$150 million and time to do it right: This is what real reform looks like

There are a lot of mixed messages out there, so Just Liberty wants to state clearly and for the record that Austin City Council’s actions this week are a victory for criminal justice reform and that the next steps are the right ones.

Advocates 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. This was aggressive but doable. We had hoped to divest about $40 million right away, with additional divestments in the coming months. We want to call out for special thanks the “original” coalition of Council Members who made it possible to seriously address public safety by signing on early to the most important cuts: Casar, Harper-Madison, Garza, Pool and Kitchen.

The immediate cuts finally came in at about half what we hoped for, but City Council unanimously chose to put up to $150 million worth of divisions and functions into a process of “decoupling” and “reimagining.” This process, with the early commitments made by Council to shift critical functions out of the Department, shakes the old foundation. Council Member Flannigan’s amendment to empty the downtown police building and raze it in favor of a gateway to the East Side sends a clear message that Austin will this year pour a new and stronger foundation based on public safety for all.

So what is this process in front of us? “Decoupling” means the function is needed but would be handled better as a stand alone department or by another department: the crime lab, the 911 call center and dispatch, internal affairs and “special” investigations (investigations of police officers,) special events security, and various support services. It also includes a serious conversation about whether victim services is better off reporting to the police chief or someone else. Historically, victim services has been a low priority in a Department devoted to the organized interests of patrol officers. But victim services staff need to work closely with police at crime scenes. The debate over decoupling will likely tell us a lot about what victims of crime really want, and how we best provide it.

“Reimagining” is the more exciting conversation. So many aspects of policing, from the use of dogs to attack people to traffic stops as a fishing expedition for some other crime (where officers ask where you’ve been, where you are going, what is in your car and more,) arose in previous eras of fear: fear of crime, fear of youth, fear of Black civil rights, fear of immigrants, fear of change. While the fear-machine (mostly the police union and its fellow travelers) is attempting to relight that fire, Austinites are just not that afraid any more, and the death of George Floyd has convinced many that the cost of letting police run amok to ameliorate their fear is too high. The “reimagine” list includes traffic enforcement, the use of horses and dogs, surveillance, rangers instead of Lake and Park police, alternatives to police for nuisance abatement and more.

So, what happens next?

Start building the alternatives with immediate cuts.

  • Alternative mental health first response: Council Member Ann Kitchen is adamant that on October 1, when the new fiscal year official begins, the city will be ready to start shifting how 911 handles “wellness checks” and other calls related to people with mental illness.
  • EMS will finally get a major boost in funding and be able to handle more 911 calls. There will need to be a systematic review of 911 call data to ensure that calls are triaged more appropriately. Council Member Jimmy Flannigan plans to take a hands on approach to public safety reform over the coming months.
  • Homeless services will be funded starting on October 1 to help people who get housed stay housed as part of Austin’s larger investments in permanent supporting housing.
  • Harm reduction: With a new District Attorney in the pipeline, and funding for harm reduction services in a system of alternatives to arrest and jail for drug users, Austin should be able to quickly reduce arrests for low level drug users. This will also need to be tracked and documented, because police historically have not reduced arrests unless they have no choice.

Fix the fear-based Police Academy Culture.

Fear of crime isn’t the only place where fear has played a role in violent over-policing of communities of color. Police themselves are afraid. They are taught to be afraid of every encounter. They are taught that the most important people who must come home from any incident are themselves. They are taught that any gesture could be a person reaching for a gun (although that is the least likely thing going on in most interactions) and that it is reasonable to pull out a gun and shoot. They are taught the Constitutional limits of their allowable use of force in order to help them go right up to the line and not go over it. In Austin they are taught a week of Spanish and get a potpourri of sensitivity trainings, and get these classes in a militarized atmosphere where “command and control” is the basis for their communication strategies.

The Police Academy will be closed for one year. This is our opportunity to dig deep and put together the vision for a new culture for the department that we’ve long needed. The system of policing we have today took roughly 150 years to build. We are not going to eliminate police over night. As long as we have police, we need a better culture of policing and we can figure out exactly what we mean by that as part of the coming process to overhaul the training academy. There are core classes required by the State of Texas, but those classes can be taught in many different ways. And Austin can require our cadets to take additional kinds of training. Various suggestions, from a lot more Spanish to additional mental health hours, are already filtering in and Just Liberty will keep you updated as this process gets started.

Decouple and Re-imagine.

  • Independent Forensic Lab
  • Independent 911 call management
  • Victim Services
  • Park police and Lake patrol
  • Traffic enforcement
  • Mounted Patrol and the K9 Units: Special callout to Council Member Pool who stood up against misuse of man’s closest animal friends and allies for harm. Austin will seriously reconsider how we use animals in policing this year and we look forward to this debate.

Just Liberty will keep you informed. This is going to be a busy year for public safety advocates in the City of Austin.