House Bill (HB) 1950 by Rep. Shelby Slawson (R-Stephenville) would enable the state, upon declaration by the governor, to create a public safety zone within which it operates and oversees police powers.
The legislation is a direct response to the City of Austin’s $150 million cut and redirection from its police department budget, and an indirect response to the bevy of other city policies the state views has worsened public safety.
Governor Greg Abbott suggested the idea last year and made it apart of his public safety priorities for this session. Originally, he suggested wholesale Austin Police Department (APD) takeover by the state after the budget cut, but then walked it back some earlier this year, narrowing it to the creation of the “Capitol Complex Safety Zone.”
The area covered would effectively be the city’s hot spot of crime, encompassing downtown and the University of Texas campus, spurred largely by interactions gone awry between members of the general public and homeless individuals.
HB 1950 sets protocols to carry out such an action, codifying the governing board of directors of the zone and directing the comptroller to fund its operations.
Within the bill is a carve-out that only applies to a municipality that defunds its police department located in a county with a population between 1 million and 1.5 million people. The only county fitting that classification right now is Travis County, in which Austin is located.
A representative of Galveston County provided concern to the committee that a subsection in the bill would mistakenly encompass smaller localities and not just Austin.
Another bill, HB 1900 by Rep. Craig Goldman (R-Fort Worth), was heard by the committee as well.
“People want to feel safe where they live. We all feel safe when more police are out on the streets to protect us,” Goldman stated in testimony. “It comes down to safety of Texans. If you divert money from the police force, you’re basically asking the state to come in.”
For cities determined to have defunded their police departments, Goldman’s bill would prohibit them from annexing smaller municipalities; trigger elections on de-annexation for any municipality annexed by the city during the last 30 years; prohibit property tax rate increases during that fiscal year; and partially fund state-provided law enforcement that fills the police void with municipal sales taxes.
The legislation is aimed directly at the City of Austin’s enforcement abrogation with its budget cut and other public safety policies. The property tax freeze recourse was suggested by Abbott back in August of last year, shortly after the city’s cut.
Acting APD Chief Joseph Chacon testified against the bill stating that “Cuts in budget are not necessarily ‘defunding.’”
Part of the department’s reshaping included the cancelation of three cadet classes at a time when it already had 150 patrol vacancies. Chacon explained that decision, stating the department found culture of violence and racial bias problems within the academy, causing the city to axe those three classes. Cadet classes have since been reauthorized.
A representative of SafeHorns — an organization made up of parents of University of Texas parents concerned about public safety — testified for the bill, pointing to the city’s spiking crime rate.
Another bill by Rep. Cody Harris (R-Palestine), HB 2362, would limit expenditures for cities that are deemed to have defunded their police and HB 3151 aims to set guidelines for making such a determination.
The bills will each move forward to a vote by the committee.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.