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Some Texas Elections Suggest Voters Aren’t Afraid of Defunding Police

None of the Austin City Council members who voted to cut police funding lost their elections, but a police union vice president who fearmongered about the defund movement did.

(Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

Austin police union vice president Justin Berry lost his bid to unseat a Democrat in a key race for Texas’s House of Representatives. Berry spent much of his campaign falsely painting Austin, which voted to reduce police funding in August, as a city besieged by violence and chaos as a direct result of the movement to defund police. His failure to beat incumbent Vikki Goodwin, who supports Black Lives Matter, suggests calls to defund the police might not be the political poison some have recently claimed.

This election, Democrats hoped to bolster their majority in the U.S. House and take back control of the Senate. Instead, their majority slimmed, and control of the Senate hangs on the results of two runoff elections in Georgia. Some moderate Democrats have blamed the lackluster performance on the more progressive wing of the party and claimed that their support for things like the defund movement cost them votes.

But exit polling shows 57 percent of voters expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and none of the Democrats who ran nationally in swing districts supported defunding the police. In fact, Max Rose, a first-term Democratic congressman whose district includes Staten Island, New York, said he believed police funding needs to increase, and he still lost his seat. And across the country, voters passed ballot initiatives to decriminalize drugs, create civilian oversight of police, and direct more county funding to social services. And they elected prosecutors like George Gascón in Los Angeles and José Garza in Travis County, Texas, who have pledged to reduce incarceration and hold police accountable. 

In Austin, none of the City Council members who voted to cut roughly $20 million from the police department lost their election (two are heading into runoffs, but both led their opponents by at least 6 percentage points in the Nov. 3 election). Councilmember Gregorio Casar, a progressive who led the effort to reduce and reallocate Austin’s police spending, won his re-election bid with almost 67 percent of the vote over a pro-public safety candidate who said crime was out of control in Austin.

“In Travis County, where Austin is, where police funding was cut, we elected a county judge who ran on a pledge to halt the construction of a new women’s jail and support funding of mental health and substance abuse treatment,” said Chris Harris, a local criminal justice organizer and advocate. “In [nearby] San Marcos, a member of a prominent local activist group won a City Council seat over an incumbent who had opposed police reforms.”

“I think while there’s some consternation about the phrasing, in general, there’s a lot of popularity for reallocating dollars from police to other social services,” Harris said. “People understand the dire need to end the war on drugs, increase police accountability, and fund other social services in lieu of police.”

Polling from Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative Institute found that a majority of likely voters support creating new non-police agencies and transferring certain functions that police are doing right now to people who are better trained to do the job, like mental health professionals or other first responders. (The Justice Collaborative Institute and The Appeal are both independent projects of The Justice Collaborative.) 

In Austin, the City Council voted to immediately cut over $20 million from the police department’s budget, with most of that money coming from cancelling cadet classes, reducing overtime spending, and eliminating contracts for things like license plate readers. That money will 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. Another almost $80 million will be taken from the police department’s budget by moving certain civilian functions out, like dispatch and the forensics lab, though that money will still be spent on funding those civilian functions, just not within the department.

“People that are claiming defund might have cost them an election are largely running in races where they’re not actually in power at all to do anything about police funding. It’s a local issue,” Harris said. “In Austin, where it was cut, those local candidates all did fine. … It all seems more like an attempt to scapegoat activists, rather than take accountability for election results.”

In response to the George Floyd protests, Austin redirected police funding to social services, and the Texas Black Legislative Caucus put forth a bill to ban chokeholds and require law enforcement officers to render aid or intervene if another cop uses excessive force. Governor Greg Abbott, meanwhile, has pushed for harsher penalties for people arrested at protests and threatened to have state law enforcement agencies take control of Austin’s police force.

Abbott also endorsed Berry, a 12-year veteran of the Austin Police Department with a history of alleged misconduct who once compared Black Lives Matter protesters to the Ku Klux Klan. Berry ran as the Republican candidate for District 47, which includes part of Travis County and of Austin, and lost. Like Abbott and other Republicans, Berry repeatedly mischaracterized what the City Council’s proposal actually does and claimed Austin would soon have the highest homicide rate in the country. 

That’s not true, and it seems voters weren’t buying it—in Austin, they gave Berry the boot, and welcomed the City Council members back. And across the country, voters approved at least 18 ballot measures to increase police accountability and oversight, change police staffing and funding, and make body and dashboard camera recordings more widely available.

“The point of adopting policy positions is to improve the lives of everyday people,” Casar wrote in a recent opinion piece published by the Austin Chronicle. “But for too long, right-wing forces masquerading as centrists have held back real progress by claiming that justice must be put on indefinite hold, for the sake of electoral math.”