One Cop, Two Cop ...
How Many New Cops?
Council approves 47 new APD hires – with perhaps a change in the air
In the end, the Sept. 12 City Council debate over the public safety budget concluded pretty much as they all do: The police, fire department, and emergency medical services budgets were approved in full. That's hardly a surprise; after roughly six months of staff presentations and work sessions, the budget presented at the final September adoption meetings (officially scheduled for three days but seldom requiring more than one) is largely a formality. Any substantial changes have normally been made earlier in the drafting process, and any additional discussions generally concern the relatively minor $1 million or $2 million (of a General Fund budget of nearly $700 million) that remains unallocated at the end of the budget year. That was true as well this year – most of the several hours of discussion, amendments, and votes concerned how best to allocate the $1.6 million windfall (call it a heat-wave bonus) transferred from Austin Energy due to extraordinary energy use this summer.
But there was one surprising twist. Although council approved an Austin Police Department allocation that included the addition of 47 new officers (plus two for the airport police), approval did not come without a fairly lengthy debate over whether hiring several dozen additional sworn officers was indeed the best way to spend the money – and even whether the sacrosanct "2.0 per thousand" ratio (officers to Austinites, a city policy standard for roughly the last decade) always makes sense. Specifically, Council Member Bill Spelman proposed that it would make better sense to hire fewer sworn officers (he suggested 31) and more necessary APD support personnel, then move the resulting difference into drug treatment programs as well as a "police allocation study" that would review more precisely the optimum distribution of APD resources.
Spelman didn't win his staffing budget amendment – and endured a fairly rocky debate on the way to defeat – but council did agree to fund the APD allocation or staffing study and provided additional, separate spending for community drug treatment. "It is evident that I am not going to get what I want," Spelman conceded. "But if this serves to start a community conversation on one of our most important problems, I will take it as a victory."
Indeed, Spelman's original amendment never quite came to a vote – Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole offered a substitute that would fund only the staffing study (at $100,000), and that motion carried 4-3, with Laura Morrison and Kathie Tovo joining Spelman in defeat. The drug treatment funding, partially restoring earlier cuts to the Austin Travis County Integral Care budget, came from the AE funds under a subsequent motion by Mike Martinez.
However, the entire debate seemed to rile Mayor Lee Leffingwell more than usual. In response to Spelman's PowerPoint explanation of his proposal, Leffingwell responded in terms that suggested the LBJ School professor was just another armchair expert contradicting the practical folks who actually do the job. "I'm having difficulty believing, over what has happened over the last week [the numerous area wildfires requiring considerable APD assistance], hearing someone talk about reducing our public safety capabilities." Citing his own experience as a military and commercial pilot, Leffingwell said desk-jockey experts liked to deliver similar proposals or even orders to the working pilots even though "none of them had ever strapped on an airplane," and most importantly, "there has never been in the history of aviation a case of a chair behind a desk going down in a ball of flames." Spelman understandably bristled at the criticism, responding that he has spent 30 years working directly with police departments and training police officers, and insisted his proposal "isn't based on theory; it's based on practice."
Both men appealed to the APD representatives for their opinions, Spelman noting that he had selected his potential civilian positions (911 dispatchers, crime analysts, a statistician) from the "unmet needs" list compiled by APD in its initial budget request. Chief Art Acevedo acknowledged that "in a perfect world" he would like to have all these resources for his department. But right now the priority, he insisted, is "boots on the ground" – sworn police officers to be drawn from the next available cadet class.
There was some additional discussion of just how the 2.0-per-1,000 standard (the national average is 2.3, higher for large cities) had come to be. Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald, a former assistant police chief for APD, said the standard first became a matter of official discussions in the late Nineties and had been adopted as policy (but never as an ordinance) in the 2002-2003 budget. Leffingwell argued that even at that time, 2.0 was a "minimum" specifically designed for Austin ("quality [over] quantity," he said), under the presumption that should the city drop below that, "We're in big trouble."
In theory, Spelman's proposed changes would have altered the ratio to 1.98 per thousand, and Tovo asked him how he had arrived at his specific numerical proposal. He said he had based it on reallocating 1% of the proposed APD budget. Tovo suggested a compromise at half that – but with Cole's substitute motion already on the floor, Tovo's was not in order, and then was made moot by the 4-3 adoption of the Cole substitute. And the 2.0-per-thousand had survived to live another budget year.
Opening the Conversation
In retrospect, the APD budget was never in much danger of amendment, if only because Spelman's specific proposal had come so late in the budget process that council was unlikely to take the leap. Martinez, who had spoken as a peacemaker in the adoption meeting – saying he welcomed Spelman's suggestions and that the conversation needed to continue – said as much afterward. "I think it's an absolutely appropriate and fair question to ask any time we have an expenditure at the city," Martinez told me. "What are we getting for our return on investment, and what's the goal of that investment? In this case, investing in public safety, a fair question to ask is: Do we reduce crime, and is that the most appropriate way to invest our funds – simply in street cops, as opposed to not only police officers, but support services? It's an absolutely appropriate question, and a conversation that must be had."
But, Martinez continued, "I did not feel it was appropriate at all to be making such an abrupt shift of a staff recommendation after a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation. We pride ourselves on public input and public process and transparency – here we have a very significant and expensive staff recommendation, and we have a drastic request contrary to that recommendation with no public input, with no process, and with no recommendation from our boards and commissions, which [in this case] is our Public Safety Commission."
A few days after the meeting, Leffingwell was audibly less agitated on the subject, and said he would call his initial response "enthusiastic" or "passionate" rather than "heated." "I do feel strongly about it," he said. "I don't want to give the impression that my feet are in concrete on this thing, that I'm not going to listen to anybody's proposals for change. But I do feel that when it comes to public safety, changes have to be proven and accepted, not just by one part of the community, but by the people who do the job and the people who live in areas that are affected by that. I don't think it ought to be strictly an academic exercise, using numbers to show that it might work."
In retrospect, Spelman himself was encouraged by the overall tenor of the discussion, and feels he at least opened the door to a more thorough review. "I think that the conversation's started," he said. "There are some people in the Police Department that are willing to talk further about it. The point I think I was able to make clearly is that this is a huge problem. If you want to monetize it, it's a problem roughly comparable [in cost] to our traffic congestion problem. I think it's probably much more serious, and I think it deserves the kind of conversation that traffic congestion has been getting for years. We have not been giving crime that kind of conversation, because it's too easy to just hand it off to the experts and just say, 'Take care of it for us.'"
Spelman and Martinez both pointed out that just as "more roads" alone will not solve our multimodal transportation problems, neither will simply "more cops" adequately address our crime problem. As Spelman put it in his presentation, "More of the same provides pretty much the same results as we have right now: Low but stable violent crime rates; high and stable property crime rates." Spelman's essential argument is that while hiring more police officers does reduce crime somewhat, preventive strategies (e.g., drug treatment, innovative neighborhood programs, targeted allocation of resources) have a greater effect, and generally at lower cost. "More cops do equal less crime," Spelman said. "It's just not good enough, not effective enough, by itself, to solve our problem."
In the aftermath of the fairly acrimonious budget adoption, the adversaries were sounding more conciliatory. Chief Art Acevedo said that while Spelman's amendments arrived very late in the budget process, going forward he will be glad to have the public staffing discussion, which he thinks is "all about the 2.0 per thousand, and whether we need to back away from that as a city." The APD is already preparing a request for proposals for the staffing study, he said, though he noted: "Some of the folks that might be pushing for this staffing study, in the belief that they may come back with a recommendation of less staff – they run the risk that they may come back and recommend higher levels of staffing. Then what do we do? Be careful what you ask for, as I always say."
Acevedo also acknowledged that he himself had abandoned a previous APD policy of 80% officer staffing at all times – regardless of timing, need, or circumstance – as "the biggest waste of resources ... a boondoggle." That change effectively confirms that it's not the raw numbers of officers that are decisive but how they're deployed. He's proud that during his tenure, the department has measurably increased its efficiency. "We've come in under budget every year, and yet produced positive outcomes in the crime stats – a 5.8 percent reduction last year, and we're on track to reduce it again this year." But he added that by his department's own analysis, his officers' schedules, on average, now allow only 26% "uncommitted time" – insufficient, he believes, to foster the innovative thinking, community outreach, and programs Spelman would like the department to pursue.
Public Safety Commission Chair Michael Lauderdale echoed Acevedo's cautions about reducing the officer numbers, adding a consideration not mentioned in the council meeting: the Mexican drug wars. "As we look at the crime statistics here in Austin, we see rising rates – based on my research, I'm concerned about the collapse in Mexico and the likelihood of more drug activity by very, very dangerous organized crime coming into the Austin area." Lauderdale says he and the commission are willing to consider alternative approaches, but not at the cost of a reduction in sworn officers. "Let's don't reduce the number of visible officers that we have," he said, "until we make studies of the effects that would argue we can come up with a better strategic orientation than we have right now."
There is also a political backstory to the episode, although it's not necessarily the potential mayoral campaign conflict some have contemplated for next year between Leffingwell and Spelman. Both men dismissed that possibility, and Martinez commented: "You could say that for any policy proposal that is put out there when council members differ. ... I believe these guys truly – taking the positions that they do – are proposing what they believe is best for Austin."
But in more practical terms, Spelman suggested that the abrupt timing was effectively imposed on him by the current structure of budget discussions – dominated throughout by staff presentations with little opportunity for council feedback or reconsideration – and aggravated by the current limitations on council member internal communications, as a consequence of still unresolved charges of Open Meetings Act violations. While none of the council members wanted to criticize directly the need for and intent of primarily public deliberations, the restrictions have clearly made it more difficult for them to work together consistently – and to work out potential differences or misunderstandings in private discussions, instead of immediately polarizing the arguments in public.
Spelman hopes they can solve that deliberative problem but says it will take more time. "Voicing a controversial proposal is costly to a council member," he said, "and if you can't make adjustments in response to a disagreement – if you have to make all those adjustments in public, where positions are more hardened – members will not want to take controversial stands, for fear of the reaction." Just as some members felt blindsided by Spelman's late amendment posting, Spelman got a direct taste of the counterreaction, not only in last Monday's meeting but in that morning's Statesman op-ed ("Keep Austin Safe") by Lauderdale and Greater Austin Crime Commission President Richard S. Hill. It was accommodating timing by the daily, and the editorial led with "the terrorist acts of Sept. 11, 2011," ran through the looming spectre of the Mexican drug cartels, and claimed that each new officer would reduce crime in Austin to the economic effect of more than $300,000 – an unsubstantiated assertion that Spelman harshly targeted in his presentation to council later that day.
In the end, Spelman shrugged, the council majority responded to the debate as essentially a conflict of "lies, damn lies, and expert witnesses," and perhaps he hadn't helped matters by addressing the scholarly disputes in such detail. But, he continued: "Every dime I was taking off 'more officers' was going to be earmarked for public safety in a different way. ... That's really my argument – not that we're spending too much or too little on public safety, but we're not using it as effectively as we could. This is a huge problem, and we need to have a conversation about the best way to protect ourselves."
For good or ill, the next budget cycle is only six months away, so maybe by then the public can be re-engaged in the discussion, and even the council members will find ways to have productive conversations without either coming to blows or violating the law. "We probably can find a way to get this thing to work," concluded Spelman. "But it's going to take more time."
2) Council Member Bill Spelman's council presentation "Does Austin Need More Cops?"
3) A letter by Greater Austin Crime Commission President Richard S. Hill and Public Safety Commission Chair Michael Lauderdale, "Keep Austin Safe," which was featured as an op-ed in the Sept. 12 Statesman