Coalition attacks police staffing initiative as a misallocation of resources
Simple mantras like “Back the Blue” or “Defund the Police” might work well on a bumper sticker, but they don’t provide a lot of guidance in a budget process. Between the extremes of zero and a blank check one has to decide at some point how much money to budget for the police and how many officers to hire.
At the polls November 2nd, or in early voting October 18th through October 29th, Austinites will get to vote yes or no on a particular proposal: a minimum staffing ratio of two officers per 1,000 residents–a ratio that critics are calling arbitrary and excessive, but which supporters say is necessary to improve public safety in the city.
The proposal, Proposition A, also requires that officers have a minimum of “35 percent community engagement time,” a term that isn’t defined in the petition ordinance, but which APD previously has used interchangeably with “uncommitted time,” meaning time not spent responding to calls.
Depending on how the city interprets community engagement time, it could mean the difference between hiring an estimated 403 new officers under a low scenario and 885 under a high scenario, according to projections made by Austin’s Financial Services Department. Currently the city employs about 1,600 sworn officers, budgets for 1,809, and more than 11 percent of positions are vacant.
For comparison, the city budgeted for 1,959 sworn officers before the 2020 budget cuts, 8.3 percent higher than the budgeted level today. Prop A therefore would not only reverse last year’s staff cuts, it would go well beyond it, triggering a huge upswing in hiring and training to create a force 25 to 55 percent larger than the one now. Not even the police union envisioned a force so large when in 2018 it agreed to a long-term staffing plan with then-Chief Brian Manley that called for 30 new hires per year.
The city also would have to build one to three new substations to accommodate the increased number of patrol staff, hire 12 trainers to attain the new force level, and purchase vehicles and equipment for all of the new hires, according to the Financial Services Department. Total costs would average $54 million to $120 million annually over the next five years.
Opposition to Prop A has therefore coalesced around the idea that the proposal is simply too expensive. Democratic clubs, unions, criminal justice groups, environmental groups, and a handful of neighborhood organizations have signed on to support the No Way on Prop A campaign, which is run by Equity PAC, a political action committee.
“Austin would have to cut essential services, to lay off firefighters, medics, 9-1-1 call takers and utility workers, close aftercare programs, parks and libraries,” the PAC says in a campaign video. On the other hand, Save Austin Now, the political action committee leading the campaign for Prop A, dismisses this claim as “absurd” and “desperate,” downplaying the possibility of serious financial tradeoffs for the extra police spending.
Many leaders in the No Way on Prop A campaign also oppose increasing police staffing on principle, believing that the police department is already oversized and part of a systemically unjust criminal justice system. Among the organizations behind the campaign are several that called for budget cuts last year, including Austin Justice Coalition (AJC), Grassroots Leadership, Just Liberty, Sunrise Movement Texas, and Texas Appleseed.
“The bottom line is, the way we do policing now does not make us feel safe. We don’t need more cops,” said Chas Moore, AJC Founder and Executive Director, at the No Way on Prop A launch event September 9th. “We need more resources for pools, we need more resources for mental health, we need more resources to go invest in our communities.”
According to campaign finance disclosures, the largest donations to No Way Prop A (Equity PAC) are from out-of-state organizations. The Fairness Project in Washington DC, an organization that backs Progressive ballot measures nationwide, gave $200,000; and billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center, also based in Washington, DC, gave $500,000.
Soros, 91, has given to liberal and criminal justice related causes for years. He made his fortune at a hedge fund and has donated $32 billion since 1984 to the Open Society network through which he channels most of his philanthropy, according to his website. In Austin, Soros’ foundation helped finance the 2020 winning campaign of Travis County District Attorney José Garza. Additionally, Soros’ son, Jonathan, donated $25,000 in March to Austinites for Progressive Reform, the group behind several propositions on the May 1st ballot, including the strong-mayor proposition.
Soros’ donation gives a major boost to Equity PAC, but it also provides the PAC’s nemesis, Save Austin Now, with a chance to tap into anti-billionaire sentiment and cast the anti-Prop A campaign as elitist and bankrolled by out-of-state interests—a theme the group is already hammering on.
Among local donors, Equity PAC raised $30,000 from AFSCME Local 1624 PAC, also known as Austinites for Equity; $5,000 from Austin Justice Coalition; $5,000 from Just Liberty; $5,000 from Texas Freedom Network; and $1,000 from the Southwest Laborers District Council PAC.
A political action committee active in the spring, Homes not Handcuffs, donated $5,000, plus $15,000 in-kind assistance in the form of a dialer, which is used to reach potential supporters.
Individuals who gave to the campaign include County Attorney Delia Garza ($1,200), former District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan ($1,053), Precinct 2 County Commissioner Brigid Shea ($1,053), Anne Glickman ($25,000), Molly Malone ($5,000), Rachel Stone ($5,263), Channy Soueur ($4,500), Suyki and Patrick McMahon ($2,106), Mark Littlefield ($527), Rebecca Webber ($527), and numerous small-dollar donors.
The treasurer of Equity PAC is Catina Voellinger, the finance director at Collective Campaigns. Controlling decision-makers for use of Equity PAC funds are Suyki McMahon, Austin Justice Coalition’s Senior Policy Director, and Kathy Mitchell, Policy Coordinator at Just Liberty.
Mayor Steve Adler’s two-time deputy campaign manager, Laura Hernandez, is the PAC’s campaign manager.
Partisan proxy fight
Also joining the fight against Prop A is the Travis County Democratic Party, which is recruiting volunteers for a variety of campaign operations in October, including manning tables at public events, block walking, and phone banking, according to a September 30th email to supporters.
Democratic Party campaigners are portraying the Prop A campaign as a partisan proxy fight with the Travis County GOP—a tactic that aims to taint Prop A by association, given the heavy leftward lean of the Austin electorate. A call script prepared for party volunteers calls Prop A “an effort by Republicans and the wealthy elite,” and a slide deck offering talking points refers to Save Austin Now as a “Republican-front group.”
Those statements allude to the fact that the Travis County GOP shares leadership with Save Austin Now in the person of Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now and chairman of the TCRP. The PAC also received substantial financing from Republican donors during the spring campaign for Proposition B, a ballot initiative to restrict homeless camping.
A win in that election May 1st has given long beaten-down Austin Republicans newfound confidence in a strategy involving issue-based propositions in off-year elections, which aim for support beyond the Republican base. In an ongoing Google Ad campaign, Save Austin Now pitches to “Democrats for Prop A.” The ad appears when Austinites search for certain keywords related to the proposition.
Save Austin Now also brands itself as “bipartisan,” and the co-chair of the group, Cleo Petricek, identifies as a “moderate Democrat.” A private Facebook group run by her, Democrats for a Safe Austin, has 1,051 members. Beyond Petricek, a handful of other prominent local Democrats have said they support Prop A, but there’s not much in the way of organized support.
Virtually every elected Democrat in the city has endorsed No Way on Prop A, including the mayor, nine council members, all five members of the Travis County Commissioners Court, and state lawmakers.
Although these endorsements should give a boost to No Way on Prop A, many of the same politicians endorsed the spring Homes Not Handcuffs campaign against Prop B, the public camping ordinance, yet that proposition passed decisively, 57.7 percent to 42.3 percent, indicating a split between rank-and-file members and the leadership.
Prop A in November therefore poses another test to the Democratic Party in Austin and its ability to unify, organize, and mobilize its members. A repeat loss in November would probably come as a shock. This time around, however, campaigners can hope for higher turnout because eight constitutional amendments are also on the ballot. That’s usually an advantage for Democratic candidates or causes in Austin.
Another positive sign for No Way Prop A is that it is enjoying more success in fundraising than the spring campaign. A month out from the May 1st election, Homes Not Handcuffs had raised just $23,000, less than a tenth of what Equity PAC has disclosed so far as having raised.
Moreover, No Way Prop A has attracted support from community groups and unions, most of which sat out the Homes Not Handcuffs campaign. The coalition includes AFSCME local 1624, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1091, American Postal Workers Union Local 299, Education Austin, and Carpenters Local 1266, among others.
“The Austin labor movement stands united against this dangerous proposition which would directly impact so may city employees,” said Carol Guthrie, Business Manager for ASCME Local 1624, at the Prop A launch event. “If Prop A passes, AFSCME members will be some of the most at-risk of losing their jobs, and that’s what will happen.”
‘Poorly written law’
The Austin Firefighters Association (AFA) has also joined the fray, albeit independently of the No Way Prop A coalition. AFA President Bob Nicks announced the union’s position at a news conference October 1st, saying that firefighters support staff increases at APD but that Prop A would swing the pendulum too far, jeopardizing funding for other public safety agencies.
“We love and support our police officers and know that they need staffing increases. But Prop A is a poorly written law that contains cost escalators that push the cost well above the cost of two police officers per 1,000, a number we would likely support.”
Nicks also characterized Prop A as unnecessary because of a new state law, HB 1900, which forced Austin to restore police funding to 2019 levels. “Don’t be misled. Under current state law Austin Police are already fully funded, plus $10 million to their budget.”
“One of the main cornerstones of the campaign is false: that the police are still defunded and that Proposition A will fix this. This is an absolute lie. The Austin Police Department is fully funded today at an historically high level, more than ever, plus $10 million.”
According to Nicks, the union will spend up to $15,000 to defeat Prop A and allied third-party PACs will amplify the firefighters’ impact. “Our International Association of Firefighters is preparing a series of videos and Google ads,” he said. “We will also be accepting PAC dollars from very vetted sources, if people like our messaging. We won’t accept PAC money from any organization that’s ever disrespected police officers or tried to defund police officers.”
The internal union vote to oppose Prop A passed by 57 percent, with about 600 members voting out of a total membership of 1,100, he said.
Current APD budget
The law to which Nicks referred, HB 1900, requires cities to maintain their police budget at least flat year-to-year (unless there’s a citywide budget cut, in which case a city can cut the police budget proportionally). In order to comply with the new law, the Austin City Council in August adopted a police budget of $442.8 million, compared to $292.9 million in 2020 and $434.5 million in 2019.
At face value, that’s a huge increase of 51 percent from 2020 and a slight increase of 2 percent compared to 2019. However, the budget hike stems mostly from restructuring, not new spending on additional APD personnel or operations—just as the original 2020 cuts stemmed mostly from restructuring, not actual staff cuts or program cuts.
Among the more significant changes, the council restored the forensics lab and the 9-1-1 call center to APD, which had been set up as standalone departments in 2020. It also eliminated the $76.3 million Decouple and Reimagining funds that it had created last year. That move is perhaps symbolically significant but really represents little more than an accounting change. As reported previously by the Bulldog, those funds represented APD units in a kind of a “budgetary limbo”—units slated for potential to elimination or transfer, but still funded the meantime.
APD ‘hiring problem’
Under the newly restored budget, Nicks suggested that APD “has the available funds to hire 229-300 police officers today.”
“The police have a hiring problem, not a funding problem, and we would suggest they hire more officers as quickly as possible,” he said. “As a matter of fact, all public safety departments are currently understaffed. The Austin Fire Department has a vacancy rate of 9 percent, the APD has a vacancy rate of 12 percent, and EMS has a vacancy rate of 13 percent.”
To fill those vacancies, however, APD has to graduate cadets, and the department is uniquely constrained by restrictions on the number of cadet classes that it is allowed to hold. The council suspended cadet classes in 2020, citing concerns with the training curriculum, before allowing a first new class to resume in June under a revamped curriculum.
That year-long suspension allowed vacancies to build up in the department through a process of attrition as officers resigned or retired. In the new budget, the council authorized two more cadet classes, a number that is not enough to reverse the department’s declining force level, according the Greater Austin Crime Commission (GACC), a pro-law enforcement group.
“Even with two cadet classes, the department will have a net loss next year at the current attrition rate,” the commission said in August.
More recently, GACC President Corby Jastrow said that it’s pointless to add officer positions without allowing them to be filled. “As of last week, the Austin Police Department had 191 vacancies,” he wrote in a September 22 email newsletter. “Unless attrition is slowed and training capacity is expanded, adding officer positions that cannot be filled will not help.”
In view of this, it’s worth noting that the Prop A requires “full enrollment for no fewer than three full-term cadet classes for the department, until such time as the staffing levels for the department return to the levels prescribed in the 2019-2020 city budget [1,959 sworn officers].”
“We’re in the most profound police staffing crisis in the history of our city,” Mackowiak told the Bulldog. “We’re going to have to make up for lost time. It’s going to take us probably two or three years to dig out of the mess this council created.”
The backdrop to the Prop A campaign is a rising murder toll, which in early September broke the 1984 all-time record of 59 killings. With three months still to go in the year, the city has so far recorded 66 homicides. Aggravated assaults are also up 10 percent through August, according to APD crime data, on top of a 22 percent increase last year.
These trends have provided Save Austin Now and its allies with fodder for relentless criticism of the police budget cuts last year. Every new crime report, every murder, and every shooting has presented a chance to sow doubt into the electorate, where the idea of a new public safety model was seeded last year but never really fully took root.
For example, a Spanish-speaking video spot produced for the PAC, a grandmother shares her worries over crime in the city, saying that her daughter no longer lets her granddaughter go out to play with friends: “I told her, take great care with your children, because we don’t have the same number of police as before…now we don’t have the same trust in our community. It’s like the city council is in favor of the criminals and not us.”
“We have to take care, abuelas (grandmothers), now is our chance to show our children and grandchildren how much we love them… I ask you, vote to refund the police. This fall don’t forget to vote.”
Such ads are what No Way Prop A calls “scare tactics,” pointing out that the police weren’t actually defunded, the murder rate is still lower than the 1980s on a per capita basis, and Austin still compares favorably to other large cities.
But some No Way Prop A campaigners have also advanced another line of argument, one that doesn’t downplay the crime wave but instead questions whether there’s any correlation to police staffing. “The homicide increase is large and alarming,” said Bill Spelman, a former council member and emeritus professor of public affairs at the University of Texas’ LBJ School, in a September 15 data release. “We need to act…(but) there is no apparent relationship nationally or locally between sworn officers and homicide rates from 1960 through 2021.”
“Austin has maintained a lower sworn officer rate than the U.S. average and has still had a lower homicide rate since 1998.”
Spelman, formerly associated with the Police Executive Research Forum in Washington, D.C., recommended that, rather than hiring so many new police officers, broader social and political solutions were needed. “The police department cannot solve these problems by itself,” he said at the No Way Prop A launch event. “They need to work with other government agencies, they need to work with social service agencies, they need to work with businesses, and they also need to work very directly with communities to get the help they need to solve problems.”
Similarly, the No Way Prop A website points to several programs and strategies that it says will reduce violence in the long run, including the new Office of Violence Prevention, mental health services, substance use programs, and gun locks and safety education.
Clash of visions
Whatever the validity to these arguments, No Way Prop A campaigners have their work cut out for them to sell them to the public. The idea of a new, more holistic public safety model captivated the council last year in the wake of a protest movement that shook the city. But the model was still forming, and fraught with complexities and nuances.
Both the ambition and amorphousness of the new vision were reflected in the name given to the task force set up to guide it: Reimagining Public Safety. Over the past year that task force and the city government more broadly have marked several concrete milestones in the Reimagining process, such as hiring new mental health responders and expanding family violence shelters. Yet the new model remains difficult to articulate in a campaign flyer or TV spot.
By contrast, Save Austin Now is selling a simple, black-and-white idea: more police. The PAC may not have the clout of the Democratic Party or unions, but it has pitched battle on favorable ground.
If the proposition passes, it would go well beyond reversing some of the council’s changes last year, while doing nothing to undo others. For that reason, Prop A isn’t directly a referendum on the council actions last year. But it may be the closest thing we’re going to get to one. On its website, No Way Prop A says, “Prop A is a total reversal of the ideological shift that Austin went through during and after the protests of summer 2020.”
Trust indicators: Bulldog reporter Daniel Van Oudenaren is a journalist with 12 years experience in local, state, and international reporting.
Links to related coverage:
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
Links to related documents:
Equity PAC 30-day campaign finance report, October 4, 2021
Equity PAC Direct Expenditures, September 30, 2021
Equity PAC Direct Expenditures, September 21, 2021