Austin is immediately cutting $20 million from the city’s police budget – and council members are vowing to make bigger reductions in the coming year.
“I think this is without a doubt the most significant change in Austin’s public safety priorities in generations,” Council Member Greg Casar said after Thursday's unanimous vote. "This moment is something that’s been borne out of a lot of hurt in the community. ... There's so much more that we know our community is asking for."
With everything tallied, the City Council voted Thursday to flag roughly $150 million – about a third of funding for police – to potentially be moved out of the department or spent elsewhere. It’s the first time in at least six years that the council has not increased the police budget, which has grown by 50% since 2013.
Of the immediate cuts, roughly $3.5 million would go toward Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services’ response to COVID-19. Another $6.5 million would go to housing assistance for people currently living on the street, and just under $1 million would go to staff non-police officers responding to mental health calls.
Hours after the vote, Police Chief Brian Manley said that while he worried about staffing levels, he welcomed some of the change.
“Oftentimes police officers are sent to situations for which we’re not always the best trained or the best equipped," he said. "We’re just simply the only ones available and we have wanted that alternative reponse."
The City Council adopted the changes to the police budget Thursday as it signed off on a $4.2 billion budget ahead of Oct. 1, the start of the city’s fiscal year.
The budget reflects a slight property tax increase over the last year – roughly $47 more in city taxes for the typical homeowner. But residents could be on the hook for significantly more property taxes if voters approve a measure in November to fund a new regional transit plan, Project Connect.
The majority of people testifying Wednesday urged council members to slash the budget of the Austin Police Department. Some invoked the names of those recently killed or injured by police officers: Mike Ramos, who was killed by Officer Christopher Taylor in April, and teenager Brad Levi Ayala, who was seriously injured after an officer shot him in the head with a lead-pellet-filled bag during a protest in May.
“Be bold and courageous leaders who see the value of change, who see the opportunities created by funding the community. You’ve heard the numbers, you’ve heard our demands, but are you listening?” said Katie Drackert, who testified in person from the Palmer Events Center. “Vote on this budget as if Mike Ramos' and Brad Ayala’s mothers are sitting next to you.”
Since June, Austinites have been demanding the council significantly reduce funding for the police department, which for the past two years has had an annual budget of more than $400 million. Local racial justice groups eventually put specific numbers to their demands: Cut between $100 million and $220 million from the police budget and use it to pay for various social services, including low-income housing and Austin Public Health.
Activists have also called for Manley to resign; City Manager Spencer Cronk does not have the power to fire Manley, only to demote him. When asked if he had any plans to resign after the council’s vote Thursday, Manley did not answer the question.
“This isn’t about me and my plans,” he said. “This is about our community who needs a police department that can provide them a level of services that they deserve.”
Much of the cuts voted on Thursday – about $13 million in one-time and recurring savings – will come from cancelling the next three cadet training classes. Manley has said eliminating the classes would put the department’s staffing back to what it was in 2015.
“I do believe this really represents one of the greatest threats to the safety of our community,” he told council members last week.
After council's vote Thursday, Manley said the department would be taking officers off special assignments and back to patrol.
“It’s important for the community to understand that we will ensure that our patrol functions at full staffing at the levels that we’re at today so that we can ensure our ability to respond to those 911 and 311 calls for service.”
Another portion of the cuts includes $2.8 million in overtime pay for officers. In total, what council voted to immediately cut from the police budget Thursday amounts to roughly 5% of the current $434 million budget.
“I really admire you all for taking such a historic step in the right direction,” Chas Moore, co-founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, told council members Wednesday. “This is kind of a big and small step at the same time.”
But others called the cuts a baby step, falling short of what many have asked for.
“I urge you to dig deeper and take the courageous step that will finally place people at the center of your so-called policy solutions,” Joshua Crutchfield told council members during public testimony. “Reimagining public safety does not simply mean reorganizing departments.”
On Thursday, council voted to move nine divisions within APD to either other city departments or to turn them into standalone offices. Those divisions, which include Internal Affairs, Victim Services and the 911 Call Center, represent roughly $79.5 million in funding.
People testifying Wednesday told council members that doesn’t amount to a “cut” since money is merely being moved, not freed up to be spent elsewhere.
The council also agreed to transfer roughly $49 million, spread across training and overtime funds and additional divisions within the office, out of the police department and into a holdover fund, which it will consider what to do with over the next year.
The city will also move employees out of the APD headquarters downtown and into other city buildings, although there was no sense of what this would cost.
Council members plan to meet before March to discuss and possibly pass more changes to the police budget, including what to do with the millions left in a transition fund. At the same time, Cronk and his office have begun several months of listening to the public and consulting with public safety staff on what policing in Austin should look like in the future.
Racial justice groups have cautioned against waiting longer to make substantial reductions to the police budget for fear the city could miss out on the current momentum and political will for change.
“We now have broad community-wide support for shifting our community strategies from policing toward holistic community care,” Maya Pilgrim, a member of Communities of Color United, said on a video message played for council members. The organization has asked that the police budget be cut in half and that the city make some of the money available as direct cash assistance for families affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The group has also asked that millions be allocated to the city’s Equity Office; on Thursday, the council voted to spend $3 million to add 14 positions across the Equity Office and the Office of Police Oversight.
“This cannot be wasted nor can this be delayed. Your words must not be hollow. Your deeds must not be window dressing," Pilgrim said.
This post has been updated.
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