Austin at Large: Truth and Reconciliation
“Reimagining” public safety will involve more than just technocratic change
A big takeaway of City Hall's unprecedented commitment to de-policing, set forth with the city's fiscal 2021 budget, is that Austin can extract and redeploy more than $120 million in annual spending from its police department without laying off a single cop. That's what happens when for years you exempt a tax-funded function from the scrutiny and accountability applied to every other government endeavor. Even Texas' mighty highway builders run a tighter ship.
Let us thus be spared the bad-faith whining of the cop lobby that cutting the police budget by any amount will bring B-movie terror scenarios to life in our streets. Let us especially be spared the laments of CopLand that we ask officers to do too much. While the APD budget grew 63% over the last dozen years alone, we have carefully counted our pocket change to (under)pay too few social workers, many with (required) advanced degrees, who aren't unionized, to tend to the community's more grievous needs so that they don't become or remain crises. That's just one example of what we could do with an extra $120 million each year.
Like I wrote last week, this is all basic good-government stuff that should be acceptable and even appealing to conservatives and skeptical moderates; it's up to them, not us, to explain why it isn't. (Other than "It's election season.") But we also know that retooling, reorganizing, and right-sizing APD is not all we must do. We also need to reconcile our police force and its supporters with our communities, reveal the truths about police practices and principles, and recommit to equitable justice as a precondition for the public to truly be safe.
"R" Stands for "Rocky Road"
You see what I did there: six "R" words, none of which are "reimagining," the label City Hall has attached to its stakeholder process to map out what becomes of Council's de-policing intentions and funding strategies. "Reimagining" is good messaging, a positive starting point for a journey that may end in some or all of these places. Or none of them, if we aren't willing to travel a rough and rocky road to get there.
By now, I think we've all made some peace with the idea that, as much as we crave predictability and normalcy in chaotic times, the plagues and miseries and dislocations of the Trumpocalypse require our deepest reserves of courage and compassion, and for us to show up and not to flinch. If not now, when, and if not this, what? The public-safety status quo is not working and hasn't been for years; you don't need to endorse abolition or revolution to see and know this.
But nor do you need to endorse authoritarianism or white supremacy to have not seen or known it until now. Systemic conditions, not individual beliefs, got us here, and the incentives that preserve the status quo are plenty powerful. It is, indeed, preservation of the status quo that verily defines "public safety" in mainstream thought – a status quo that we know is not equitable, so that only those on the plus side of its ledger enjoy true safety. And thus, essentially technocratic fixes to many of APD's problems – from forensics to 911 dispatch to the police academy – feel like big risks even if they promise better outcomes for everyone.
We Can't Just Not Do It
It's still quite early in the "reimagining" stakeholder process, and we will have to stay focused and disciplined to allow it to create the most benefit. It does need to provide City Hall with the perspective, legitimacy, and expertise to actually pull off such projects as rebooting the police academy, or making 911 dispatch independent of APD (and thus having 911 calls lead less frequently to police intervention that makes matters worse). Those changes may be technocratic, but the outcomes they promise will be judged against community values, and the "co-creation" the city envisions here will be important in making the changes stick.
The rougher and rockier road lies ahead, when we move past the specifics of this year's budget into the realm of truth and reconciliation as a precursor to greater and hardier justice. A reimagining process can't just not tackle all the bad things that have happened because Austin has not been as courageous and compassionate as it could have been before and must be now. Nor have we already done that job by finally, appropriately, centering Black lives and telling their stories in this year of pushback. There is much more to grapple with, from our sorry responses to sexual violence to our tolerance of surveillance and snitching in the name of "security" (see "Local Activists Call Out Police and Find Themselves Flagged as Threats") to our persistent propensity to criminalize being poor or sick.
It may be impossible for this hard, hard work to be pulled off by City Hall as an institution, at least by itself. Even if we come to genuine consensus as a community to look forward-not-back and not hold officers or city officials accountable for prior injustice – which is a huge "if" – the mission here is not just to reconcile the people with the police. It's to begin to reconcile the separated and unequal people of Austin with each other, and to set new expectations for the next century.