Getting Tough on APD
Council on APD: Reforms and Budget Cuts Only the First Step
In a series of unanimous votes Thursday, June 11, City Council voted to prohibit Austin Police Department officers from using tear gas, set new goals and metrics for police reform, established a new Council committee to strengthen its oversight of APD, and directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to reduce APD's funding in his upcoming Fiscal 2020 budget proposal.
The united front illustrated that Council has heard the voices of thousands of Austinites who've demanded real transformation of the city's public safety apparatus. But members agreed that this was only a beginning.
"I want to make sure this is no victory lap," Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said. "The harder work is way ahead of us."
The suite of four resolutions was proposed by Garza and Council Members Greg Casar, Natasha Harper-Madison, and Jimmy Flannigan, but co-sponsored by the entire Council. Casar's resolution bans, along with tear gas, the use of strangleholds and chokeholds and prohibits the use of "less lethal" munitions, like the lead-pellet-filled bags that left protestors hospitalized, in cases where lives are not in "imminent" danger. Casar's measure also prohibits officers from firing at a person fleeing, either on foot or in a vehicle.
Calls from CMs and the public for police Chief Brian Manley to resign have not abated, and Council remains frustrated at Manley's slow-walking and resisting their prior reform efforts. A "whereas" clause in Harper-Madison's resolution makes clear: "the elected members of City Council have no confidence that current [APD] leadership intends to implement the policy and culture changes required to end the disproportionate impact of police violence on Black Americans" and other minority groups.
The Council's new Public Safety Committee, created by Flannigan's resolution, holds its first meeting today, June 18; all CMs can attend and question Manley and Cronk about their plans to heed Council's new directives. Flannigan told us the committee, which he chairs, will be "a place where we as a council can continue discussing, in public, if an issue is a priority, and problems staff may be encountering with our priorities ... Once Council as a body approves intent, direction, or a policy, the committee [can] monitor progress and, critically, help clarify for staff Council's intention." Also on the agenda is an executive session discussion on "the employment and duties of the City Manager" – likely a chance for Cronk to explain how (not if) he plans to change APD leadership.
Garza's resolution targets the ongoing and worsening racial and ethnic disparities seen in APD's policing – traffic stops, citations and arrests stemming from them, and police violence. The goal is to eliminate these inequities by 2023, the endpoint of the city's current five-year strategic plan, which the resolution amends to make this goal an explicit priority for Cronk. A February report from the Office of Police Oversight documented the growing disparities: "We now have a baseline to measure our progress" on police reform, Garza said of her resolution.
For activists and many callers at Thursday's meeting, policy reforms do not go far enough to reimagine how public safety is achieved – especially given the maddening failure of previous reform efforts. Instead, they urged, Council must defund and deconstruct APD – starting with reducing the department's next budget by at least $100 million.
Harper-Madison's resolution directs Cronk, in the baseline budget he'll present to Council in July, to eliminate funding for about 200 unfilled officer positions, and to not include new funding for impact munitions or tear gas. This money should instead be invested into alternative responses to emergency calls involving homelessness, family violence, or mental health crises – all of which under APD's current tools and training most officers are ill-equipped to manage, despite their being frontline first responders. "I fully intend to take a good hard look at every single opportunity to transform our spending priorities so it reflects our community and our values," Harper-Madison said.
Despite the public call for defunding, "this Council is not calling to abolish or defund the police," Mayor Steve Adler said. "We are asking [Cronk] to give us a budget to show how public safety priorities can continue in a reimagined way. ... Today's action only ensures we get a pathway" to change; come budget adoption in August, "we look at tradeoffs, and that will be when decisions are really hard. But we'll also get a chance to make history."