Austin’s Vote to “Reimagine” Policing Prompts Threats From State Officials

After the city council approved millions of dollars in budget cuts, Texas leaders proposed capping tax revenue for cities that defund police.

Police officers watch protesters demonstrating against police brutality outside of City of Austin Police Department headquarters in downtown in Austin, Texas on May 30, 2020.
Officers watch protesters demonstrating against police brutality outside department headquarters in Austin on May 30, 2020. Photo: Poli Pix Co. LLC/Shutterstock

Ahead of the Austin City Council’s budget meeting in mid-August, Kathy Mitchell, a longtime community organizer and grassroots lobbyist, “basically spent the week in a deep and broad anxiety,” she said. “I was just anxious for seven days.”

There was much at stake when the council members, mayor, and city manager met via Zoom on August 12 for a 14-hour hearing that included hundreds of city residents waiting for their minute to speak. For years, community groups had been agitating for change at the Austin Police Department. Those calls grew louder in late April after Austin police killed a man named Mike Ramos, and louder still in May, when the city, like so many others across the country, erupted in protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis. The protests in Austin were at times met with violence from police; at least two people suffered life-threatening injuries after officers fired so-called less lethal munitions at their heads.

Mitchell, who had been working with city leaders to pass a block of police reforms, was optimistic but still uncertain as the budget session drew near. “Oh, man. I have a habit of never counting my votes until the day that people actually vote,” she said. In the end, the 10-member council voted unanimously to cut, “decouple,” and redistribute roughly $150 million of the APD’s $434 million budget. “There’s no question that this is a big moment in Austin,” Mitchell said.

Indeed, Mitchell and others say that what happened in Austin is a big moment for the rest of the country too, potentially providing a road map for other municipalities that have pledged to cut police funding or dismantle their departments in the wake of Floyd’s killing, but that have so far had more limited success.

The Austin council voted on a three-tiered package of cuts to APD. The first, totaling roughly $21 million, are direct, immediate budget cuts. The next three cadet classes have been canceled — unless and until the department can revamp its academy, which has been called out for instilling a warrior cop mentality that is out of step with public service. Vacant positions have been cut, overtime has been curtailed, various contracts (for things like office supplies) will be slashed, and funding for automatic license plate readers has been axed. The pot of funds is being reallocated to workforce development, housing for the homeless, and substance abuse treatment, as well as to address food insecurity and increase health care access.

The second pot of money, about $80 million, is the decoupling fund. Primarily civilian-led endeavors like the Austin crime lab (which under APD was so mired in scandal that it shuttered its operations in 2016), victim services, and the 911 call center will be removed from police control. City leaders are also aiming to change the way the police themselves are policed, by moving the APD’s Internal Affairs and Special Investigations Unit outside of the department. Details on how those transitions will happen, what revamped services will look like, and who will control them will be worked out in the coming months.

The third pot of money, roughly $49 million, is being put into a “reimagine safety” fund, with the goal of removing additional duties — like traffic enforcement and response to mental health crises — from police. That money will instead go “toward alternative forms of public safety and community support,” according to a document compiled by council members.

“This is all complex and complicated, and there are lots of variables to consider,” said Natasha Harper-Madison, who is the council’s only Black member and has been on the leading edge of the city’s efforts at reform. “I think people need to know that there is nothing that’s happened by way of council action that was simple, or easy, or without recognitions of the nuance here.”

“The Police Can’t Run the City”

To date, other cities that have vowed to reimagine public safety have mostly taken more modest steps or hit stumbling blocks. In New York, for example, a vote to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s $6 billion budget has been criticized as budgetary sleight of hand, while the bulk of the $150 million cut from the Los Angeles police budget will come from reducing overtime. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed, budget cuts have not yet been identified and efforts to disband the police department have been stalled, likely until at least next year. While a majority of the Seattle City Council has endorsed a plan to defund police by 50 percent, the cuts have remained far below that and council members have taken some heat, including from Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, for a ham-fisted approach that ostensibly forced the city’s first Black woman police chief, Carmen Best, to resign.

By comparison, Austin’s first effort toward a long-term redefinition of public safety has been more concrete. But it did not happen overnight, notes Scott Henson, a longtime criminal justice reformer and author of the influential blog Grits for Breakfast. Instead, the seeds for the changes voted on last week were planted years ago and have been doggedly tended to by a growing coalition of advocates across the city. In the wake of the Ramos and Floyd killings, he said, “we already had the coalition and the agenda” teed up for action.

Crucial to last week’s unanimous council vote, says Henson, was a fight that unfolded in 2017, when activists led by the Austin Justice Coalition decided to take on the local cop union, the Austin Police Association. Reformers wanted a seat at the table as the city negotiated a new contract with the union in order to ensure the adoption of meaningful oversight and transparency policies related to the disciplinary process. The union resisted, and in the end, the council voted down a roughly $83 million contract. Although the union dug in its heels, discontinued negotiations, and predicted that scores of officers would resign, that did not happen. Instead, everyone eventually sat back down and a contract with significant reforms was approved for far less money.

Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, speaks with Austin Mayor Steve Adler at a protest over the murder of George Floyd and race based power inequality in Austin, TX on June 7, 2020.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler speaks with a protester on June 7, 2020.

Photo: Vic Hinterlang/Shutterstock

According to Chas Moore, founder and executive director of the Austin Justice Coalition, the whole episode showed the city’s elected officials that the sky would not fall if they challenged the union, which, as is widely the case, has long wielded tremendous political power, often to the detriment of meaningful reform. “I do think that kind of changed the culture of police power here in the city. Until that moment, police contracts in Austin, it was a rubber stamp process: They ask for everything and they get 99 percent of it,” Moore said. But “the world didn’t end after the police contract went to ‘no,’” he continued. “I think it allowed city council to really just understand, maybe we can trust in each other and the police can’t run the city.”

Although that lesson may have bolstered the council’s confidence during the budget session last week, not everyone was satisfied with the recent cuts. After the vote, Grassroots Leadership and Communities of Color United, which had called for a 50 percent reduction to the police budget, declared that “the budget passed today does not meet this moment.”

“‘Reimagining public safety’ does not mean simply reorganizing departments or taking the same functions that APD currently performs and moving them, complete with their current staff and culture, to a civilian department,” the groups said in a joint statement. “When we say ‘reimagine public safety,’ it’s a step beyond defunding the police. It means imagining a world where we don’t rely on cops, cages, and other punitive approaches to keep us safe.”

Moore understands the frustration, but he believes Austin has taken a powerful step toward that future. “Either we ask for the big thing and we don’t get nothing and then we’re stuck in the same place, or we can start chomping away at the elephant one bite at a time,” he said. “I think we took a pretty good chunk out when council took the vote last week.”

Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, state officials and other lawmakers from outside Austin were quick to decry the cuts and pledge legislative action against such “short-sighted efforts,” as a Dallas-area state senator put it. Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to have state police “stand in the gap” to protect the city, while George P. Bush, the elected state land commissioner, took to Twitter. He posted a video of a row of cars with broken windows in a parking garage downtown and implied that the vandalism had taken place the same night as the city council’s vote. “The need for police funding is as clear as ever,” he wrote. “This is a dangerous path to go down.”

The grandstanding was little more than transparent fearmongering. The city hasn’t cut any current positions, so there’s really no “gap” to stand in. Besides, the state police already play a big role in Austin, where they have jurisdiction over state property — including parking garages like the one where the vandalism Bush was decrying took place. State police said the vandalism actually happened on August 8, four days before the council vote, and was discovered during a routine patrol.

And state leaders have continued foaming at the mouth over the Austin council’s actions. On August 18, Abbott joined with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and state House Speaker Dennis Bonnen to suggest capping tax revenue for cities that dare “defund” police — though they did not respond to questions from the Houston Chronicle about exactly what that meant. “What they have done in Austin should never happen in any city in the state, and we’re going to pass legislation to be sure it never happens again,” Patrick said.

Part of what is frustrating to Harper-Madison is that she hasn’t seen department or police union leadership do much to communicate with officers about what the current cuts actually mean — and what they don’t mean, including layoffs. After she mentioned this during a recent interview, her phone blew up. She had lengthy conversations — some prickly — with officers across the department. Ultimately, she said they were positive. And she’s encouraged them to speak up as the city moves forward with plans to transform its approach to public safety, which she says is both necessary and long overdue. “The way forward is we have to have better conversations. We have to have more substantive conversations. If there’s no substance, then what’s the point?” she asks. “We’re just using words, and taking up space, and sucking up air that somebody else could use.”

Moore is also ready to push forward. “I just hope we can try to break the barriers of everything that has been socialized within us so we can truly allow ourselves to imagine and get creative with things outside of boxes, outside of what the norm is, so we can come up with something pretty groovy,” he said. He notes that major shifts in U.S. history have been rife with uncertainty: abolishing slavery, women’s suffrage, desegregation. “We always had these assumptions that the most terrible thing was going to happen if we stopped doing the status quo,” he said. “Yes, there’s still oppression and people are still fighting … but because we’ve taken these big steps in history, it’s only made us better.”

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