After a noticeable spike in crime for an otherwise statistically low-crime city, the Austin City Council voted to cut and redirect $150 million from the police department budget.
Shortly thereafter, Governor Greg Abbott and other state officials unveiled a proposal to freeze property tax revenues for cities that “defund their police.” Since then, Abbott has also floated the idea of annexing the Austin Police Department (APD) under the purview of the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS).
Austin and state leaders continue to lob rhetorical grenades at one another as part of a prolonged conflict that further ignited last summer after Austin rescinded its camping and lying ordinance, leading to a number of problems for both the homeless population and other residents.
“Defund the police” has been used as a catch-all for a grab-bag of proposals. In some cases, it means focusing on use of force tactics and prohibiting the use of non-lethal ammunition. But for others like the City of Minneapolis, it means quite literally voting to disband their police department, a vote which was overruled.
But most cities enacting reforms in this mold fall somewhere in between. Austin falls in this category, but is also among the more ambitious in seeking reform across the country.
The city nixed the next three cadet classes in its budget at a time when the department has been limping along short-staffed. The budget also transitions non-law enforcement sections of the department into other city sectors and certain specialized law enforcement-specific divisions away from APD oversight.
Roughly $3 million in overtime funding was axed as well.
The push to insert non-law enforcement officials and resources, such as “community resource officers,” once held by patrol units is a common theme within Austin’s police reform movement.
City Councilman Greg Casar, who spearheaded the homeless camping ban rescission last year, called the cuts “a transformational change away from mass incarceration and toward real community safety.”
Abbott, along with most Republican across the state, has objected to Austin’s effort and circulated what he dubbed the “Back the Blue” pledge.
In a video last week, Governor Abbott took aim at Austin, and others, saying, “Some cities want to defund and dismantle police departments in Texas. This reckless action invites crime into our communities and it threatens the safety of those in our community, especially our law enforcement officers and their families.”
He then called on all Texas officials and candidates to sign the pledge “against defunding police departments.”
Abbott’s warnings caution that a rise in violent crime will accompany the city’s police reforms.
Since the 1980s, Texas crime has dropped dramatically.
Austin’s has, too, with violent crime peaking in 1995 and dropping by over 50 percent as of 2018.
Texas’ capitol city is historically a low-crime city compared with other population centers. But this year’s increase, despite being relatively low in number, yields large increases. Through the first half of this year, the city’s homicide rate increased 64 percent and its robbery rate increased 15 percent.
Austin Mayor Steve Adler rebutted the governor, saying, “To be clear – Austin City leaders have neither defunded the police department nor support doing so. I’m unaware of any elected official who believes differently.”
Five weeks ago, the City of Austin opted to divert $130 million in funding away from the department budget towards alternative programs or removing existing divisions from under the APD purview. As the left-wing publication Vox explains, this general stratagem is a main facet of the “Defund the Police” movement’s aims.
Austin did not go as far as Minneapolis to the point of voting to disband their entire police department — which others still advocate. The Minneapolis city council was overruled in this measure. However, Austin’s funding diversion, use of force restrictions, and prohibiting less-lethal munitions are each standard aspects of the “Defund the Police” demands.
The mayor continued, “The Governor’s pledge is political theatre intended to scare and distract us from important public safety conversations about opening our children’s schools and saving lives during the pandemic or whether police should be mental health first responders and social workers. Austin is the safest big city in Texas and among the few safest in the country.”
One alarming rise in crime Austin’s experienced is among the homeless population. According to Mayor Adler’s own policy advisor, violent crime wherein the suspect is homeless has increased over 30 percent over the last five years — with an 18 percent jump from 2018-2019.
Both are surely genuine in their belief in the specific policies they’re advocating.
But the political implications of the two officials’ rhetoric are clear: a sitting governor wary of his party’s waning control of the legislature looks for a rallying issue as a big-city mayor pushes forward with radical reforms he hopes will spread throughout Texas with a party regime change.
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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.