Thursday, August 13, 2020

Austin cuts police budget, makes Internal Affairs and 911 independent, launches re-imagining

Honestly, Grits never thought this day would come.

The City of Austin just approved a budget cutting more than $20 million from police, shifting functions totaling ~$80 million (including Internal Affairs, the 911 call center, and the forensics lab) out of the department, and committed to "re-imagining" how they spend another $50 million. (See this reporter's Twitter thread for details.) The council declined to cut another ~$20 million advocates had identified for immediate reductions.

As sort of a symbolic cherry on top, Councilmember Jimmy Flannigan added an amendment calling for demolition of the Austin PD headquarters, freeing up valuable downtown real estate and using the land to create a new "gateway to East Austin." This I can promise you: The day that building falls, Austin's going to have a BIG party!

Elsewhere in Texas, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio have all increased police budgets in the wake of the George-Floyd protests, and few other cities except Seattle have enacted IRL budget reductions. So this is a big deal. In a quarter century tracking Austin' police budget, not only have I never seen it go down, it's the first time in ages we haven't seen year-over-year increases.

Some advocates have expressed disappointment that cuts weren't deeper. But for anyone who's ever been involved in the city budget process, what just happened was nothing short of momentous.

Though the city budget on paper tops a billion dollars, typically, it comes to the city council pre-baked, with at most a few million dollars available for discretionary spending on anything, public-safety-related or otherwise. So actually cutting more than $20 million and spending it on other government functions represents a remarkable turn of events. The Austin Justice Coalition's Chas Moore opined in an email after the vote:
The $20-plus million in immediate divestment is of course less than we hoped Council could cut. But it was enough to fund a big expansion of EMS services, fully fund alternative first responders for mental health related calls, provide a much needed shelter for victims of family violence, increase homeless services, offer programs to support people trying to reintegrate after incarceration, add new violence prevention services and give harm reduction a chance to help people struggling with addiction
Not a bad day's work! 

Some of the functions being moved out of the police department will also make a big difference. For starters, separating the Internal Affairs division investigating police misconduct will boost their independence and reduce administrators' ability to corrupt the disciplinary process. This would have been a major victory if it'd been the only thing that happened!

Similarly, removing the 911 call center from APD could turn out to be a pivotal moment. Right now, nearly everyone who calls 911 has a police officer sent in response, even though nearly 80% of calls aren't related to crime at all, and patrol officers spend 2/3 of their time on non-crime-related activities. To the extent that new management deploys different resources in response to 911 calls, over time this could result in significantly reducing Austin's policing footprint. Said Chas Moore, "There is no doubt that we send police to calls where we don’t need them because the police department runs the call center."

Ending the department's contract for license-plate readers is a huge blow against police surveillance. It's a small thing in the context of budget numbers, but significant in terms of eliminating problematic police practices. The readers are primarily used to troll for traffic warrants, arresting people for unpaid ticket debt or using them to justify non-consensual searches. These techniques have been implicated in racial disparities in APD drug enforcement and exacerbating debtors-prison practices.

Finally, long-time Grits readers know that making the crime lab independent is an important reform touted by the national Innocence Project and experts at the National Academy of Sciences. Again, simply achieving that much would have been a significant accomplishment in and of itself, but the achievement almost gets lost amidst other changes in the budget.

While the city cut less than many advocates had called for, I must admit, this result exceeded Grits' expectations. On Twitter, I suggested that perhaps the City Manager did us a favor by not firing police Chief Brian Manley. "After their unanimous 'no confidence' vote, it gave the [City Council] the freedom to ignore and disempower him."

Regardless, politics is the art of the possible and none of this would have been possible just a few months ago. This was only the first step in a long process, but today was a big day.


Gadfly said...

Definitely agreed on moving IAD. We'll REALLY now how good this is when we hear how much Manley trashes it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I think he's figuring out that whenever he opens his mouth, he drives council members in the other direction. They really started reacting harshly to him the last couple of times he did that.

Gadfly said...

You may have a point there; it seems he's kept his lips zipped so far.