Austin City Council members voted unanimously Thursday on four items related to the Austin Police Department’s policy and budget, including transferring some money from police to social services and banning police use of some potentially deadly weapons and practices.
The decision comes after the council heard more than eight hours over two days of public testimony on police violence during protests and calls to defund APD.
Council members cautioned that these resolutions are just the first of many.
“I want to make sure the public knows this is no victory lap at all,” Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who represents Southeast Austin, said. “The harder work is way ahead of us.”
Protests for racial justice began across the country after a Minneapolis police officer killed 46-year-old George Floyd. Here in Austin, demonstrators have also demanded justice for Mike Ramos, a black and Hispanic man killed by Austin police at the end of April. During the first weekend of protests in Austin, law enforcement officers fired bags filled with lead pellets at demonstrators and onlookers, severely injuring at least two people.
Amid calls across the nation to defund police departments, Austin City Council members voted on a resolution from Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents East Austin, to limit the police department’s budget by eliminating money for new police officers and vacant positions in the department that can’t reasonably be filled in the next fiscal year. Last year, the city approved money for 30 more officers.
That same resolution asks City Manager Spencer Cronk to use money from the police department to fund mental health services and two audits of police misconduct. It also asks them to find positions within APD that could be moved to other city departments, such as Austin Public Health and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
The specifics will be worked out as council members begin hammering out the budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in October. Budget discussions start next month.
Community activists have been calling for the City Council to decrease APD’s budget by at least $100 million, which represents about a quarter of the department’s budget this year.
Harper-Madison’s resolution also states that council members have “no confidence” in police leadership to make changes to end police violence against people of color. On Friday, two council members asked Austin Police Chief Brian Manley to resign; four others have said the police department needs new leadership. (According to state law, no one has the authority to fire Manley, although the city manager can demote him.)
While the vast majority of people who spoke to council members by phone Thursday supported the changes, a handful of people argued that the council’s actions would make Austin more unsafe.
“These rushed resolutions before the council are designed to perpetuate what the council fears most – an understaffed, overworked, undertrained and unappreciated police department that will be ill-equipped to adequately protect and serve the citizens of Austin,” Issa Kafena, a detective with APD and formerly a member of Mayor Steve Adler’s security detail, said.
A second resolution approved Thursday and brought by Council Member Greg Casar, who represents North Central Austin, bans or significantly reduces the use of certain weapons and maneuvers by police, including the use of tear gas at any time and "less lethal" ammunition during protests. The resolution also bans the use of chokeholds by police officers, although Manley said at a news conference Thursday the department has not taught or approved of chokeholds for decades, according to the Austin-American Statesman. Manley said he had already taken steps to outright ban the maneuver.
But Manley said he was hesitant to agree with some of the other policy bans, including the direction that the police department reduce its stockpile of military-grade equipment. He said during something like a mass shooting, that kind of equipment is necessary.
“I absolutely understand the intent of a police department that is community-focused and community-centered,” Manley said. "But we also have to maintain that ability to keep our community safe should we come under that type of attack.”
Council members also voted to limit the police department’s use of deadly force against someone fleeing from police, whether on foot or in a car, to instances only where the officer or others are in threat of serious bodily injury. Ramos was pulling out of a parking spot in Southeast Austin when police shot and killed him.
But some people speaking to council via phone Thursday questioned if these changes went far enough.
“How many police have claimed that a black person was an imminent threat when they weren’t?” asked Katie Drackert.
In the hopes of ensuring the police department implements the policy changes they’re asking for, council members voted on two additional items they say will help them hold city staff accountable.
In January, council members voted for police to stop ticketing people for low-level marijuana offenses after a new hemp law, combined with a lack of testing capabilities across the state, made it difficult to prosecute these cases. But a day after that council vote, Manley said police had to follow state law, under which possession of marijuana is a crime.
“If these goals sound audacious and unachievable, we need to stop and consider what goals we would consider acceptable. How much racial disparity would we be comfortable with? How many deaths at the hands of police officers are we OK with?” Garza said at a press conference Monday.
A second resolution, from Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, changes the current city Judicial Committee to a Public Safety Committee. While Austin already has a Public Safety Commission overseen by volunteers, Flannigan said this would be run by council members and be used to ask questions of staff in charge of police.
Flannigan said the newly established Public Safety Committee will hold its first meeting next week.
This post has been updated.
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