“Reimagining” APD and Its Huge Budget Starts Now

City Council and the city manager try to move away from policing, but is it enough?

Protests at APD headquarters helped drive the conversation over "reimagining public safety." (Photo by John Anderson)

City Manager Spencer Cronk wants his proposed police budget to be viewed as a starting point. His fiscal year 2021 spending plan includes $11.3 million in cuts to the Austin Police Department's base budget, of which $3.2 million is reinvested back into APD to enhance its training and records management. The resulting $8.1 million in actual reductions – mostly through eliminating vacant positions – is largely offset by the budget's fixed "cost drivers," notably a 2% raise for all city employees, including both civilian and sworn APD personnel (the latter guaranteed a raise by their contract). So the entire bottom-line police budget is only $150,000 less than what was approved last year. However, that 0.03% trimming breaks a trend of more than a decade of increasing APD spending (see chart, below).

"I've always characterized this as a budget snapshot in time," Cronk told us in a recent interview. "The two crises, the pandemic and public safety, are very much evolutions and we need to make sure that we continue to adapt and adjust in an ongoing way. Unlike previous years where it does feel like there's an annual budget and we're not going to touch it until next year ... that playbook is just out the door. We have to allow ourselves the space for multiple budget amendments that will come throughout the year." (See our conversation with Cronk, his first sit-down with the Chronicle.)

Activists and council members say the proposal falls well short of their desired police divestment (ranging from $100 million to around $220 million), while mostly acknowledging that Cronk and his staff didn't have much time to produce those kinds of numbers. So how much space to allow for amendments – where the bolder, more difficult "reimagining" of public safety will begin to take place – is now at the center of the budget debate.

The goal of "reimagining" is not just to reduce the APD budget, but "to move away from policing and into alternatives that reduce harm," CM Greg Casar told us. Even by that metric, Casar continued, "the budget the city manager presented does not go far enough. I and other members of Council are going to make much more significant changes before we can support this budget."

What Change Looks Like

Getting from the FY 21 budget proposed by Cronk to one that reallocates 20% to 50% of APD's budget, as advocates are seeking, can involve two forms of divestment: cuts that outright eliminate existing APD programs and personnel, and transfers of programs and funding into other departments or agencies that can handle them more efficiently or effectively.

An example of the first of these is APD's Mounted Patrol, which is mostly used for crowd control; as the past six weeks have made clear, the community wants APD to rethink its approach to crowd control, and it may be time to give up the horses. An example of a potential transfer can be found in traffic enforcement; instead of sending officers to crashes that may only require them to direct traffic, other (less expensive) city staff, such as from Transportation or Public Works, could manage this task.

Some of the ideas being floated for de-policing Austin and right-sizing APD come with legal and political hurdles that will make them challenging – such as moving Internal Affairs out of APD, for example. Others, like transferring the department's public information and human resources functions (mostly managed by civilians), are much easier. More than 90% of APD's $434 million budget goes to wages and benefits, so any real cuts involve real employees, many of them sworn officers that must report to a sworn chief, per state statute.

There is some thinking on Council that state law would allow civilian department heads to control the funding that is used for sworn staffing (as, ultimately, Cronk does now). For example, last year APD's budget included about $6 million for patrols of city parks. If that funding were moved to the Parks and Recreation Department, its leadership could use it to pay for whatever level of APD patrol made sense, or on other strategies like hiring more park rangers. (Old-timers will remember that Austin used to have separate park and airport police forces, with their own sworn chiefs; these were merged with each other, and then with APD, in the mid-2000s.)

Moving Internal Affairs outside of APD is a much heavier political and legal lift. It's not clear what abilities a civilian investigation unit would legally have to examine officer misconduct; perhaps a hybrid that combines sworn and civilian staff could be made to work under state law. While moving Internal Affairs out of the APD chain of command would be a major victory for accountability advocates, police officials and their allies are unlikely to go along willingly with any plan that takes away their power to investigate their own.

Where Does the Time Go?

Advocates have helped Council turn its visions for police reform into policy guidance; they're also providing data that will inform Council's near-term work to amend the FY 21 budget as well as potentially priming the pump for Cronk's process to "co-create" major change with the community. The Austin Justice Coalition hired a firm called AH Datalytics to analyze 18 months (Jan­uary 2019-June 2020) of calls for service to which police responded – more than 1 million calls. The researchers acknowledge their analysis does not fully account for all of the time officers spend while on the clock, but their findings do provide what they call "a snapshot" of how officers interact with members of the public.

Among key findings: Officers spent 21.5% of their time responding to crimes of any variety – those included in the Uniform Crime Reporting statistics APD and other departments report to the FBI, as well as others. Within that, though, officers only spent 0.6% of their time responding to the eight categories of serious crimes known as "Part 1 offenses" in the UCR; those include homicide, rape, aggravated assault, different types of theft, and arson. (Not all these crimes involve violence, and not all violent crimes are Part 1 offenses.)

Officers spend much more time responding to burglar alarms, which took up 6% of the time accounted in the AH Datalytics study, most of it to little benefit. (A staggering 70% of such calls were false alarms; another 18% were canceled after the alarm went off, and another 7% resulted in no police report.) Overall, traffic calls accounted for 21% of officer time, of which more than half was spent managing accidents and directing traffic. (This doesn't, of course, include traffic stops made by officers on patrol, just responses to calls.) These look to advocates like prime opportunities to not pay police salaries and overtime for duties that other departments and agencies could likely handle just fine.

That doesn't mean eliminating funding for traffic enforcement, although that function could likewise be managed by, for example, Transportation (which already writes parking tickets) while sworn officers continue to report to the police chief. As with the park patrols, such a move opens up opportunities to reprioritize how the city invests in the goal of traffic safety: less focus on traffic stops (a gateway to profiling, escalation, and unequal justice, as many advocates see it) and more on assisting stranded motorists or creating safer environments for all users, not just drivers.

Perhaps the most important opportunity the city can – and is trying to – address right now is to transform mental health crisis response. AH Datalytics found that in the first six months of this year (not the entire 18 months of its study), about 7.8% of all calls involved some kind of mental health component. These calls often originate as other issues – 64% came from welfare checks, disturbances, and trespassing incidents, according to the report – making it hard to track and analyze the data as well as we could.

As we reported last week, the city paid the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute to examine how Austin's public safety agencies respond to mental health calls, resulting in a blueprint for improving its management of these crises ("Mental Health Crisis Plan Still Lags Behind Austin's Needs," News, July 17). That plan has only been about half-funded to date, but CMs believe that the $5.3 million proposed in the FY 21 budget should allow the Meadows report to be fully implemented.

“There will be cases where police presence is necessary, but our goal is to get to a point where officers have to spend as little time as possible on mental health calls.” – Council Member Ann Kitchen

A champion for this on Council is CM Ann Kitchen, who co-sponsored the budget amendment in 2019 that funded the Mead­ows report. She told us that the $5.3 million in new funding is "a significant step forward" that's critical to achieve Council's commitment "to provide an alternative to police in every mental health call, when possible." That could be one of Austin-Travis County EMS's Community Health Paramedics (seven new CHPs will be funded in the new budget), an Integral Care clinician on the Extended/Mobile Crisis Outreach Team, or both. "There will be cases where police presence is necessary," Kitchen continued, "but our goal is to get to a point where officers have to spend as little time as possible on mental health calls."

Of course, EMS medics don't just respond to mental health calls; EMS Association President Selena Xie has called for the budget to include funding for a new ambulance and the 12 FTEs required to staff it. That's roughly $2 million in funding for the ambulance and medics, which Xie says is needed to deal with increasing call volume, especially in Central Austin. "I worked a shift recently, and at 4:30pm, 32 out of 33 ambulances in all of Austin were unavailable," Xie told us. "The only ambulance available in the whole city was in Circle C." The funding for a new ambulance has not been included in the budget, partly because the new Travis Country Fire/EMS station is expected to open in June 2021.

Concerns from Xie's police counterpart, Aus­tin Police Association President Ken Cas­a­day, have been fairly predictable: Reduc­ing police department funding will make the city less safe, he argues, although national research has not found any clear connection between increased police spending and reduced crime rates. Casaday also cautions against thinking that some calls that seem innocuous could be handled by civilians. "It's easy to say you don't need to send an officer to a type of call because it didn't result in a report," Casaday said of the AH Datalytics report. "But those reports don't say if the call went bad or turned into something else. Policing is dynamic, and even when a call seems safe, it can quickly turn dangerous."

Police Chief Brian Manley echoed this sentiment at the July 20 meeting of the Council's Public Safety Committee, noting that even routine traffic stops can turn into dangerous situations for officers. But, he said, his comments shouldn't be interpreted as resisting changes pursued by Council: "I am not trying to throw up roadblocks. I'm just trying to make sure these decisions are as informed as possible."

What Should Change, When?

The next phase of "reimagining" will be where decisions to decrease APD's role in Austin's public safety will be made. That work begins today, July 23, as Council holds its first public hearing on the budget, but Cronk and his leadership team expect it to take longer – "more than weeks, and probably more accurately measured in months," says Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, who oversees the public safety departments. "To set a path for us to take as a community, it will take months, and potentially into the next year or so."

“It’s a big disappointment. ... I don’t buy it at all [that there wasn’t enough time]; it’s just further proof the city manager is out of step with the community.” – Chris Harris, Texas Appleseed

Activists are frustrated by this deliberate pace. "It's a big disappointment," Chris Harris, director of the criminal justice project at Texas Appleseed, said. "The last council meeting was June 11" – when Council adopted resolutions that, among other police reform measures, directed Cronk to start scrubbing APD's budget. "The draft resolution posted the week before, and the calls for defund were coming in two weeks prior to that. I don't buy it at all [that there wasn't enough time]; it's just further proof the city manager is out of step with the community."

The process outlined by Cronk (in his transmittal message when presenting the FY 21 budget) involves community engagement and stakeholder dialogue, including with advocates such as Harris, on big-picture questions such as how APD's leadership structure should be organized. But Cronk says he can move swiftly to take action on lower-hanging fruit. For example, moving the APD forensics lab out of the department, perhaps into an independent entity that serves APD and other agencies, has buy-in from Council, staff, and the APA.

A core leadership team, including Manley, Arellano and his fellow ACM Chris Shorter, Office of Police Oversight Director Farah Muscadin, Equity Officer Brion Oaks, and Deputy City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vander­myde will be meeting with various stakeholders – APA and advocacy groups such as AJC among them – in upcoming weeks. Some of the city's volunteer commissions will also solicit feedback, and other "listening sessions" will open to the public. The work will continue through a "City-Community Reimagining Task Force" and multiple "Advisory Working Groups" on issues like use of force, policing alternatives, and officer training.

The Homelessness Precedent

One area where advocates, City Hall, and even to a degree APD (but not the APA) have already done some "reimagining" is in the city's commitment to end homelessness in Austin. The proposed budget maintains the historic funding levels adopted in FY 20 – about $60.9 million – with continued focus on buying motels and hotels to be converted into emergency and permanent supportive housing. (This fiscal year's spending actually amounts to about $73.4 million, but includes $29.2 million in one-time expenses that won't carry over to the new fiscal year.) Staff has allocated spending into three categories: helping people avoid entering homelessness, supporting those living without homes, and aiding those who have attained housing to maintain stable lives.

According to the annual Point in Time Count, the number of people experiencing homelessness in Austin has increased each year since 2017. The count does not perfectly measure the extent of homelessness in Austin, but Shorter acknowledges that progress on the issue has been slower than some would expect. "I don't think anyone who's in this work doesn't feel pressure," he told us. "I want to commend city staff who play a big part in making all of this happen, but we are all feeling the pressure to get things done as quickly as possible."

Part of that work will be accomplished through the creation of a new local housing voucher program, funded with $3.6 million from the Housing Trust Fund, that will be distributed to people in need of supportive housing – like the kind planned for the Rodeway Inn in South Austin, which is still undergoing renovation before opening to residents. The city is hoping to continue this strategy, in part, with $30 million set aside for land acquisition for a variety of affordable housing projects, including those serving people exiting homelessness. The proposed budget also formalizes the creation of a new Homeless Services Division, which will operate under Austin Public Health. The department will include four FTEs and the Homeless Strategy Officer, which will assist all city departments in addressing issues relating to homelessness.

The FY 21 budget also includes an increase of more than $1 million (to $2.4 million) in spending on encampment cleanups. These are controversial, as the Chron­icle has reported; homelessness advocates say they often result in personal belongings being thrown away, or in makeshift housing structures being dismantled, which can lead to displacement. The funding is split across various departments, including Public Works, Austin Resource Recovery, PARD, and Watershed – with about $1.25 million going to ARR for funding of five new FTEs that would serve as a dedicated encampment cleanup crew, for additional contracted cleanups, and for the Violet Bag program that allows those in encampments to collect their own refuse for disposal.

Reducing homelessness is a collaborative effort that involves more than just city dollars. Last year, Barbara Poppe and Matthew Doherty – both former directors of the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness – were hired to help guide the city and its Continuum of Care partners (the multi-agency consortium led by the End Community Homelessness Coalition) in crafting a plan to improve Austin's shelter system. Their report is expected as soon as this week; Council hopes to review it and possibly propose funding amendments to address its recommendations before it adopts the FY 21 budget in mid-August.

The Police Budget: Much Room for Defunding

Many complaints have been made about the proposed budget's light trim of APD funding - compared to the 25% or even 50% haircut proposed by advocates. But the budget does propose the first actual decrease in police spending in more than a decade, during which APD's budget grew 63%. (The exceptional FY 15 increase reflects a citywide change in budget practices regarding employee compensation, which means the totals from that year on more accurately reflect the true cost of policing, and the ones from earlier are too low.)

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