Proposition A would increase police staffing. Here are 3 things to know.
Austin's elected officials have spent a lot of the last year talking about policing and what changes, if any, should be made to the city’s police department.
These conversations began in earnest in 2019. That’s when the council voted to stall the training of any new police officers until city higher-ups could revise teaching materials after officers complained of an academy that employed bullying tactics.
Roughly six months later, in response to national and local calls to reconsider the role of police in communities, council members voted to cut $150 million from the Austin Police Department’s budget. (Only $20 million of that money actually got spent on non-police work before a new state law forced the city to refund the department’s budget.)
And then there’s 2021. So far this year, Austin has recorded the highest number of murders since the city began keeping track of this number, sometime in the 1960s.
Now, Austin voters — as opposed to elected officials — are being asked to make some decisions about policing. Enter: Proposition A.
Save Austin Now, the political action committee behind the proposition in May to reinstate the camping ban, collected more than 20,000 signatures on a petition earlier this year to get Prop A in front of voters.
Here’s the language you’ll see on the ballot:
“Shall a petitioned ordinance be approved to enhance public safety and police oversight, transparency and accountability by adding new chapter 2-16 to establish minimum standards for the police department to ensure effective public safety and protect residents and visitors to Austin, and prescribing minimal requirements for achieving the same, at an estimated cost of $271.5 million - $598.8 million over five years?”
What does Proposition A do?
At its heart, Prop A is about police staffing.
If passed, the proposition would require the Austin Police Department to employ at least two police officers per 1,000 residents. According to the latest available data, the department has about 1.6 officers per 1,000 residents.
The City of Austin estimates this ratio would require hiring anywhere from 403 to 885 new police officers over the next five years. Save Austin Now, on the other hand, estimates this would mean hiring 300 to 350 officers, and has not put a timeline on this number.
Prop A would also require that 35% of officers’ time be committed to “community engagement.” But there seems to be some confusion about how the department defines this kind of time; elected officials and APD gave KUT different, sometimes contradicting, definitions.
There are a couple other things Prop A would do. The APD will be required to provide additional compensation to officers who speak a language other than English, officers who mentor others and those who are in good standing with APD. (Officers already receive an additional $175 a month for speaking a language other than English, but do not receive additional pay for the two other criteria.)
Police would also be required to attend 40 hours of training beyond the training they already take. This training, as laid out in the petition, would “emphasize skills essential to the everyday split-second decision-making officers face on the streets in areas such as critical thinking, defensive tactics, intermediate weapons proficiency, active shooter scenarios, and hasty react team reactions.”
What would all of this cost?
Save Austin Now estimates that this measure will cost the city up to $35 million a year for the first couple years. It covers salaries and equipment, but it does not include the cost of additional substations.
The City of Austin's estimates are much higher: anywhere from $54.3 million to $119 million per year for at least the first five years.
In an August memo, Austin’s Budget Office laid out what it thinks Proposition A would cost. Since the number of officers the department would have to hire depends on Austin’s population, the city laid out two scenarios: one accounts for a higher population growth than the other.
Both of these estimates include not only what it could cost to hire hundreds more officers, but also the cost of vehicles and equipment, and building up to three new police substations to house a bigger force.
In its calculations, the city uses a slightly higher ratio — between 2.1 and 2.35 officers per 1,000 residents — to account for any officers who leave the department.
“To have two officers per thousand employed at all times, we will essentially need to overhire,” Austin’s Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo told council members at a meeting over the summer.
But Save Austin Now says it doesn't expect the city to get to the desired policing ratio in the first year.
“We're not of the view that we have to be at 2 [per thousand residents] immediately or even within the first year, which is one of the reasons why we don't believe even the low-end estimate of $54 million is correct,” Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak told KUT.
Then there's the issue of whether it will actually happen if this level of staffing is mandated.
For at least the past five years, APD has not been able to hire the total numbers of officers it's budgeted for. The department typically employs about 100 fewer officers than it can afford.
How would Austin pay for it?
Prop A does not make funding available to pay for hiring new officers; it would be on the city to find the money.
That would likely require the City of Austin to either raise taxes — which, depending on how high it wanted to raise them, could require an election — or cut money from other departments.
While yard signs dispersed by opponents of Prop A, "No Way on Prop A," suggest the city would have to cut funding for public parks and libraries, the city won’t decide where the money comes from unless the proposition is passed.
Many in the government, including elected officials, have said they are concerned about what kind of financial impact this may have.
“Anyone who is thinking about voting for this measure should really take a look at the city budget [and] understand well the impact of being tied to this unsustainable cost and make sure that they understand if this measure passes, we would have to cut city services across most city departments,” Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents Central Austin, said at a meeting in August.
Representatives for Save Austin Now have argued that the city used to pay for more police, so it can do the same now.
“It’s so rich that when we’re asking for the same number of police officers we had two years ago that now they’re complaining there isn’t enough money,” Mackowiak said at a press conference earlier this month.
In August, Austin City Council members funded the city’s police department at the highest levels ever, setting its budget to nearly $443 million for the current fiscal year.
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