Austin at Large: The Way to Safety
The cops are useless against COVID. But they have all the money.
Let me dive back into what I wrote last week about the difference between "policing" and a police force. We have an appropriate, though unfortunate, example unfolding among us this very week.
Ever since COVID-19 began to wreak havoc in Austin in March, the position of city and county officials has been clear: We do not have, and will never have, enough people and resources for a law enforcement strategy to assure compliance with public health protocols and keep the community safe. We barely have enough people and resources for Austin Public Health to educate the public about what those protocols are, which has contributed to the uneven spread of the disease and the disproportionate harm it's caused to, especially, Spanish-language-dominant Latinx households and neighborhoods.
The initial threat of fines and jail time to enforce "stay home, work safe" orders was, to my knowledge, never carried out in Travis County. This frustrated many Austinites, which shows how ingrained it is in our consciousness that enforcement and punishment are essential to public safety. But of course, busting people for taking their dogs to Barking Springs would have had only the slightest effect on COVID transmission, even as a deterrent.
We Have An Emergency
Now Gov. Greg Abbott has decided that we can make the right individual choices, without the threat of punishment, to contain the spread of COVID, because freedom. (Thank Jesus, he agreed on Wednesday to allow cities and counties to mandate masks in public.) The urgency for us to police ourselves to keep thousands of Austinites alive who will otherwise die is profound. Steve Adler, Sarah Eckhardt, and Dr. Mark Escott have spent hours trying to drive this home: We need to flatten the curve again, as we did in March and April when we reduced our in-person interactions by 95% without actually being forced to. At this point, nobody can or will return to shutdown conditions, so all we can do is cover our faces and stay just out of reach of each other. And wash our hands. It's pretty simple.
Yet this week the Three COVID Amigos were asked repeatedly by reporters: How can this make a difference when it's "not enforceable"? What will you, People From the Government, do to keep us safe from the disease? Being told, as we have been repeatedly, to behave appropriately and to establish these behaviors as norms – as in, don't hang out with people if they won't wear masks, or patronize businesses that don't require them – is psychologically unsatisfying even though we've already proven it to be effective.
This leads us toward a new way to safety, a bridge we can cross to "a world without police." It's often implied, as we discuss what police officers are really asked to be good at, that the stuff that doesn't involve violence is soft, beneath them, unheroic. Yet here we are facing what may be the single greatest threat to our safety Austin has ever faced – worse than crime, worse than traffic fatalities, worse than addiction or suicide, worse than natural disaster – and the police are almost completely useless to us.
Give Us Our Money Back
"Defund the police" is for some reason an uncomfortable stance even for people who deplore the failures, injustices, and straight-up crimes of APD and other police forces. If people really understood how much money they're spending on those forces, they'd easily come up with alternatives. A $100 million reduction would still leave APD with more than $335 million annually, more than Fire and EMS combined. That $100 million is more than twice the budget of Austin Public Health. How hard is it to argue that APH needs the money more right now?
Even as we await a promised line-by-line scrubbing of the APD budget, which will no doubt reveal a lot of bloat that isn't tolerated in other city departments, we need to think beyond simply moving roles and funds to other places. Perhaps the police budget should never grow beyond a certain percentage of the city General Fund. With $100 million gone, that percentage would be about an even third. Why not 20%? And why should it not be a goal, in a city that views its own safety as a communal responsibility, for the size and cost of our police force to decline over time? If we made smarter decisions about mental health care, road design, drug use, and toxic masculinity, how big would the police force need to be?
This flies in the face of several generations of propaganda about how many officers we should have, and the dire threats we face from gangs, drugs, zombies, and whatnot if those officers aren't hired and generously paid. It's been effective because people have wanted to hear it, because we wanted to be safe and that's what safety required. We can now see how if we don't kick those beliefs to the curb and redefine "policing" as community stewardship, we are becoming less safe by the moment.