Austin voters could put hundreds more police officers on the streets

Austin Police Department cadet class file photo.

By JOSHUA FECHTER, Texas Tribune 

Editor’s note: This story contains explicit language.

After Austin officials slashed the city’s police spending amid nationwide protests over police brutality last year and drew the ire of Gov. Greg Abbott, Austin’s voters could wind up putting hundreds of new police officers on the streets.

If passed on Nov. 2, Proposition A would compel Austin officials to drastically increase the ranks of its police force — more than a year after the city first embarked on a mission to re-examine its police department in the wake of the fatal shooting of Michael Ramos, an unarmed Black and Hispanic man, by an Austin police officer and George Floyd’s killed by a white officer in Minneapolis, which sparked a summer of protests in Texas cities and across the nation.

The fight over Prop A is shaping up as a referendum on Austin’s new scaled-down approach to policing — and a test for Texas’ most liberal major city amid a surge of homicides.

Cries of “defund the police” at protests inflamed the national culture wars as several major cities cut their police spending in one way or another. Nowhere in the country were the cuts as deep as in Austin, the only major Texas city that cut huge sums from its police budget — albeit temporarily.

Among the results were a state law that punishes cities that cut police spending and now a petition drive that could force Austin to spend millions more on policing indefinitely.

Save Austin Now

Leaders of Save Austin Now, a group that successfully pushed a referendum that restored the city’s ban on homeless encampments in May, forced the issue by gathering enough signatures to add Prop A to the November ballot — betting that residents across the political spectrum will force city officials to hire more officers as homicides increase along with police response times.

Austin, like nearly every major U.S. city, has seen more homicides during the COVID-19 pandemic — which crime experts have speculated stems in part from stress and economic anxiety caused by the pandemic. Austin has recorded 61 homicides so far this year — resulting in the city’s highest homicide rate in two decades — but other kinds of crime have dropped (or haven’t been reported or recorded).

On average, it takes an Austin police officer a minute longer to make the scene of a high-priority call than it did last year.

“We have a (city council) that simply has not demonstrated any regard whatsoever for public safety,” said Matt Mackowiak, a co-founder of Save Austin Now and Travis County Republican Party chair. “Council’s not going to do this on their own.”

No Way Prop A

Opponents have said the measure would spell doom for the city’s finances — more than a third of the budget is already dedicated to the Austin Police Department. More police officers would mean fewer firefighters, medics and librarians, they say.

“We know it would lead to consequential cuts to other things that we care about,” said Laura Hernandez Holmes, campaign manager for No Way on Prop A. “We need to have a conversation about comprehensive public safety reform, and this is not the way to do it.”

More than anything, November’s vote will test Austinites’ appetite for police reform.

Austinites by and large regard the police department as a necessity, said longtime Austin political consultant David Butts, who helped elected mayors Steve Adler and Lee Leffingwell. But that doesn’t mean voters think the police should get a blank check.

“I think people believe we need to have the police,” Butts said. ”Does that mean that everything the police do, we should stand up and salute it? Well, the answer to that is ‘no.’”

2020 APD cuts & reversal

Austin City Council cut 150 officer positions from the 1,959-member police force and canceled a trio of cadet classes last year as part of a $150 million round of police budget cuts. Some police functions were moved to other city agencies.

This year, council members reversed the cuts to the police budget — which now sits at a record $442 million, more than a third of the city’s $1.15 billion operating budget. The council paid for three new cadet classes but didn’t restore the 150 positions.

And once Austin raises its police budget, it can’t bring it down because of a new law passed earlier this year by Abbott and state Republican legislators that punishes major cities that cut their police budgets. Under the law, if a city cuts its police spending, it can’t raise property taxes.

After last year’s protests, activists pushed local officials to boost spending on social services like housing, homelessness prevention and mental health assistance as the city re-evaluates policing tactics.

Now police reform advocates are worried Proposition A could upend those efforts, said Chas Moore, an organizer who leads the Austin Justice Coalition.

“I don’t know if the type of police reform and transformation and change that we’re talking about can live within this idea that we put all this extra money into a police department [if Proposition A passes], just to boost it up to these astronomical levels,” Moore said. “I don’t know if those two things can coexist.”

What Proposition A would do

Big bucks have flowed into the Proposition A fight, pushing the cost of the race past $1.5 million.

Save Austin Now raised more than $720,000 in the months leading up to the election, according to recent campaign finance filings — drawing $100,000 from Charles Maund Toyota, a local car dealership, and $50,000 from Philip Canfield, who heads the investment firm Ariet Capital.

Equity PAC, which funds No Way on Prop A, got a huge infusion of cash in September from two big backers: $500,000 from liberal billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center and another $200,000 from The Fairness Project, a progressive group based in Washington, D.C.

If Austin voters pass Prop A, the city would have to hire enough police officers to have two on patrol for every 1,000 residents — which is the statewide average, but a level Austin hasn’t had since 2012. Last year, Austin had 1.7 officers per 1,000 residents, fewer than Dallas and Houston, but on par with El Paso and Fort Worth and more than San Antonio.

APD has also experienced a stream of officer retirements in recent months. The department had 184 officer vacancies as of Oct. 7, a police spokesperson said. About 25 to 50 vacancies is considered a manageable level, according to the Austin Police Officers Association.

Prop A would force the city council to more quickly fill those vacant police positions, Mackowiak said.

“This council’s not serious about recruiting,” Mackowiak said. “They’re not serious about addressing the staffing crisis.”

But while experts in policing generally agree that increased officer presence results in lower crime rates, the effect on violent crime is not as clear.

An analysis spanning five decades by former Austin city council member Bill Spelman, an opponent of Prop A, showed no correlation between the number of sworn police officers in Austin and the local homicide rate.

“Murder is committed by people who are really angry and have a gun in their pocket,” Spelman said.

Overall crime ticked up in Austin from 2019 to 2020, but is down from the start of the 2010s, according to FBI data.

Dispute over the cost

The proposition also calls for officers to spend at least 35% of their shifts on “community engagement time” — meaning time not responding to calls.

To allow that, Austin would have to drastically ramp up the number of officers on the force to make sure it has enough officers to cover shifts, according to projections from the city’s budget office — anywhere from 400 to 885 additional officers over the next five years.

A city estimate predicted the cost of implementing the proposition could climb as high as $600 million in the next five years. That surge of spending would force Austin to lay off hundreds of municipal employees including firefighters, medics and librarians, figures circulated by council member Greg Casar show.

City’s finances

Prop A’s supporters have disputed the city’s cost projections and rejected opponents’ cries that the proposition would bring about the city’s financial ruin. Council member Mackenzie Kelly called the notion that Austin officials would cut the city’s firefighting budget “absurd” but suggested the city could look elsewhere for cuts.

“We see a large sum, millions of dollars, going towards homelessness in the community,” Kelly said during a town hall on news station KXAN. “We see it towards social services and those sorts of things that really don’t need to be funded by municipal government.”

Ken Casaday, head of the Austin Police Officers Association, put it differently.

“They’ve wasted and shit money away … They’re just going to have to tighten their belt,” Casaday said.

The dire financial predictions, however, were enough to drive the unions that represent Austin firefighters and paramedics — often allies of Austin’s police union — to publicly oppose the proposition.

Mixed reaction

“We just think it’s a bad law,” said Bob Nicks, president of the fire union. “It’s going to harm us and it’s going to harm our public safety as a whole. But it’s not an indictment against the police.”

Some Austin neighborhoods would likely welcome more police boots on the ground, said Justin Irving, head of the Austin Neighborhoods Council. But the sentiment isn’t universal, Irving said, and worries abound that the proposition would “erode quality of life in other areas” while doing little to prevent crime.

“I think a lot of people are beginning to question whether or not police are the only answer to that equation,” Irving said.

The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.