Elections 2021Austin Voters to Consider Police Staffing Proposition, A Potential Second Rebuke to the City’s Leftward Policy Shift

With formidable campaigns mounting on each side of the issue, Austin voters will consider setting a minimum staffing level for the police department.
November 1, 2021
Austin voters face another public safety-focused ballot proposition and referendum on the direction of their city, its policies, and those who’ve approved them. On Tuesday, Proposition A will be featured on Austin’s November general election ballot.

The items within Proposition A are:

  • Mandate a minimum staffing level within the Austin Police Department (APD) of two officers per 1,000 residents
  • Establish a minimum 35 percent community response time standard
  • Require 40 additional hours of training
  • Oblige the mayor, city council, and city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
  • Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics

Austin has more than surpassed its historical homicide total, currently at 76 with two months remaining. Through September, APD crime stats show an 88 percent increase in murders, a 25 percent increase in sexual assault, a 38 percent increase in arson incidents, and a 112 percent increase in the theft of vehicle parts.

Overall, however, crime is slightly down from 2020 which itself saw a spike in crime from 2019. Crimes against persons are down 5 percent and crimes against property are down 9 percent compared to 2020.

All the while, APD is reeling from an attrition crisis within its ranks, losing 15 to 22 officers per month. APD is down over 300 officers from its staffing level two years ago. Another 150 to 200 officers are likely to leave in January next year before changes to the retirement system kick in.

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The causes for attrition are a mix of internal and external leadership factors compounded by the staffing shortage. Patrol shifts most days are not fully staffed and delayed cadet classes by the council have failed to fill the void left by departing officers.

This proposition is another installation of the broader clash between the immovable object of Austin’s progressive policies and the unstoppable force of a burgeoning backlash of voters across parties.

And something’s got to give.

Since about 2018, the Austin City Council has been united behind sea change policies that pulled the city even further left than its traditional locus. Lighter bail policies, the recission of a public camping ban, and a massive cut to the police department budget were the signature accomplishments of a progressive cadre of organizations with growing influence.

To comply with a new state law setting punishments for large cities that cut funding to their police departments, the city council voted to restore most of the funding cut in 2020 — achieved mainly by placing the 911 call center and forensic lab back under the APD umbrella. But the 150 positions cut from authorization were not restored, and the current roughly 200 vacancies are on top of that cluster nixed last year.

But those policies have spurred a formidable recoil from conservatives and moderates from both parties. The homeless camping ban was restored in a lopsided May election and the same group behind that effort, Save Austin Now, is also behind Proposition A.

The group turned in over 30,000 signatures of registered voters to secure its place on the ballot.

Since then, a heated campaign has taken root with over a million dollars on both sides of the political football.

As of October 26, Save Austin Now had raised over $1 million from nearly 2,000 donors and the “No On Prop A” campaign had raised over $1 million from 165 donors.

A massive chunk, nearly half, for the campaign opposed to the proposition came from billionaire progressive benefactor George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center.

The “no” side has the support of Mayor Steve Adler, all but one city council member, and a litany of progressive groups and figures.

The ranks of support, meanwhile, include the Austin Police Officers Association, Councilwoman Mackenzie Kelly, three former Austin mayors, and Governor Greg Abbott.

One group that’s been a focus of contention is the Austin Firefighters Association (AFA) which officially opposes Prop A, but only half of the organization’s 1,200-member body voted in the internal election. Of that half, 57 percent opposed Prop A.

AFA President Bob Nicks has remained active in opposing Prop A on social media and in press statements, sparring frequently with Save Austin Now through the official union Twitter Account.

Locked in a political fight for the direction of the city, the two sides have each accused their opposites of misrepresenting the issue. In a debate last Thursday hosted by Talk 1370AM, anti-Prop A debaters claimed that Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon is against the proposition. Chacon has said multiple times he is not taking a position on the issue, despite Adler saying publicly more than once that he was against it — including during the press conference announcing Chacon as the city’s choice to head the department permanently.

Those opposed to Prop A have accused Save Austin Now of overselling the public safety threat caused by increasing trends of certain categories of crime, such as hyper-focusing on the murder rate rather than the overall crimes against persons. Compared with 2021’s figures, overall crimes against persons in 2019 were about 700 incidents higher — close to on par with last year’s total.

Most pointedly, Adler spent a large portion of his 2021 State of the City speech accusing the pro-Prop A push of being “right-wing misinformation.”

Another feature has been the potential cost of Prop A should it pass. The city’s official estimate places the first-year cost between $54 million and $120 million, with the range based on population projections. Save Austin Now pegs the estimate at $30 million to $35 million — or $100,000 per officer needed to reach the staffing minimum. They also contend it will likely be even lower because it will be next to impossible to hire the entire 300 to 350 officers needed to meet the minimum in one year.

The city’s estimate also includes costs for one-time capital expenditures such as a new substation and training facility.

In the first year, either the city’s low-end estimate or Save Austin Now’s would amount to less than 5 percent of the city’s general fund budget. Those opposed to Prop A contend its passage would require cuts for things like libraries and parks, but those two items in this year’s budget amount to only 14 percent of the general fund.

Early voting for the election finished on Friday last week and it lagged substantially behind May’s early voting turnout despite having three more days of ballot casting. That indicates voters have been less enthusiastic to vote in this election than May’s, but it’s unclear which side may benefit. But even if Save Austin Now’s side cannot replicate May’s landslide in its entirety, that result presents ample slack before the scales tip the other way.

The anti-Prop A side is hoping not to replicate its lackadaisical effort against the camping ban reinstatement, and this time is far more organized and well-funded.

Ultimately, it is the voters of Austin who have the final say and on Tuesday they have a choice: ratify the city’s efforts to “reimagine” its police department or deliver a second heavy blow in a year to the progressive movement driving Texas’ capital city even further left.


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Brad Johnson

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.