The group’s intended purpose is to apply pressure on the city council and mayor to reverse course on its $150 million cut and redirection from the Austin Police Department (APD) budget. Save Austin Now Co-founder Matt Mackowiak likened the effort to “taking a meat axe to the budget rather than a scalpel.”
APD is currently limping along at sub-2010 staffing levels with only 1,023 on-staff and 116 total vacancies. A metric cited for adequate police staffing is 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents.
Currently, Austin sits at 1.08 officers per 1,000 residents.
Upon passing the budget cut, the Austin City Council touted its transition to policing alternatives such as community outreach officers specifically trained in de-escalation tactics but do not carry firearms.
“We’re at a critical time in our city where if something is not done and action is not taken then we’re going to continue to move backwards to a city that is less safe and at-risk for increased crime,” Kelly stated.
There have been 22 homicides in Austin so far in 2021, nearly half of the all-time high set during all of last year at 48. A historically low-crime city, through September of last year the murder rate had jumped 43 percent compared with the same period in 2019.
Other individuals joining the coalition are Mackowiak, Texas’ First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster, former Councilmember Ora Houston, retired police officer and representative of the Austin Police Association Dennis Farris, and APD Commander Donald Baker.
Two others are also joining but could not make the announcement: former Austin Councilmember Ellen Troxclair and Williamson County Sheriff Mike Gleason.
“The Attorney General’s Office takes violent crime very seriously and there has been an increase in violent crime in the City of Austin that is problematic,” Webster added. “We have to take a broader viewpoint of criminal justice in Austin — not only do we have a defunding of the police but we have a district attorney that’s reducing capital murder cases down to 35 years in prison.”
Webster criticized new Austin District Attorney José Garza for giving a plea deal to a man who hired a hitman to kill his family, resulting in the sentencing of only 35 years rather than life.
Garza campaigned on drastic changes to the Austin district attorney’s office which included the pursuit of lighter sentencing and more focused prosecution of police infractions.
Pointing to the elimination of cadet classes as part of last summer’s reforms, Baker said that “The decision to stop having cadet classes was a monumental failure, there is no one in our training portal right now to give officers relief.”
Farris, whose son is an officer, echoed Baker, stating, “I didn’t used to think twice when he would report for duty, but now it scares me when every day he steps out the door and goes to work.”
Houston took a different approach, emphasizing, “When you cut the budget, low-income and minority communities are hurt the most.”
“For too long,” Mackowiak stated, “the city council and mayor have been able to make decisions with zero consequences.”
Mackowiak and Save Austin Now are responsible for the petition effort that landed the homeless camping ban reinstatement on the ballot after two years of opposition from the city council.
He further lamented the recent departure of APD’s police chief. “We just chased off one of the great police chiefs in our history,” Mackowiak said of Brian Manley who announced his retirement in February.
Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk named Joseph Chacon the interim chief while the city searches for a replacement.
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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.