Point Austin: Finding the Right Ratio

Budget debate considers best approach to police staffing

Point Austin

Watching the City Council members review the city manager's annual budget proposal is a little like speed-dating by proxy. With 20 departmental budgets to review in a few weeks, and the budget work sessions themselves confined to only a few days, heads on and off the dais start to spin, and observers could be forgiven for wondering for a moment if the current occupant of the hot seat is the director of Resource Recov­ery or Watershed Protection.

But there was no mistaking Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, not only because of the uniform, but because public safety in general (and APD in particular) consume the largest chunk (roughly 64%) of the annual General Funds budget, and every year there is a tug-of-war over whether that's too much or too little. (For what it's worth, that percentage roughly coincides with the spending of other big Texas cities, and in Austin's annual surveys, public safety lands easily at the top of residents' priorities.)

This year was no different, although for a change, everybody agreed that the sacred "2.0 officers per thousand residents" formula that has driven APD planning for the last decade is not an adequate standard. Council Member Bill Spelman has been the loudest critic of the 2.0 standard, countered most strongly by Mayor Lee Lef­fing­well, who insists that dropping below 2.0 "starts to raise alarms." But even Acevedo conceded that "it's not the best metric" – the question is, what to use instead.

When the dust settled, the answer remained as elusive as it has ever been, although Spelman could celebrate finally making a dent in the reflexive public and official presumption that more is inevitably better than less.

Charting the History

Acevedo came armed not only with the staff recommendation for 47 more sworn officers, reinforced by a recent recommendation of 92 from the Public Safety Com­mis­sion, and even beyond that by last year's report by the Police Executive Research Forum suggesting that, in terms of the departmental work load, APD could expand by another 257 officers over the next four years. With those numbers in the air, the chief held winning cards, and that base number of 47 officers looked unassailable.

But Spelman produced some simple graphs that at least required the chief to spend some time justifying his burgeoning personnel. Spelman's research reflected that from 1999-2013, while Austin's population was indeed growing substantially, both crime (especially violent crime) and calls for APD service have remained relatively flat, even in absolute numbers. Meanwhile, the number of APD patrol officers has risen by more than 200, and the number of investigators has more than doubled. Given that steady increase in manpower, "Why," asked Spelman's charts, "are officers still running from call to call?" and "Why do we need more detectives?"

Acevedo did his best, talking about the changes in policing methods over the years, amplified police presence as effective crime prevention, and the fact that "calls for service" is not necessarily a consistently applied statistic that reflects precise policing needs. He could also suggest that a flat crime rate indicates that APD's approach to staffing is indeed working.

But Spelman had found his opening, and Laura Morrison followed with pointed questions about replacing at least some sworn (and expensive) officers with non-officer personnel, and Kathie Tovo picked up the thread for special event policing – where both the use of non-sworn personnel and recouping more money from event sponsors might eventually lessen the burden on the taxpayers. Finally, Chris Riley pressed Acevedo on the heavy assignment of additional officers to the newly opened overnight trails – the chief conceded that pending the results of the yearlong pilot study, that might not be necessary.

Safety in Numbers

In the end, it was only a dent, and likely as not Acevedo will get his 47 new officers. The measure of Spelman's small but real victory was expressed in Leffing­well's irritation at a discussion he thought had been closed last year. The mayor grudgingly conceded that the "2.0 per thousand" standard is "not a scalpel, but an ax" – although an ax he is unwilling to surrender, as it delivers a simple base number much easier to explain than Spelman's situational approach to police staffing. Yet even the PERF report concedes, "Officers per thousand ratios are frequently used to compare departments to each other, but they have little value because they do not provide insight into how officers are used."

These arguments are hardly going to be resolved in one budget cycle, and it's inarguable that as Austin continues to grow, so will its police department. But Spelman has slowly succeeded in shifting the discussion from raw numbers of officers to "how officers are used." In the coming years, the growth of the department might well mean a smaller proportion of sworn officers, supplemented by reserves, other professional staff, and an approach to policing that is less dependent on throwing officers (and money) at the problem.

Very often the folks who demand more and more public safety spending are the same folks complaining the loudest about rising property taxes. Yet public safety spending remains dramatically the largest portion of the city's expense budget; yet the city has other real needs, from parks to transportation to social services, that also help promote public safety.

Austin needs cops on the beat, but we need a lot of other things too – and we need to be able to pay for all of them.

Posted here are Council Member Bill Spelman's graphs illustrating the Austin Police Department relative workload and growth in officer personnel, 1999-2013.

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News, Art Acevedo, Austin Police Department, Bill Spelman, Lee Leffingwell, Public Safety Com­mis­sion

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