Public Safety Reform Isn't Austin's Final Jeopardy
With the adoption of the annual City of Austin budget this week, it may feel like we are writing our response in Final Jeopardy!, but we have barely begun the opening round. And much like the game show, advocates have presented the answers in advance (Black Lives Matter!, Defund the Police!, Keep the community safe!) with much of the Council's response still coming in the form of a question. But this is no game and the show (and the work) is far from over.
Category is: Before (& After)
This week marks two months since City Council began in earnest its work on public safety reform. But many advocacy groups in the community like Measure, Austin Justice Coalition, Just Liberty, and more have been working on these answers for many years helping provide a community-led foundation of research, policy, and analysis for the hard work ahead.
The Council stepped up its work at the June 11 council meeting, where we first transitioned the council’s Judicial Committee into the more precisely named Public Safety Committee and presented a number of items1 unanimously approved by the council. These items set the direction for the hard work to come. Early in that process, the members of the committee – myself as chair, Mayor Pro-tem Garza, Vice Chair Casar, and CM Harper-Madison – made a commitment of time, dedication, and patience to see this work through. And the entire council has shown up for the work too, sharing our sense of commitment and urgency, engaged and united in this challenge.
Subsequently, the first meeting of the Public Safety Committee was held on June 18. We have since held five public meetings hearing testimony and feedback from a diverse variety of stakeholders. The experiences of testifying beat officers, higher-ups at APD, EMS, and AFD have offered much insight, as has analysis from guest presenters: UT professors, legal experts, research analysts, and even national experts reporting on the CAHOOTS (Eugene, Oregon's Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets mobile crisis intervention team in partnership with Eugene Police Department and EMS) program. Plus, we heard from many adjacent to this work, including local non-profit leaders and direct service employees, city staff (Office of Police Oversight, Innovation Office, APD, EMS, AFD, Code Enforcement, Budget, and Municipal Court) as well as officers from the police association.
We have heard loud and clear from constituents representing all parts of town, reflecting all faiths, races, creeds, etc., but especially from communities of color that our current approach to public safety is systematically failing them. These failures come in the form of economic, emotional, material, and in some cases, life-or-death consequences. So the work ahead clearly needs to be transformative. We must earn the trust of our community and put their safety and well-being above all else.
As famous 74-time Jeopardy! winner Ken Jennings has said –
The great thing about knowing stuff is that anyone can do it.
– and we have learned a lot through our Public Safety Committee work.
In the last 10 years, the Austin Police Department budget has nearly doubled2 while the city's population has grown by just 30%3. The department also represents the largest part of the city's tax-supported general fund by a wide margin – a gigantic bureaucracy that has reached unsustainable levels. Also more than double is the number of officer service calls where there was no report at all, as well as the over 90% of building alarms where officers responded that were just false alarms4.
As I wrote back in June, we ask officers to do so many jobs that do not need to be officers and could otherwise be performed by less expensive non-sworn staff or prevented entirely with lower-cost services and programs focused on "serve and protect" rather than simply on enforcement at the end. This part of what makes this work so exciting – an unprecedented municipal reform movement for fiscal responsibility that could both reduce costs and provide better and more targeted services to those in crisis.
Also doubling down has been the fear-mongering rhetoric from certain community groups (and even the Chief) that any reforms spell certain doom for our city, that the only thing we should do is increase the size of the department. It's a shameful exercise, lacking in any critical analysis of the changes the Council is actually contemplating. The Chief, an appointed department head, has been an especially egregious actor – fighting a unanimously supportive council in ways that feel less like democracy with each passing day. Like a Jeopardy! contestant getting the responses wrong time and time again, he doesn't deserve to make it through to the next round.
Category is: Potpourri
There are a wide range of ideas and reforms that will be adopted this week and you can track the proposal development on the Council Message Board. Some of the proposals are more immediate changes, like new investments in violence prevention, substance abuse harm reduction, permanent supportive housing, and EMS during a pandemic. Others are "budget riders" that direct the work that continues past the budget vote, like shifting functions currently within APD to other departments or further development of alternative response programs.
My proposals focused on work beyond this week. The Deconstruct and Reconstruct proposal presents options for the decentralization of the responsibilities of APD. Dividing the current roles of APD into different departments allows for a shift in leadership, multiple points of accountability, and greater oversight and control over spending for each area.
While the part of my proposal calling for replacing the current APD HQ has taken on a life of its own, folks on all sides of the debate have been dabbling in a veritable telephone game of misunderstanding and inaccuracies. Bottom line: The current police headquarters building is old and in poor condition. We moved the entire Municipal Court earlier this year, which shared that facility, because the building was falling apart. Moving police headquarters comes at the request of the department itself dating back many years. Now the council is directing that process to begin. Specific plans for what will replace the HQ building are still being considered, but one can imagine the value of a facility that can help address economic inequalities and support future economic success in East Austin and for the black community, an opportunity that makes sense given the site’s location.
The changes represent a fairly modest immediate shift (roughly $23 million out of a $440 million dollar budget without firing any current officers) with another roughly $130 million in restructuring and alternative response proposals to be refined and implemented in the coming year. The 2021 budget adoption vote is just the beginning.
Ultimately, the work we are doing must be not only transformative but sustainable. As I’ve said many times: This is not going to be an overnight shift, but instead, the beginning of a continuous improvement process on how to elevate the role of the very things that support police work – like social workers, clerical support, and public service campaigns – and allow our officers to focus on the tough but somewhat rare and necessary work for which training can be specifically designed.
This week's vote on the budget is not even this year’s final action in addressing our public safety system. The intersection of new legislative taxing restraints, the Covid-19 pandemic, and urgent calls for public safety reform warrant an ongoing budget process throughout the year. Solutions will continue to be developed and discussed – and a calendar of budget amendments for this upcoming fiscal year will be released – all overseen by the Public Safety Committee that I lead.
No, this is no Final Jeopardy – and we are still framing our answers more in the form of a question than many headlines would lead you to believe. But I am confident that with this budget, we can save money, invest in our community, and improve the safety and quality of life for all of us in Austin. And there's no question about that.
– Council Member Jimmy Flannigan
Please continue to follow our work and to stay informed:
• City Council message board : up-to-date communications between council members including proposed amendments for each meeting.
• Public Safety Committee main page: PSC meeting schedule, meeting agendas, and videos of the meetings.
• Watch meetings live on atxn.org ( http://www.austintexas.gov/atxn )
• View the first draft of the Proposed Budget from the Office of the City Manager.
(1) June 11 Agenda Items 50, 93, 95, 96 - https://www.austintexas.gov/department/city-council/2020/20200611-reg.htm
(2) Austin population over time - https://www.austintexas.gov/sites/default/files/files/Planning/Demographics/population_history_pub.pdf
(3) COA FY2009 Budget - http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=125802
(4) Draft January 2020 analysis of service calls - https://public.tableau.com/profile/city.of.austin.office.of.innovation#!/vizhome/911CallsforServiceData-DispatchvsOfficerInitiated/OfficerInitiatedTrends
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