Austin at Large: We Have Better Things to Do
Stay mad, Dan Patrick! Public safety will be reimagined, with or without you
As we note in our coverage of the Texas Legislature in this issue, lawmakers are whacking at the Austin piñata in both chambers, hoping some kind of candy spills out in time for the 2022 primaries. There's a lot of pent-up scolding, some of which didn't make it into law in 2019, such as stripping the city of its power to adopt ordinances guaranteeing paid sick leave and other worker rights, or making sure Austin doesn't help groups that help people who don't want to be pregnant, in ways that are different from the groups whose help will be forced upon people who don't want it. And, as we reported last week, a bunch of Westsiders just want to bail on the city and its tax bills altogether, because why the hell not. We look forward to visiting the future anarchist collectives on the Lost Creek playa.
But this week in particular the most significant milestones, which for Austin are more like gallstones, have to do with the police. In addition to the sugar high conservative Texans get from visions of siccing the cops on bums and vagrants and even some ne'er-do-wells while pretending to be all Christian about it, the long-promised consequences for Austin's perverse desire to hold its own police force, which it pays for, accountable to its own citizens are coming into focus. We know, and the rulers of Texas' red regime know, and we know they know and they know we know, that it's all totally made up, that there is no chaos in our streets and frankly not even in our homeless encampments, that we've saved millions of taxpayer dollars by simply not wasting them on unnecessary policing, and that were this not true, we wouldn't get to make April Fools jokes about Elon Musk investing billions of dollars in our city that ended up being only about 15% off target. All the GOP folks need to do is say "Austin!" while making poo-poo faces, and get on Fox News and screechy local TV live-shots and Facebook video clips, and their job is done. Ever since Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick started slipping into fugue states and improvising pro-cop and anti-Austin schemes on the fly back around August, the quality of the statecraft devoted to this task under the pink dome has not improved. By the time any of these bills become laws and survive court challenges and have any practical impact on Austin, we'll have moved on to some other transgression against the Great State.
But Here It’s Different
The fact that we're having these spats during yet another week of national reckoning with the cold, stupid realities of dumb cops and structural racism is barely notable anymore, because any random week is almost guaranteed to feature a police killing or a mass shooting, or cops going Nazi or proving to be sex pests, or people going through utterly predictable precarity because of who they couldn't be or how much money they don't have, that we can point to with mouths agape while saying, again, that this is why we need to reimagine public safety. The City Hall task force devoted to this topic has been doing a great deal more and better work to chart a course for better outcomes than has been on display at the Capitol, and next week on 4/20 (not a joke) gets to show its work and test the waters of public sentiment. Cop-lobby leaders who testified at the Capitol suggested that Austin had just gotten carried away by the emotions of last summer's Black Lives Matter moment, and that sentiment now would be much more amenable to the policing status quo. We're about to find out.
Because so many of the folks on the other side, like Dan Patrick, are cotton-headed demagogues and snake charmers without apparent souls, let alone an ethos that gives their lives meaning, they naturally feel that Austin's leftists must be just like them – that "reimagining public safety" is just a bunch of fake revolutionary posturing that people will forget all about the minute they get vexed or frightened and feel a need to call the cops. Instead, Austin is going to continue to lay out genuine transformational plans to re-center public safety as a shared community responsibility, one that is not best handled by hiring and generously compensating a too well-armed and not at all well-trained mercenary force that doesn't solve or prevent crime, makes many crisis situations worse simply by showing up, views many essential public safety duties as not heroic or manly enough to be worth their time, and demands to be worshipped and paid tribute at all times.
It's no secret that the politics of the local public safety discourse are already fraught and are going to get increasingly more jacked up in coming weeks and months. Participants in the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force's community listening session last weekend laid out quite clearly the parameters of the truth and reconciliation process that we've suggested in this space is in Austin's future. They also delivered some real-talk testimony about how Austin police do not, in practice, show any "duty to render aid" to people in distress whom they encounter, as would be asked of them under the proposed George Floyd Act. The task force's working groups have drafted recommendations that range from worthy workplace policies that not only APD but City Hall should have adopted years ago, to granular transition plans for long-sought reinventions of mental health crisis services and 911 dispatch, to untrammeled abolitionism that the likes of Dan Patrick think nobody really believes. Surprise!
Catch up with the work of the city’s Reimagining Public Safety reform effort at www.austintexas.gov/publicsafety.