t bite. For Prop A opponents, the result signals persistent public support for last year’s reallocation of public safety resources, as well as skepticism of both the cost and effectiveness of adding hundreds more police. “We know that the safest cities have more resources, not more police,” said No Way on Prop A, the political action committee that spearheaded the opposition.

“Austin’s culture and values were on the ballot tonight. This election reaffirms our community’s belief that public safety for all requires a comprehensive system,” said Mayor Steve Adler. “Austin answered overwhelmingly tonight: we believe in criminal justice reform,” said Council Member Greg Casar. “We believe in comprehensive public safety—not simply putting poor and working-class people behind bars.”

The defeat of Prop A “sets up an even playing field for all departments,” said Bill Spelman, a former council member who campaigned against the ordinance. Prop A would have set up a “two-tier system” that put the police department on a higher plane of importance than other emergency departments, he added. “If the police department needs more resources because it can justify it based on their workload or public need, they can do it, in the same way that parks, EMS, and fire have always had to do.”

For their part, Save Austin Now cofounders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek described the outcome as a setback for public safety. In an election night speech, Petricek introduced herself as a “Biden Democrat” and recounted several stories of recent crime victims. She said, “Remember the President Biden who said that, because of the crime wave, we need more police officers, we need more community policing?”

Mackowiak said, “Unfortunately, folks, it’s clear that things are going to have to get worse before they get better, as it relates to public safety. We thought that the majority of people in this city were going to demand that we have an adequately staffed police department…In the end, they were convinced by the other side that this is something the city could not afford, that this is something the city doesn’t need, and that everything is fine.”

It was as glum night for Save Austin Now cofounder Matt Mackowiak, second from right. Photo by author.

The pair vowed to keep fighting, including possibly pushing for another ballot initiative in May, and then a fight for council seats and the mayor’s office in November. “We are not going anywhere,” said Petricek.

If there’s a silver lining in the result for Save Austin Now, it’s that it succeeded in shifting the conversation around policing, Mackowiak said. “This conversation about Defund the Police and Reimagining Public Safety, and all of that, I think has shifted in the direction of public safety. Has it shifted far enough and fast enough? Are we satisfied? No. Tonight was a disappointment, there’s no question. But I do believe we have moved things in a meaningful direction and I think this council now is going to have to move in favor of public safety.”

Bob Nicks

During the campaign, prominent members of the anti-Prop A coalition, including Adler, Spelman, and Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks conceded to the need for more police hiring, even if not to the degree mandated by Prop A. After the election, the city government issued a statement saying, “The City remains committed to achieving and sustaining appropriate staffing levels at the Austin Police Department to meet the public safety needs of our residents.”

What happens to staffing now?

Prop A would have put a new ordinance on the books that, if implemented, would have added at least 400 new officer positions, reversing the council’s 2020 cut of 150 vacant officer positions. The ordinance also would have compelled the council to increase the number of authorized cadet classes to at least three per year to address a growing attrition problem.

“My attrition rate now is about triple its normal rate. I have officers leaving and nobody that’s coming back in,” said APD Chief Joe Chacon at a Monday meeting of the Public Safety Commission.

In its latest budget, the council funded two cadet classes but did not allow them to begin until after the current 144th class finishes its training in early 2022. The council deems that to be a “pilot” class after an overhaul of the police academy curriculum following a year-long suspension of training.

Further, the council must take another affirmative vote before APD can begin another cadet class next year. A budget rider sponsored by Council Member Ann Kitchen states, “Council is appropriating funds for two cadet classes; APD must request authorization for the commencement of the 145th Cadet Class and any subsequent cadet classes in FY22.”

Mackenzie Kelly

Another budget rider sponsored by Council Member Mackenzie Kelly allows the city manager to authorize a third “modified cadet class” of up to 30 already licensed peace officers, but only if there is funding remaining within the APD budget. Such a modified cadet class takes about four months to complete, compared to 8.5 months for the regular class.

According to the Greater Austin Crime Commission, a pro-law enforcement group that took no position on Prop A, two cadet classes will not be enough to stem attrition at the department caused by retirements and resignations. In the 2021 fiscal year that ended September 30th, 177 police officers left the force, compared to 133 in FY 2020 and 79 in FY 2019.

As of October 1, 2021 the department employed 1,608 officers out of an authorized strength of 1,809, with 191 vacancies, according to Chacon. On top of that, the department had a significant number “soft vacancies,” which include officers absent on sick leave, family leave, military service, or suspensions relating to internal investigations.

Ken Casaday

Although Chacon didn’t give figures for the current month, Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday told the Bulldog that as of Monday the department had 1,525 officers available for duty—a figure that takes into account the “soft vacancies” referred to by Chacon. The department also has 75 cadets in training who will graduate January 28th.

In its statement Tuesday, the city said that the next cadet class will start “as soon as possible,” adding, “We recognize the importance of getting additional APD resources deployed quickly to keep our community safe.”

Spelman, the former council member who campaigned against Prop A, and who specialized in criminal justice issues as a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, said, “The staffing levels are lower than anyone is comfortable with.”

Bill Spelman

“I believe the chief will be able to make a pretty good case that he needs people fast, and the question is whether the city council is persuaded by the case the chief makes,” he told the Bulldog in an interview after election day. “I personally would find it pretty persuasive at this point if there’s a way of running three classes rather than two without having to build a new facility and hire a bunch of people to train cadets.”

The former council member had argued along those same lines in an October television debate with Mackowiak, saying, “I got no problems at all with 1,809 (budgeted officers), we ought to cure the staffing problem we’ve got right now…The key issue here is the 400 to 900 officers over and above the number for which we have already budgeted.”

Is crime rising or falling in Austin?

During the Prop A campaign, supporters and opponents interpreted crime statistics differently and tended to emphasize different facets of the data. Supporters highlighted short-term trends—which show a spike in homicides and aggravated assaults—while opponents sought to contextualize recent crime data by comparing it to other cities, national trends, and historic data.

The city has recorded 77 homicides so far this year, compared to 48 in 2020 and 59 in 1984, the previous all-time high. That death toll is more than twice the pre-pandemic level of 33 homicides in 2019 and 32 in 2018.

On the other hand, crimes against persons overall are down 5 percent so far this year, and property crime is down 9 percent, according to Chacon. Crimes against society, a category that includes drug crimes that increasingly aren’t prosecuted, are down 19 percent so far this year.

Throughout the Prop A campaign, supporters pressed the argument that more police would help to deter violent crime in the city, while opponents questioned the link between police staffing and violent crime. Save Austin Now made the increase in murders a centerpiece of its final TV push.

Some supporters of Prop A also claimed a connection between rising road fatalities and non-enforcement of traffic laws by the police. There have been 102 fatalities in roadway crashes so far this year, compared to 77 by the same date last year, an increase of 32 percent. That toll also surpasses the pre-pandemic level of 88 in all of 2019.

Mike Levy

“There is an obvious correlation between the tragic carnage on our roadways and the complete elimination of APD’s motorcycle and DWI units—with no officers available for any traffic enforcement,” said Mike Levy, a major donor to Save Austin Now and the former publisher of Texas Monthly, in an email October 31st. Patrol officers are making fewer traffic stops and issuing fewer citations “because so few are on the streets available to respond to calls for service,” he added.

Chacon made substantially the same point in remarks to the Public Safety Commission Monday: “We’ve seen a much higher number of traffic fatalities this year and I don’t have as many officers that are proactively working our high-speed roadways.”

Asked about Levy’s claim, Spelman said, “What he’s saying might be true. However, it might also be something we have some control over now if we turn more attention to it.”

Separately, the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force has recommended “decoupling” traffic enforcement from APD and handing the function over to a civilian department. In its mid-year 2021 report, the Task Force stated, “State level changes are needed to decriminalize traffic offenses and allow unarmed civil servants to direct traffic and make stops for civil traffic violations.”

In the interim, the task force recommended deploying unarmed APD officers as dedicated traffic enforcement. “We understand that this recommendation will require reorganization of how APD structures patrol, as all neighborhood patrol units currently take part in traffic enforcement.” 

Is the Austin Police Department still ‘defunded’?

As explored by the Bulldog in a previous report, the council in 2020 nominally cut APD’s budget by 32.6 percent, consisting of an immediate cut of $19.9 million and a “transition budget” of $121.6 million. The transition budget initially amounted to little more than an accounting change, though it pointed to plans for more ambitious restructuring and reimagining.

The city implemented aspects of that restructuring in 2020-2021, including by setting up the forensics lab and 9-1-1 call center as standalone departments. But a new state law passed in May 2021, House Bill 1900, stopped this process in its tracks and compelled the council to reverse this restructuring and eliminate the transition budget. In August, the council approved a police budget of $442.8 million, 2.4 percent higher than 2019.

In view of that reversal, anti-Prop A campaigners, including the EMS and firefighters associations, argued that Prop A wasn’t necessary because APD’s budget was “fully re-funded” and at “historically high levels.”

Although that’s true, in some key respects HB 1900 did not restore the status quo ante. First, the new state law did not address staffing, and in 2021 the council did not restore the 150 officer positions that it had cut in 2020. Secondly, HB 1900 did not take inflation into account. So while the council complied with the new law in nominal terms, the APD budget today is still slightly lower than the 2019 level in inflation-adjusted dollars.

In the meantime, police salaries and benefits have grown annually in line with a union contract, even as the budget remains relatively flat from two years ago. That means that the department’s budget increasingly is squeezed from within. In an interview with The Austin Common in August, Council Member Casar alluded to this dynamic as a partial workaround to HB 1900. With time, he suggested, the city could incrementally achieve the restructuring that HB 1900 has blocked.

“Pension costs and healthcare costs go up every year,” he said. “When those go up next year, that will raise the police budget some, and since we’re not allowed to lower it but we are allowed to keep it the same, when we see police pension and healthcare costs go up some–and salaries–that creates the opportunity for us to actually pull the forensics lab out and keep the budget the same without violating the law.”

Are Austin Police no longer responding to 9-1-1 calls?

In the final weeks of the Prop A campaign, Save Austin Now ran TV and digital ads depicting crime victims calling 9-1-1 only to get a dial tone or a busy signal. Although this isn’t true, it plays on fears around the Defund movement that took to the streets last year, and the “world without police” called for by the Austin Justice Coalition and other police abolitionists.

The ads also to allude to a recent APD policy change regarding the handling of certain 9-1-1 calls. Starting October 1, the department asked members of the public to file an online report or call 3-1-1 for several types of crime, including thefts after they have occurred, and attempted theft.

These changes were made to ensure that APD can respond quickly to more serious emergencies, such as shootings or robberies, according to the police chief. Over the past year, police commanders increasingly have shifted officers from more specialized units into patrol units to fill vacancies so that 9-1-1 calls continue to be handled promptly.

Joseph Chacon

That’s resulted in the suspension of the DWI enforcement unit and the motorcycle unit, and reductions in other units. Yet in spite of this restructuring, police response times have deteriorated. During the 2021 fiscal year, the average response for the highest priority calls rose from 09:04 in October 2020 to 10:26 in September 2021. “I’ve been talking about staffing issues and fewer officers that are out there on patrol so this to me is not terribly surprising,” Chacon told the Public Safety Commission Monday.

In sum, APD are still responding to 9-1-1 calls, albeit somewhat slower than before. Ideally, according to Chacon, the department would like to achieve an average response time of 08:24 for the highest priority calls.

What does Prop A mean for Reimagining Public Safety?

The outcome on Prop A has triggered renewed calls from activists to reimagine public safety, a process that began after the George Floyd protests in the spring of 2020. Over the past year, the guiding force of this process has been a joint task force of city staff and representatives of advocacy groups, including the Austin Urban League, Texas Fair Defense Project, Grassroots Leadership, Austin Justice Coalition, and the ACLU.

The task force issued 143 recommendations in April 2020, some of which have already been implemented, such as banning the use of facial recognition software by APD, defunding certain “military supplies” formerly used by the department, increasing funding for community health workers, removing contracting authority from APD, increasing funding to the Equity Office by $1 million, and establishing a guaranteed income pilot project.

Chas Moore

In a statement after the Prop A election, Austin Justice Coalition founder Chas Moore said, “City officials must now renew their commitment to the Reimagine Public Safety process and begin implementing the (remaining) recommendations of the Task Force.”

Among the items yet to be implemented, the Task Force wants to defund APD’s narcotics unit, gang suppression unit, nuisance abatement unit, and the HALO network of downtown surveillance cameras.

Asked about what Prop A means for the reimagining process, Spelman said he expects the conversation to move forward and that the election outcome gives “a shot in the arm to the Reimagining folks.”

“But I don’t think there’s evidence from Prop A that the vast majority of people had a strong investment in reimagining public safety. On balance, the reason the poll numbers were so decisive was because people were concerned about everything else in the budget.”

He added, “the Reimagining people have got to be politically astute enough to realize that Prop A was not mostly about reimagining, and that when they reimagine, they have to continue to be grounded in practical reality.”

Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 12 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.

Links to related coverage:

The money and the muscle behind No Way on Prop A, October 5, 2021

Do Austin police investigate property crimes? July 23, 2021 

Bills advance to penalize Austin over police funding, May 24, 2021

Legislation would hammer Austin over police funding, May 11, 2021

What happened to reimagining Austin’s policing? February 26, 2021

Did Austin defund the police? Here are the numbers, December 13, 2020

1 COMMENT

  1. The explosion of homelessness, quality-of-life crimes and spikes in robberies and homicides will continue and worsen for the citizens of Austin and ALL Texans in the capital city if Austin’s local politicians remain in charge of the police department.

    Former Sheriff Keel: Remove Austin City Council authority over APD

    Every city in Texas derives its power and authority from the State of Texas, via our Constitution and statutes. Local governments, whatever their form, are creatures of the state, which determines what powers they have, what their obligations are, what privileges they hold, and what restrictions are held to limit their power. At any time, the state can disband any local government, or create a new one.

    Texans: Email Governor Abbott, your state representative and state senator. Remove Austin’s City Council Entirely from Governing the Austin Police Department (APD)
    1. Have APD Chief of Police answer to DPS Director, NOT the city manager
    2. Have DPS Commission, NOT the city council, set the APD budget
    3. Fund through a portion of Austin city tax revenue
    https://youtu.be/zpMduDmx6fQ

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