Austin May Cut Police Budget by Nearly $150 Million
The City Council will pass a budget this week that could cut nearly $150 million in funding from the Austin Police Department. The proposal appears to have majority support.
This week, the Austin City Council will consider one of the most substantial cuts to a major city’s police budget since George Floyd’s death, which sparked calls across the country to defund law enforcement and redirect that money to services like violence prevention, supportive housing, and substance use treatment.
Three City Council members have put forth a joint proposal to shrink the police department’s budget by nearly $150 million and reinvest those funds in services for the community. It would reduce the police department’s budget for the first time in over a decade. Advocates have called on the city to cut APD’s budget by at least $100 million; the joint proposal would do that, and move an additional $50 million from the Austin Police Department budget to a transition fund.
“Our primary response to problems as a local government is policing,” Councilmember Gregorio Casar told The Appeal. “Our community has come together like never before and demanded that change, and set a goal post of $100 million as a signal to that change.”
The vote comes after months of protest in Austin and demands from hundreds of community members to reduce APD’s $434 million budget, and reinvest that money into services that create safe and healthy communities. A session to vote on the budget begins on Wednesday, but the public comment period could push the vote itself off to Thursday or Friday.
Cities across the country have voted to cut police budgets in recent months. The Minneapolis City Council moved to disband its troubled police department in June, though the effort has since been stalled. The Los Angeles City Council voted to reverse a $120 million increase to the LAPD’s budget and cut an additional $30 million, while the New York City Council shifted $1 billion away from the NYPD. In Portland, Oregon, the mayor and superintendent agreed to remove police officers from the city’s schools and put the $1 million budgeted for school resource officers back into the community. Austin’s proposal would cut the police department’s budget by roughly a third, a larger percentage reduction than these other cuts.
The proposal put forth by Councilmembers Casar, Natasha Harper-Madison, and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza late last week combines many of the ideas council members have recommended throughout the budget process. Comments on the City Council message board seem to indicate a majority of the 10 council members support it: Councilmembers Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen, Sabino “Pio” Renteria, and Jimmy Flannigan expressed their support online. Austin Mayor Steve Adler has also said he could support cutting $100 million so long as that move will be used to make fundamental changes.
Under the joint proposal, over $100 million in funding would be cut from APD’s budget this upcoming fiscal year, and an additional nearly $50 million would be transitioned out over time. Over $20 million of that would come from making immediate cuts to APD’s budget and reallocating those funds elsewhere. Roughly $80 million would be taken from APD’s budget by moving certain civilian functions, like the forensics lab, out of APD, though that money would still be spent on funding those civilian functions, just not within the police department.
The $23 million in immediate cuts would be used instead to open a new family violence shelter and fund violence prevention programs, housing services, substance use and mental healthcare services, and emergency medical services needs during the COVID-19 crisis, among other investments. Some of the immediate cuts include cancelling cadet classes, reducing overtime spending, and eliminating contracts for things like license plate readers.
Another nearly $80 million would come from separating civilian functions from APD over the course of the fiscal year. Casar, Garza, and Harper-Madison have proposed moving internal affairs, along with primarily civilian functions such as victim services, records management, and dispatch out of APD.
“We committed to big, transformational change to public safety in Austin, change that directly addresses the challenges that for too long our budget has treated as problems that police can solve,” Garza wrote on the council forum. “It wasn’t a commitment we made lightly. It was a direct response to what the community has demanded and the problems we’ve seen with policing in Austin and the injustices that result—not just this year, but for a long time.”
The joint proposal put forth on Friday also incorporates a prior proposal from Harper-Madison, which would authorize only the first six months of expenditures by APD. And it would put nearly $50 million from the police budget into a “Reimagine Safety Fund” in an effort to transition money “away from over-policing and toward alternative forms of public safety,” Casar wrote, such as employing park rangers instead of park police.
“This proposal has some serious cuts as well as teeing up the further potential to dismantle the department in the coming months and years, and I think it would position Austin as a leader in this movement to divest from police and reinvest in communities,” Chris Harris, director of the criminal justice project at Texas Appleseed, told The Appeal.
Harris said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the latest proposal and noted that many of the choices about future cuts and reinvestments “rides on this city-led stakeholder process and the ‘Reimagine Safety Fund.'” After Austin police shot and killed 42-year-old Michael Ramos in April, more than 30 community groups in Austin and Texas, including Texas Appleseed, signed onto a letter urging city leaders to fire APD Chief Brian Manley and a handful of other officials. Harris said some stakeholders have expressed they would not “sit down at the table with the police department” until Manley is fired, and community members will continue to make their vision for a safer Austin with less reliance on policing heard via public testimony at the council meeting on Wednesday.
“I think overall, this is a good proposal in that it ensures immediate cuts in the short term, in essence institutes a hiring freeze, and makes other cuts to reinvest in the community,” Harris said. “I think the investments in our EMS systems and our public health system are really crucial pieces. … We want to see public safety encompass all of the ways that people are killed and harmed in our city.”