The Austin Police budget must be cut to build more efficient alternatives.

People who support certain kinds of police reform, sometimes don’t support cuts to the police budget. But for decades cities have continued to add funds for more police officers and higher police pay, while keeping other departments flat or even cutting them. Inevitably, this resulted in police doing things that are not police work just because they were the only staff available to throw at problems.

You may have just heard that the city will cut $11 million from the police department, including some “positions.” Of the purported 100 positions proposed to be “cut,” 30 were never positions at all, merely a planned increase. The remaining 70 are unfilled positions they city cannot fill this fiscal year under under even the most optimistic projections. So in fact, nothing has been actually cut. And strangely, we can expand that nothing and cut even more money.

Austin has a golden opportunity right now to cut the police budget significantly and without layoffs. Why? Because each year the city uses some smoke and mirrors to “budget” millions for open positions that it can’t actually fill. Thanks to the long overdue audit of the Police Academy — an audit that has already surfaced serious issues with how police are trained and will result in a new curriculum that trainers must be trained to teach — it is unlikely that a single new cadet can be added to the rolls this year. Based on available information, there are about 170 open positions now, and normal attrition will increase that number by another 60 positions over the coming 12 months. At roughly $100,000 per sworn officer, these 230 positions free up $23 million that would normally be allocated to the police budget. Next budget cycle we can reassess how much police we really need, having built some new public safety systems with that money.

But won’t that mean that police will just use expensive overtime to back fill for the positions they can’t hire? Not if Austin uses that initial investment to move duties to lower-cost staff, then uses the police time we free up to replace overtime. Can we completely eliminate the use of overtime? We should try. Austin officer base pay is among the highest in the state. Overtime for all but a few specialized police functions should be avoided.

A recent study of Austin’s 911 call data indicated that only 0.6% of calls and 2.7% of patrol response time relate to violent crime. Overall, about 60% of police dispatch time doesn’t relate to crime at all. Police are not better at waiving traffic past orange cones than some other guy in a vest. Police are worse at assessing mental health conditions than staff with clinical training. Police, trained in “command and control,” sometimes don’t respond well to a “suspicious person” who is deaf, or someone with developmental disabilities or even a person having a diabetic crisis. “Welfare checks” far too often result in an unnecessary police action — jail or worse. Sending alternative staff to noncriminal 911 calls will free up the time of 180 existing officers, more than the Department could hire and train for years to come.

A full application of Council’s directive to use the “empty positions” gets us a long way towards hiring alternative staff types to do work that police do now: from traffic control to burglar alarms (99.5% false alarms) to “welfare checks,” we can send better trained people for less money.

But is $23 million enough to build alternative ways to keep us safe? Probably not. So what else should we cut right now?

Police budget cuts we can make right now.

  • Eliminate unfilled positions: $23 million.
  • Eliminate the 118 cadets that we cannot possibly train this year: est. $4 million.
  • Closed academy saves estimated $2 million one time cost this budget cycle and frees officer time to backfill “overtime” needs. With the Police Academy closed until the audit is complete, Austin can redirect staff and funds. If officers who teach at the Academy are reassigned (to reduce reliance on overtime as we build our alternative response system,) then the savings for reinvestment is less, but still about $2 million.
  • Cut overtime budget: save $10 million.
  • Reform traffic enforcement: frees staff time to avoid overtime. Austin is already a “Vision Zero” city for traffic fatalities, and residents are familiar with the proliferation of traffic circles and speed indicators. Such improvements should continue. These “traffic design” changes reduce accidents without intervention by police. Once an accident does happen, almost none of what occurs on scene requires a police officer (except in relatively rare, very serious accidents.) Sending someone else to assess the situation and decide if an officer is needed will allow 22 officers to be reassigned and improve how residents feel about emergency response to their fender benders. Without officer layoffs, this reform will simply allow police time to be managed more effectively to reduce overtime.
  • Cut the mounted unit (horses): save $1 million in ongoing costs and the cost of a new stable. The horses are beautiful, and everyone loves them. But when police need to chase down a suspect in an urban setting there are better vehicles. Police cite crowd control on 6th street as the current best use, but have other crowd control techniques at their disposal. Meanwhile, horses are also used to roust the homeless (disrupt “unauthorized camping” according to the unit website) a practice that harms more than it helps. Austin’s horse unit costs about $2 million per year, or $50,000 extra per officer on top of the cost of officer salary. More critically, the horses also need a new stable. Rather than investing millions more, it is time to disband. This will free up 14 officers and two supervisors to offset the need for overtime.
  • Change how we staff special events. Special event staffing has long been a target for reform, especially to the extent officers get paid overtime for this service. Some Austin communities have already started substituting community-based event security as much as possible. This will require a longer discussion with the downtown businesses and events that gain the most from taxpayer funded event security, but should be a priority in order to eliminate expensive overtime.
  • Overfunded items: save $1.5 million. We’ve often wondered how APD seems to find money for unbudgeted items in the middle of the year. A comparison of expenditures in the first two quarters to budget line items surfaces a few funds that could be scrubbed of excess cash: explosives at nearly $800k with only $90k spent in the first two quarters, a “market study adjustment” fund at $800k unspent, and a few others small things. Without eliminating all the Chief’s “fudge” money, we estimate a real budget cut of $1.5 million is reasonable.

These changes total $41.5 million in cuts, nearly four times the cuts proposed by City Manager Cronk on July 13th, but far less than the $100 million requested by the Austin Justice Coalition. With a $440 million dollar police budget, $40 million still looks like “picking the low hanging fruit.” As interesting proposals for public safety spending start to roll in, especially from groups representing crime and violence survivors, Austin electeds will likely have to consider deeper cuts. We will update this page and our talking points as new proposals develop.