The steady stream of Austin police officer retirements and departures may become a flood, according to a source with direct knowledge of the Austin Police Department, due to the mayor and city council’s cuts to the police budget.
The Austin city council unanimously voted for drastic cuts to the APD in August. Those cuts total about $150 million of the department’s $434 million budget, or roughly one-third.
This screenshot (below) of a department spreadsheet provided to PJ Media shows which divisions’ officers will be cut. The cuts all take effect in 2021.
Before getting into the details, it’s important to note a few things. These cuts were recommended by the Austin Police Department, but only after the city council voted to slash the budget. The mayor and city council may use this to claim that APD leadership “approved” the cuts. City council members Greg Casar (District 4) and Jimmy Flannigan (District 6) along with Adler have been the most vocal proponents of the cuts. Casar bragged about them on Twitter shortly after the unanimous vote.
We did it!! Austin City Council just reduced APD's budget by over $100 million *and* reinvested resources into our community's safety and well-being. Tens of thousands of you have called, emailed, and testified. You made the impossible into a reality. #blacklivesmatter pic.twitter.com/trrYSDEOK6
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 13, 2020
APD and the Austin Police Association have long cited Austin’s own study showing that the department is understaffed. APD would not have formulated the cuts if the mayor and city council had not gutted the department’s budget.
This spreadsheet does not show units that are not being cut. It only shows units that are set to face cuts. Some units, including the human trafficking unit and the high-level narcotics unit, are not being reduced, and others, such as organized crime, are facing cuts at the officer rank but are not losing detectives. The spreadsheet also does not show one of the most important and extreme cuts. More about that later.
Many APD units are facing severe cuts or outright elimination. The street gangs unit, for instance, is being removed.
Austin’s park police are also being eliminated. Their duties will be added to patrol, which is also currently understaffed and, due to the cuts, can expect to be more severely understaffed in 2021.
Another series of cuts that stands out is the DR code, which represents “district representative” officers. These APD officers engage in community policing and were long believed to be “sacred cows” according to PJ Media’s source. Community policing engages in outreach and engagement, handling issues within a community that may not typically fall under standard police work.
APD will lose 18 DR officers according to the spreadsheet, out of a total of 37 in these units prior to the cuts — just under 50%. Community policing has long been championed by urban leaders as a means of building important trust relationships between police and the cities they serve. Austin will have half the community police officers in 2021 that it has had in 2020. With their loss will likely go much of the trust and relationships APD has built up over the years, along with a loss of valuable sources and intelligence needed to prevent and fight crime.
“Met Tac” stands for metro-tactical. Think of these officers as the hard-power counterpart to the soft-power district representative officers. These units aggressively and proactively make arrests and fight crime in their areas of responsibility. APD in 2020 has 33 met-tac officers assigned in its three regions, 11 in each region. They have been largely absent from the streets during 2020, re-assigned to deal with the protests and riots. Austin has already seen crime increase in 2020, leading the nation in the percentage increase in homicides. Due to the cuts, it will have fewer of its met-tac officers on duty in 2021. All regions are losing 3 met tac officers, a cut of about 27%, down to 8 for each region.
Take these two cuts together, and APD may see both a deterioration of its community relationships, leading to poorer intelligence and an increase of violent incidents between officers and residents, and a weakened ability to go after criminals on the streets.
APD’s property crime unit is also being cut down by 60% according to the spreadsheet, from 10 to 4 officers. The DWI unit loses 50%, from 20 down to 10. The Firearm Assault Team (FAST) goes away.
In total, of these units facing cuts, APD will lose 150 of 247 officers.
One of the most important cuts to APD is not shown on the spreadsheet but it is likely to reduce APD’s strength even further. APD’s overtime budget is being cut from $9 million down to just $500,000. In January, before the COVID pandemic and the riots, APD Chief Brian Manley announced he would use overtime to help fight Austin’s already increasing violent crime rate downtown. Once the cuts take effect in 2021, he cannot.
This overtime cut, according to PJ Media’s source, will likely lead to more separations from the police department. In recent years, APD has faced a chronic shortage of officers. Entering 2020, APD was reportedly about 100 to 200 officers short of full strength. The effects of this include patrols that have been short of officers when they take to the streets. Say a unit is slated to have 12 officers on a patrol shift. Understaffing had already cut that to about 9. Then factor in absences for ordinary reasons including sickness, training, injury leave, or other reasons, and a 12-officer shift may even fewer officers available, as few as 5 or 6 on a given shift. In past years APD would fill in the patrols by using overtime. Officers could supplement their income via overtime work too.
The cut to APD’s overtime budget means patrols will lack the budget to fill in, which will have two effects. The first is that patrols will be chronically short-staffed despite the fact that their duties have been increased due to the cuts as noted in the spreadsheet above. The second is that officers who supplemented their incomes via overtime will be unable to do so. Many of them are likely to leave the department seeking work where they can earn more via overtime, or where they will no longer need to. The cost of living in Austin is higher than the surrounding communities.
This cut to overtime, our source believes, will be among those that lead APD’s stream of officer departures in 2020 to become a “tsunami” in 2021.
Austin’s mayor and city council have set the city on an uncertain and dangerous course. Former APD Chief Art Acevedo, who left to become Houston’s police chief, has denounced the cuts and warned they will harm the city. About 20 candidates, including Mackenzie Kelly, have stepped up to run against members of the council, all of whom are Democrats and voted to defund Austin’s police. Kelly is running in District 6, on the city’s northwest side, against outspoken “defund the police” proponent Jimmy Flannigan. Kelly has posted strong fundraising numbers and earned the endorsement of Austin’s popular former mayor, Lee Leffingwell.
Among other things, Flannigan has proposed to demolish APD’s headquarters and disperse officers to other city buildings. He has also proposed getting rid of units that have proven to be effective in countering riots, such as the mounted unit.
Austin is the capital of Texas and the hub of its growing high-tech industries. What happens in the city affects the state’s image, its commerce, and the state government’s ability to function. It will affect the city’s live music culture, which has already been crushed by the COVID pandemic. If visitors do not feel safe going downtown, they will not go, even if the city lifts its shutdown measures. An unsafe downtown Austin will impact everything from restaurants to boutiques and shops to food trucks and other attractions, including its historical sites and museums.
The Texas legislature will convene in session in January 2021. Former Travis County sheriff and five-term state Rep. Terry Keel has proposed a law that would see the Austin Police Department removed from the city’s authority and placed under the state’s Department of Public Safety because of the city council’s cuts to APD. Austin would still be on the hook to fund the department, though, through taxes. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott used DPS and the National Guard to augment APD during the worst of the Austin riots this year and has signaled that he is looking into supporting Keel’s proposal.
UPDATE: The Fight for Austin PAC announced its campaign to unseat several Austin city council members today. Fight for Austin PAC is non-partisan and focused on raising money and supporting candidates who commit to restoring public safety.