APD Starts Shrinking
Council set to make cuts now, plan for more to come
City Council is poised to adopt a budget that will immediately cut $21 million in police funding, with up to $129 million in potential reductions over the course of fiscal year 2021. That's about 35% less than the $434 million the Austin Police Department was given to spend in FY 2020.
As we go to press Wednesday, Aug. 12, Council has finished hearing from the public on the budget and begun its deliberation of an "immediate cuts and long-term change" framework, put forth by Council Member Greg Casar, incorporating proposals from other CMs, and supported by justice advocacy groups. At press time, it was expected to pass with some light modification over the three days that, if needed, Council has set aside for budget adoption.
The immediate $21 million in cuts would be reinvested into public safety alternatives to policing, like Austin-Travis County EMS. One set of proposals from CMs Alison Alter, Leslie Pool, and Casar would direct about $5.7 million in one-time and recurring expenditures toward EMS to add two new ambulances and additional Community Health Paramedics.
More than half of the $21 million comes from canceling the next three cadet classes, the first originally set for November. (The July class had already been canceled.) Closing off the pipeline of incoming officers meets the goal of advocates to shrink not just the budget but the size of APD going forward, especially given that (as we reported last week) the police academy itself is likely to get a major overhaul. These moves would prevent APD from adding nearly 200 officers to the force over the next year.
However, although the money for those three classes will get spent elsewhere in the budget, Mayor Steve Adler told us that "we're not ruling out classes entirely in FY 21, because it may be we may need to do them if there's an attrition issue or a pension impact." If that happens, Council would have to amend the budget to find the money, perhaps in the city's reserves or in federal grant funds available to APD.
Adler's comments highlight that police disinvestment in the FY 21 budget is still a work in progress, and most advocacy groups are celebrating with caution. Only the first $21 million is guaranteed to be reinvested elsewhere, and even that could be partly undone should a new cadet class be formed. The full $129 million in reductions could still not happen, even if Council expresses a strong commitment to Casar's framework.
That plan breaks its future cuts into two categories. The larger portion, $79 million, involves "decoupling" functions that are currently part of APD's budget and structure – for example, forensics, victim services, or the Internal Affairs and Special Investigative Unit teams that handle probes into officer misconduct. The remaining $50 million involves alternatives to policing, such as moving some traffic enforcement duties to the Transportation Department (which already handles parking enforcement).
These ideas will take some time to be turned into action plans, even without a big stakeholder engagement process. One example: Should a new forensics lab operate as a local government corporation like the Sobering Center, or through an interlocal agreement with Travis County like Central Booking? A staff memo issued on Aug. 10 indicates that a resolution of that question, and the decoupling of forensics (which has wide stakeholder support already), could come as soon the end of this calendar year (Q1 of the fiscal year). Other shifts, like moving misconduct investigations out of APD (which is strongly opposed by many stakeholders) might take the entire fiscal year to figure out.
But none are guaranteed to happen, which gives some justice advocates pause. "It's a half loaf," Just Liberty's Kathy Mitchell told us. "But it is a big loaf, and the money freed up will allow us to build infrastructure that has been missing in order to move police functions to other staff." Just Liberty joined the Austin Justice Coalition in calling for $100 million in immediate cuts – the more modest end of demands from community groups.
Grassroots Leadership and Communities of Color United, who had called for immediate cuts to the tune of $220 million, said the proposed framework doesn't go far enough. "The big cuts listed in the decoupling and reimagining sections of [Casar's] outline are important," David Johnson with Grassroots Leadership said, "but most of it is hypothetical. As the proposal currently stands, there isn't anywhere close to enough money reallocated to remedy long-standing inequities in communities of color."
The only ways to make nine-digit cuts right now to APD's budget would involve laying off current police officers, a strategy with very little appeal to most on Council. Advocates know that, so they're pledging a commitment to keep up the pressure to make good on the promise of the Casar framework. And they agree that, even with a half loaf, Austin will have made a lot more progress on police disinvestment than most cities.
Over the next several months, the police reform engagement process announced by City Manager Spencer Cronk as he presented his draft budget – to be led by Deputy City Manager Nuria Rivera-Vandermyde and Office of Police Oversight Director Farah Muscadin – will begin to involve the community outside City Hall. Invites to various leaders to participate in its stakeholder groups, each focused on a different aspect of police reform, will soon go out; staff hopes to hold the first three meetings in August.
"This is just the beginning," MEASURE founder Meme Styles told us. "We are trying to reimagine public safety, and that can't happen in a vacuum. We have to take very close consideration of what the community deems as critical to public safety. I think the city wants to get this right, they just don't know how. But this proposal shows they are listening."