Austin at Large: Polling and the Police
What we know, don’t know, and need to know about the public’s view of public safety
I wrote last week about Voices of Austin's polling that, the group claims, shows that Austinites decisively do not support reducing funding for our police force. "Austinites want safety and justice, and not fewer police officers," said former Council Member Ora Houston in Voices' press release announcing its launch. She cited results from the poll (which they still have not published) that 80% of respondents feel unsafe in their neighborhoods or Downtown to conclude that "spending less on public safety will not make us safer."
As I will keep saying because it's astounding, exactly zero Council members agree with this. Four of them are expected to run for reelection in November and may have seen polls of their own, but even if not, the disconnect is stark between the pro-police line voiced by Ms. Houston – which a few years ago was utterly routine to hear from local officials – and where City Hall is right now. City Manager Spencer Cronk has clearly heard the message from the streets of Austin – including his own street, where activists gathered last week to give him a wake-up call.
Cronk's proposed budget makes what are clearly only minimal first steps toward Council and the community's call for real downsizing of APD and its $434 million in annual funding; he views "reimagining public safety" as a big, long process of "co-creation" with the community, comparable to the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan. Council may agree, but will also likely push for more reductions before the budget is adopted in August; one champion will be Greg Casar, who yet notes he tried to reduce APD funding in the last two budgets by "a fraction" of the $8.1 million Cronk has proposed, without winning over his peers.
But everything is different now! A new statewide poll from Progress Texas – as of yet unpublished; you're getting a sneak peek! – offers some sense of just how much.
Officer Friendly Is Dead
The Progress Texas survey, fielded by Public Policy Polling (Dem-leaning but also well-regarded and prolific) in mid-June, reached 907 respondents after the death of George Floyd, the ensuing protests, and the violent police responses roiled the nation and the major cities in Texas. The sample reported voting for President Apesh*t in 2016 by a 9-point margin, matching the actual Texas results; he led Joe Biden by 2 points in this survey. Subsequent Texas polling, including by PPP, has trended toward the Ds. (The sample also matches up pretty well with the state demographically; the margin of error is +/- 3%. See, this is all stuff we should know about the Voices of Austin poll to better understand it.)
Yet 73% of those surveyed agreed that police brutality is a "somewhat serious" or "very serious" problem. Similar lopsided majorities feel that police departments should reform their use-of-force practices, and that non-police ("other types of workers") should be responding to "community issues such as mental health and homelessness." A smaller majority (53%) agrees with the statement, "We need to reform the police." Pluralities support reallocating police funding to health and homelessness (46%) and agree that police unions have too much power (43%) and that police don't need military gear and vehicles (48%); large numbers are "not sure" in all three cases.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the Austin electorate is highly unlikely to be more conservative than a Trump-supporting statewide sample of Texans. Progress Texas' goal is to elect more Dems to the Legislature and Congress, and these numbers would suggest that in those high-profile efforts in November you'd rather be on the side of reform even in R-leaning districts. (Sucks to be you, Chip Roy!) Nothing here will give Alison Alter or Leslie Pool, let alone Jimmy Flannigan and Casar, any pause about how to vote on this budget with an eye toward November.
Asked and Answered
Just in case they and their colleagues are still uneasy about the Voices of Austin findings cited by Ms. Houston, the proposed FY 21 budget also includes polling data on this very topic. Austin, like many cities, contracts with a research firm (usually one specializing in such projects, not a political firm like PPP) for surveys to gauge citizen and customer satisfaction; the questions remain fairly constant from year to year so you can track changes over time.
The rate and direction of those changes are instructive. Austin's results are typically very positive compared to other cities; we are more fond of government and policy in general, as well as besotted with our vision of Austin exceptionalism. Accordingly, the 2019 citizen survey indicates that 69% of residents and visitors "feel safe anywhere, anytime in the City (at home, at work, and in my community)." Clearly, the Voices poll and the citizen survey contradict each other starkly in ways that, again, we could understand if the former were published for all to see. (The citizen survey data lives on the city's open data portal.)
Cronk's budget notes that this metric declined 5 points from the prior year – which means APD is falling short with the enormous resources it has. It may be lower still now, but how many people feel less safe in Austin because of the actions of local law enforcers and the attitudes of those who continue to support them or who look the other way? That's a question the pollsters – and all of us – need to ask.