What happened to reimagining Austin’s policing?

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Austin Police confront a crowd at the May 30, 2020, protest over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Michael Ramos in Austin. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

An (almost) mid-year review of progress and delays in providing alternatives to some of APD’s responsibilities

After weeks of protests in the spring of 2020, anti-policing activist sold the Austin City Council on the idea that the police department was bloated and far too unaccountable. The council voted in August 2020 to launch policy reforms, transfer certain units to independent control, trim the police budget by about 5 percent, and reinvest the savings in social services.

The vote was widely panned as a sweeping “defunding” of the Austin Police Department (APD). Altogether, the budget cut, proposed unit transfers, and a basket of prospective cuts added up to about one-third of the total police budget—a frightening number to some.

Jimmy Flannigan

Council members countered they were merely reallocating a marginal amount of resources in a way that ultimately would save the city money and wouldn’t imperil public safety. For example, then-City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said that the police budget had grown too fast in recent years, outpacing population growth, and the cuts therefore were “pragmatic” and “fiscally responsible.”

The restructuring, dubbed by city leaders the Reimagining Public Safety process, was “the most fiscally responsible reform movement in municipal history,” Flannigan said at a candidate forum.

But pretty much all restructuring has costs, whether in government or in business, even if the end-state is meant to be more cost-effective. The city’s Reimagining Public Safety process is no different. During the first few months of implementation, frontline police have lost some resources—notably new cadets to replace those who retire or resign. But for the most part, spending levels have remained the same, even as overhead costs associated with the restructuring have grown.

According to a first-quarter financial report, spending on policing actually increased in the first three months after the new budget took effect October 1, 2020, from $111.97 million in 2019 to $112.2 million in 2020. While that’s not much of an increase, it’s quite a bit off from the 5 percent cut that should be in effect, and it’s a far cry from the even deeper cuts that activists had hoped for.

If that rate of spending continues, police expenses will reach $448.8 million by the end of the fiscal year, which would be 8.2 percent over-budget.

Alicia Dean

In an email, a city spokesperson downplayed the variance, saying it was “primarily” due to a natural financial cycle that weights more spending toward the first quarter of the fiscal year (October through December).

“At the beginning of a fiscal year, departments encumber certain funds related to contracts so the funding is ‘spoken for’ even though it’s not expended yet,” said Alicia Dean, a consultant for the Reimagining Public Safety Strategic Communications Team.

Taking that into account, she said, APD was only slightly over-budget.

Even so, that doesn’t explain why APD spending would be higher in the first quarter of 2020 than it was in 2019, given that the same cyclical dynamics were at play in each quarter. The next quarterly spending report, due in April, should shed more light on the issue. If the variance persists, it could suggest that the city is having difficulty reining in police spending to the degree that the council envisioned back in August.

Dean also acknowledged that the Reimagining process itself is incurring some new costs, including for “community engagement and consulting.” Those costs are reflected in the first-quarter report, and may be contributing to the overspending.

Reinvestments = new spending

The budget variance comes on top of an imbalance that was baked into this year’s budget. From the start, the Reimagining was never a one-for-one swap of police resources for other services.

Instead, the council earmarked $35 million for “immediate reinvestments,” such as homeless services and mental health responders, which more than offset the $19.9 million reduction in this year’s police budget compared to last year’s.

On net, therefore, the Reimagining process began with a $15 million spending increase. The council justified that on the basis that the police budget would have increased by that amount if the city had gone ahead with a long-term staffing plan and certain other planned spending increases that they axed.

In the meantime, another possible source of new expense is that various departments are lending support to the Reimagining process. According to Dean, “various salary and benefits costs for personnel among an array of departments and offices, such as the City Manager’s Office, Equity Office, Office of Police Oversight, Budget Office, Law, etc. … are directly contributing to the Reimagining process as part of their duties that would not be incurred in APD’s budget.”

Those costs aren’t being tallied in the public reporting that the city manager is required to do as part of the overall restructuring.

Overtime spending

One mitigating factor is federal Covid-19 relief money, which is covering the cost of overtime pay to officers. That’s helping plug a budget gap that otherwise would be even larger—and delaying a possible reckoning between competing political interests.

The police department has a $3.2 million budget this year for sworn overtime pay. That line item is part of the Reimagine Safety Fund, which suggests that the council eventually wants to eliminate the expense altogether.

But things haven’t gone that way. Instead, sworn overtime expenses in the first quarter ran to $5.4 million. At an annualized rate, that’s 676 percent over-budget. The quarterly report says that FEMA and the CARES Act will reimburse an estimated $2.6 million of that amount, leaving just $500,000 for overtime for the remaining three quarters of the year.

And that was before a mid-February storm that overwhelmed first responders with 9-1-1 calls.

By March, the city manager is supposed to update the council on an ongoing review of the police budget. That could culminate in mid-year budget amendments that would address budget imbalances and give further direction to city leaders about how to proceed with the restructuring. According to a February 3 update from the Reimagining Public Safety Team, “APD is nearing completion of a zero-based budgeting review of their FY 2020-21 budget.”

Forensics Lab decoupled

Dana Kadavy

Apart from the budget, city leaders have notched some successes in their restructuring effort. They’ve convened a citizen task force and a staff team to strategize over the restructuring. They’ve moved some personnel out of the police department. And they’re revising training standards and use-of-force policies.

Earlier this month, city leaders also celebrated a milestone in the Decoupling process. By unanimous vote February 4, the council removed the Forensics Lab from APD and established it as a new Forensic Science Department. Dana Kadavy, who holds a PhD in microbiology according to her LinkedIn profile, is the current executive director of the laboratory and will head the 87-member department.

Greg Casar

Council Member Greg Casar said that the decision was in line with “the national standard for forensic science labs,” citing a 2009 report by the National Research Council that recommended “removing all public forensic laboratories and facilities from the administrative control of law enforcement agencies or prosecutors’ offices.”

Leslie Pool

Council Member Leslie Pool called the move “a huge step toward the Reimagining and the first really concrete change that we can actually communicate and see in an org chart in some instructional ways.”

Still, decoupling the lab is likely to be less controversial than some of the other proposed changes. Mackenzie Kelly, the sole Republican on the council, indicated her support for the move at a work group meeting February 2. “I too support it after talking with the police department,” she said.

Alison Alter

Council Member Alison Alter pointed out that the step had already been in the works before the budget vote last year: “This is one that long predated any action that we took in August.”

Staff reassignments

Spencer Cronk

The city is undertaking other structural changes more quietly. Under a budget amendment by Council Member Casar last August, an assortment of APD units and functions are now funded through a transitional Decouple Fund.

The budget amendment authorizes City Manager Spencer Cronk to reassign APD units in the Decouple Fund without further council action. In fact, Cronk is required to “finalize all the transitions” of Internal Affairs, Special Investigations, 9-1-1, Support Services, Strategic Support, Special Events, and Community Partnerships by the end of September. Only one unit in the fund, Victim Services, can’t be moved without another vote of the council, according to the amendment.

Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde

A team of city staff is tasked with working out the details. The Reimagining Public Safety Core Leadership Team is headed by Cronk’s deputy, Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde, whom he brought with him from Minneapolis. In its quarterly update, the team reported that the city had transferred the police department’s public information positions to the Communications and Public Information Office in fall of 2020.

Similarly, APD’s human resources staff began reporting to the City’s Human Resources Department in October 2020.

Yet those units account for only a sliver of the Decouple Fund: just $883,000 for Public Information and $1.6 million for personnel services. The transfer of the Forensics Lab, on the other hand, resulted in a more substantial $11.9 million use of the Decouple Fund, with the money transferred to the new department.

That still leaves nearly $65 million in the Decouple budget that the city manager or the council has to figure out what to do with. The largest programs in the fund are 9-1-1 ($7 million), Booking Services ($6.7 million), Victim Services ($3.6 million), Dispatch ($5.4 million), and Internal Affairs ($2.7 million). These add up to just over $25 million. The rest of the decoupling process will be administratively complex because the remaining $39 million in planned transfers are made up of numerous smaller amounts. For example, Mail Services is just $177,306 and Fleet Services only $28,754.

Cadet classes

Steve Adler

Another puzzle for city leaders is when to reinstate cadet classes, without which the police force is continually declining in size due to normal attrition. The council last August zeroed out the budget for cadet classes through September 2021. But Mayor Steve Adler and some other council members changed their tune late last year, saying that curriculum changes made it possible to resume the classes.

If the city did resume the classes, it would substantially reverse the cost cuts touted by council last year. Cadet salaries and training amounted to about $12 million of the $35 million of immediate reinvestments.

However, most members of the newly formed Reimagining Public Safety Task Force aren’t convinced that curriculum changes have gone far enough. They adamantly oppose resuming the classes. The task force voted January 22 to object to “any effort by the City of Austin and APD to move forward with any new cadet classes” until after the training curriculum is more thoroughly vetted.

Cary Roberts

The vote against resuming the classes was 13-0, with five abstentions by four city officials and Cary Roberts, executive director of the Greater Austin Crime Commission. While the task force is purely advisory, its members have played a role in influencing past policy decisions. The near-unanimous decision could force Adler into an uncomfortable position if he continues to push for new cadets.

Other changes

City leaders are celebrating other more subtle changes as well. For example, 9-1-1 callers used to be asked, “Do you need police, fire, or EMS?” Since February 1, callers are given a new option: “mental health services.”

In a February 12 blog post, the Reimagining Public Safety Communications Team wrote, “Adding the mental health option to 9-1-1 calls is the first step toward achieving the ultimate goal of diverting 100 percent of callers with a mental health component, which do not pose a risk to public safety, from law enforcement response.”

Reformers hope that the diversions could prevent violent interactions between police and the mentally ill, while reducing recidivism and jail costs.

Another effort to deter and de-escalate potentially violent situations comes from the Office of Police Oversight, which published a report in January recommending changes to six of APD’s use-of-force policies. The report, which the Reimagining Team called a “critical step,” recommends restricting shooting at moving vehicles, exhausting all alternatives before using deadly force, banning chokeholds, comprehensive reporting of use of force, and requiring de-escalation.

The new policy also would create a “duty to intervene,” requiring officers to respond to improper use of force by a fellow officer. Under such a policy, APD officers who stood by—like some Minneapolis police did while Derik Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck—could be held responsible.

These recommendations conform with existing city policy as stated in a Black Lives Matter resolution adopted June 11 last year. They also follow the blueprint of a national campaign, 8 Can’t Wait, launched in June 2020 in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The Police Oversight Office itself is getting additional staffing and resources this year. This beefed-up funding, taken from the APD budget, is one of several reinvestment milestones touted by the Reimagining Team.

Chief Manley’s resignation

Brian Manley

In the midst of all this change, one constant has been Police Chief Brian Manley, a 30-year veteran of the force. That changed February 12, when Manley announced he would depart at the end of the month.

Manley last year became a lightning rod for criticism after the police used tear gas and so-called beanbag munitions filled with lead pellets against protesters May 30-31, 2020, seriously injuring several of them. After that, a handful of council members called on him to resign, but he retained the confidence of City Manager Spencer Cronk—the only person who could fire him.

During a February 12 news conference announcing his retirement, Manley said that he hadn’t felt pushed out. He expressed confidence in Cronk and Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano to look after the department.

“I stand here with confidence knowing APD will come out of this a strong agency, and that we have positioned ourselves to do so,” Manley said. Arellano said, however, that the chief “anguished about this decision a little bit,” without saying why.

Chas Moore

Some activists hailed Manley’s resignation. Chas Moore, founder and executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition said, “Brian Manley’s resignation was long overdue. His tenure as chief of police was a reflection of a different time and place in regards to how communities across the nation view policing and public safety. Brian Manley was a bottleneck in the Reimagining public safety process.”

“This has just become an opportunity for the City of Austin to take a bold and radical stance,” said Moore, a member of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. He has led a series of community conversations calling on participants to “imagine a world without police.”

Violent crime statistics

As the city has rolled out the Reimagining, the Covid-19 pandemic and a brutal February storm have overshadowed the process. That has made it challenging for proponents of the reform to focus their political messaging and sustain public interest.

The city’s restructuring also coincides with an increase in violent crime. Through the end of 2020, APD recorded 47 homicides. That’s 42 percent more than the year before. Robberies were up 5 percent and aggravated assaults increased 22 percent, though some categories of violent crime declined, including rape and simple assault, according to data published in the Chief’s Monthly Reports.

For skeptics of the Reimagining process, this data points to the danger of cutting police resources. But for supporters of the reform, the rise in violent crimes is unrelated. Homicides have risen in other big American cities too, including in places where there hasn’t been any change in the level of police funding. Moreover, the new budget only took effect October 1, after the homicide rate already had begun to rise.

Criminal justice reformers question whether there’s a clear link between the number of officers on the beat and the number of crimes committed in a given area. Whether true or not, the council will face increasing political pressure if things don’t improve. In January 2021, the city notched another five murders, compared to four in January 2020. At that rate, the city would top last year’s toll, again by a large margin.

Jeff Greenwalt

However, Lieutenant Jeff Greenwalt, an officer in APD’s homicide and aggravated assault unit, cautioned against making conclusions based on a single month’s data. “If you wanted to look at just one month then we’re ahead, but we don’t try to draw long-term predictions out of just a little bounce of data,” Greenwalt told Austonia February 1. “We could potentially start fast and even out the same or less, we don’t know.”

José Garza

Homicide investigators and other officers are now working under a new regime at the district prosecutors’ office. Travis County District Attorney José Garza faced accusations during a fall election campaign that he’d be too soft on crime. After easily winning the November 3 election, the new chief prosecutor has drawn the ire of the Austin Police Association by indicting two officers for assault in connection with a violent arrest of a Black man nearly two years ago. The officers had been cleared of wrongdoing in a department investigation.

But Garza also has ramped up his rhetoric against violent crime, saying he’s directing his office’s resources toward prosecuting the most violent criminals, while declining to prosecute most drug offenses. In a January 29 community letter, he stated, “Since March, there have been limited grand jury proceedings in Travis County…We will be triaging the backlog of cases to focus on violent offenses that pose a threat to public safety.”

The new prosecutor said that in just a two-week period in January after he took office, a grand jury returned more than 55 indictments on violent offenses, including charges of murder, kidnapping, sexual assault, aggravated assault, and violent crimes against children.

Garza’s office is beyond the purview of the City of Austin. It’s part of the Travis County government, and the district attorney is independently elected. But his reforms could influence policing in Austin as much as the city’s own Reimagining process, if not more. For instance, if he declines to prosecute certain offenses, then there will be little point for police to continue arresting and charging folks for those offenses. And with the council and city executives distracted with Covid-19 and post-crisis recovery after last week’s massive grid failure and winter storm, it’s possible the council won’t have the political bandwidth to move aggressively on Reimagining again anytime soon.

That would leave tens of millions of dollars—and numerous police functions—still in limbo in the Decouple and Reimagine funds. The deeper funding cuts that activists had hoped for would be deferred, and police spending might even increase, as it did in the first quarter.

That would leave a revolution unfinished.

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

Links to related Bulldog coverage:

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