Sunday, August 23, 2020

"It just happened so quick" Backstory from my wife on Austin's long-awaited police budget cuts and not at all a commentary on my love life

On Facebook, my lovely and brilliant better half, Kathy Mitchell, offered up a response to critics of the Austin police budget cuts who just think it was all too sudden. Go read it.

Her main point is likely obvious to regular readers of this modest opuscule: Nearly all the budget cuts and organizational changes in the Austin budget revisions were years in the making, not knee-jerk reactions to recent protests. The protests changed the politics at city council to let a bunch of things happen at once. But if you were involved in any of the issues on the ground, none of it was "sudden."

For example, while no officers were laid off as a result of budget cuts, and APD will have the same number of officers in its employ on October 1st, when the budget takes effect, as it will the day before, the budget does assume the department will hold no new cadet classes in the coming fiscal year.

Did they do that because protesters chanted "Defund the police!" outside their homes? That certainly gave them political motivation. But it was last December when the Austin City Council voted to delay the next cadet academy to give a consultant time to evaluate its programming. That consultant later quit and her evaluations were all unflattering. The December vote in turn reacted to longstanding problems with the training academy that local advocates have been pushing to change. Indeed, when the decision was made in late April to ask the city manager to fire Chief Brian Manley, one of the stated reasons was a lack of confidence that the department would meaningfully alter how it trains young officers under his purview. 

Then, the George-Floyd protests empowered local-reform-movement allies on the City Council to delay the next academy until the curriculum is evaluated and transformed away from its "warrior cop" mentality evinced now. Otherwise, we're recruiting more officers to send through a problematic system. But change at that scale takes time. The department has yet to produce a promised audit of the training academy and, once that's out, it will then take time to develop a new curriculum.

Any reduction in total force would come from regular retirements and attrition (and generate significant savings, one might add). But it's a temporary thing; the City Council delayed cadet classes for a year, they didn't abandon them forever.

The city manager had hoped to rush through superficial curriculum changes, but that train has slowed and, behind the scenes, few honestly imagine the evaluation could be completed, much less new curricula developed, before next spring, assuming all goes well. Even if it were possible to begin a class toward the end of the fiscal year, a cadet class takes eight months, so no new officers would come onboard until FY22, at the earliest. Because: math. Almost all of the $21 million in savings comes from the delayed cadet classes.

The point is, this didn't just happen overnight; it was already in the works before George Floyd died, but the longer delay didn't have its votes on council until after protests in May and June. That's just one example, Kathy runs through many others. Another Facebook post runs through the absurdist economics behind housing the 14 horses for the Austin PD mounted unit, determining it would cost less to rent each horse a luxury hotel room downtown for the next five years than it would to build a proposed urban barn for them, the cost of which has blown far past past bond budgets.

Down the line, each of the big changes in the Austin budget has a unique, often years-long history. Removing the crime lab from APD was first suggested after mismanagement on Art Acevedo's watch caused the DNA lab to founder, leading the Department of Public Safety to take over the lab then close it. Austin hired an Ivy-League think tank called the Quattrone Center to examine the question and they recommended options for making the lab independent. That's also a national best practice suggested in 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences and is a reform prominently promoted by the national Innocence Project. The Houston Forensic Science Center removed crime lab services from police purview and may do the same for evidence processing.

The 911 call center is another. Regular readers know that, last year, the city council agreed to spend money on a program to divert mental-health calls from police to medical personnel. But upon implementation, only a few people were diverted. Meanwhile, we now know that 2/3 of Austin PD officer patrol time is spent responding to non-criminal complaints. Smart people in and out of local government have spent a lot of time trying to figure out why that is. The problem is cultural: 911 sends cops to everything. Making it independent lets the city merge it with 311 and put people in charge of  deployment decisions whose conception of public safety is broader than "send a cop."

I could go on; see Kathy's post for more. But the broader point remains: None of these changes are sudden or arose in reaction to recent protests. Each had been proposed before and has its own history. That even goes for Council Member Jimmy Flannigan's last-minute proposal to tear down the 7th Street police headquarters to create a "gateway" to East Austin. The police headquarters are old, outdated, awkwardly located, inconvenient for officers who mostly live in the suburbs, and police brass have long considered it inadequate to their needs. 

In a different context, if the proposal wasn't so laden with symbolic zeal, police might have been happy to embrace the idea of literally blowing up the police department and rebuilding substations elsewhere. Heck, they might still, making lemonade out of lemons. Regardless, that doesn't mean Austin won't hold a big party on Demolition Day.

1 comment:

Deb said...

The other "OMG!" was the number: the $150M that was "CUT!" so people thought. Despite reading many articles and saying they understood, they insisted that money was going away from public safety.

I've been trying to relay it's going away from APD, and is better spent elsewhere to improve public safety.

I too thought your wife's not at all a commentary on your love life ;-) was worthy of the re-blog and merely added a piece about the OMG $150M. Which is really $129M after you take the only "cut" out of $ be re-routed, explaining it's not that huge of a number when you look at how much APD's budget has grown in 20 years - this rerouting is just starting to scratch the surface of what smart public safety looks like.