A good proposal, and a plan to walk down a road

Advocates have called for at least $100 million in a combination of immediate cuts and divisions to be closed or migrated out of the Austin Police Department. With a final budget hearing on August 12th and a budget vote as early as August 13th (could go to the 14th,) we are fighting to get the votes we need for about $23 million in immediate cuts so we can start building out the alternatives to policing that make sense in so many areas. And we are fighting to for commitments to move out of the Police Department functions that would be better run by other kinds of staff — 911 dispatch management for all our safety agencies, the forensics labs (which should be independent of police to strengthen criminal cases,) data analytics and communications, and more.

This is far less than what’s needed, but a good start. Some details are still being worked out, but we can give you the following update and expect it to be true in its general outline.

Greg Casar, Delia Garza, Natasha Harper-Madison, Leslie Pool and Ann Kitchen have put forward a proposal for immediate cuts, and Natasha Harper Madison has put forward a plan for the work that has to occur in the coming year. The total in immediate cuts and divisions to be migrated is $103 million, with another $47 million set aside for a “reimagining” process.

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The first proposal cuts about $23 million and hinges on one decision: City Council must decide right now that it needs the entire year to fix the Police Academy. Council has been given reports demonstrating the deep issues with our police training and trainers. These reports were never intended to influence budget decisions. They are simply the outcome of the studies called for by various resolutions over the past two years. The final audit will be completed at the end of October.

The question is, can a major transformation of curriculum followed by training for the trainers be completed rapidly enough to assure recruits who sign up in the fall that they will have a March Academy to attend. Last year we learned that recruits come from all over the country. Once we make a commitment to them, we have to follow through.

Why do we have to decide this now? Because if we cancel only one class, Council has about $6 million in savings to reinvest. That’s about enough to fund long overdue expansions to our EMS system. And that’s it.

If we assume we need this entire year to fix the police academy, Council has about $18 million in savings to reinvest. The Casar/Harper-Madison/Garza/Pool/Kitchen proposal includes this, along with a modest $2-3 million cut from police overtime and from other lines, for a total immediate cut of $23 million. That is enough to pay for EMS, mental health response, public health, family violence shelters and services, the services needed to support our investments in housing the homeless, victim services and a few more items. All these long overdue investments will make our community safer. Meanwhile, the city will be able to make improvements to our police academy a priority and do the job right. While the Academy is closed, 17 officers return to regular patrol. This plan puts more officers on the streets now than we would have if we do something with less certainty.

So what’s the takeaway? There are three areas where we need to see progress. 1) Investment in the things we already know we need — so that means freeing up enough money next week. 2) Moving things we already know we need to move out of the police department after years of dysfunction, like forensics, 911 and data management and units we can retire like the Mounted unit. 3) A public process to reconsider and reimagine all of our police goals, the strategies we think should be employed and the outcomes we want from those goals and strategies.

Start building the alternatives with immediate cuts.

  • Close the Academy for a full year: save about $18 million.
  • Cut police overtime (a little): $3 million.
  • Cut expense lines that are underspent and require the department to live within its means.
  • Limit the police department’s share of the “liability reserve” fund. This is Amendment 3 put forward by Natasha Harper Madison that should free up almost $2 million.

These changes total a little more than $23 million, about half what we hoped could be cut from maximizing the elimination of unfilled positions, closing the Academy and clearing out the police overtime fund. Nonetheless, $20 million is not pocket change. It is real money and can start a process by which the City builds out the infrastructure that we need if we are to expect our police force to stop doing the things they are not very good at, and figure out what we want them to do instead.

Move functions out of the Police Department and retire unneeded functions.

  • Forensics: $12.8 million.
  • 911 call center/communications: $17.7 million.
  • Internal affairs and Special Investigations: $6.4 million.
  • Special event security: $4.5 million.
  • Victim Services: $3.2 million.
  • Data and strategic support: $18.4 million
  • Traffic management: unknown but many millions.

These changes have either been years in the making (what should be the last “study” on creating an independent crime lab was finally released last week) or are clearly needed based on what we’ve learned from audits over the past year. The Tatum report, while focused on racism in the department, called out records management as a big problem. Big errors in public reporting have plagued the department for years and data that should be readily available is posted years after it is compiled. Investigations of officers must be independent of the officers’ chain of command. The 911 call center, controlled and managed as a division of the police department, sends police to most calls even though call studies demonstrate that most calls are not about crimes. An independent 911 dispatch might finally start to resolve the problems we’ve always had because too many expensive resources (EMS, police AND fire) are dispatched unnecessarily. It is long past time that we stopped using police overtime for events that happen every year and can be secured with a less expensive resource.

It is also time to retire outmoded strategies. The Mounted unit is a vestige of policing dating back to its origins in race control. K9 drug interdiction is among the many standard police tactics currently being re-evaluated nationwide due to false positives, handler issues and harm to victims. We need park and lake rangers who understand and care about environmental education and serve as ambassadors to our parks far more than we need armed police driving around our parks in cars or boats. Victim services need access to police records, but they are not police and would be better able to serve the needs of victims if they were more independent. And the many functions police now perform to assist with rush hour traffic problems or get debris off the road can be done by less costly staff.

Reimagine policing.

  • Mounted police: $2.2 million.
  • K9 drug interdiction: $1.3 million.
  • Patrol: what impact do police officers driving around in cars have?
  • Park police and Lake patrol: $7.3 million.
  • Traffic enforcement: $18.5 million. Can we migrate away from police, tickets, and arrest warrants for unpaid tickets to address minor traffic violations? There are common sense alternatives that would have a huge impact on our ability to prioritize police time for more serious crime.
  • Investigations: what do we expect of police with respect to property crime? What is reasonable?
  • Investigations: violent crime is relatively rare but very serious. What do we want police to do about violent crime? What are its roots? Are there systems of prevention that work better than patrol? What do the victims really want?
  • Order and disorder: Over time policing has migrated away from “Sherlock Holmes” style criminal investigation and has become primarily a means for maintaining public “order.” Is this the means by which racial inequities are maintained? Should “order” be retired as a goal, and instead should government focus on helping people through crisis and establish a more equitable safety net?

This is the community conversation we need to have if we are to reimagine public safety. And this conversation will take time. We need to bring the entire community down the road, while we will face a barrage of fear mongering opposition from those who are entrenched in the now.