Proposed First $100 Million in Cuts and Reorganization
Proposal for immediate cuts to the Austin Police Department including immediate unit migrations to civilianize and improve public safety
Our city council members have released initial proposals for reimagining public safety in Austin. Upon first look, these look like creative and even unusual solutions, which is exactly what we need, because we can no longer abide by the “usual.” Just as it was bold and brazen to build systems to uplift white supremacy and benefit a single race in our city and country, it takes similar ingenuity to raze and rebuild systems to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all of our neighbors.
Council members are actively reevaluating the purpose of policing. They are exploring the emergency response function of police and which roles are unnecessary and/or harmful, as well as considering options for civilianizing many community safety functions. For instance, park police could be transformed into park rangers and civilians could move stalled cars out of the road. City Council will quickly need a much deeper understanding of the Police Department budget line items. Units that may have an important special purpose may also be spending money and officer time in ways that are not cost effective.
Over-reliance on expensive officers created a bloated police department budget that has not been seriously reviewed in recent memory, and quite possibly ever. It also created in the public a misplaced expectation that calling police is the right move for a host of non-threatening situations. After so many examples of abuse of power in police responses associated with minor crimes or non-crimes, it makes sense to take these visionary steps to civilianize broad swaths of what is currently “policing.” We support this hopeful, thoughtful, and generative new way of thinking, and offer these additional complementary areas to evaluate and solutions towards reimagining public safety.
Invest in alternatives health and safety programs and services
The community has proposed several alternatives to policing when it comes to its safety, finding that investment in the quality of life of Austinites on the front end is a better approach than the back-end punishing people for struggling with the consequences of neglectful policies and practices.
Our analysis, which includes areas to cut and civilianize, opens up over $60 million towards reinvestment in programs and services called for by the community, such as:
Emergency Medical Services
MH 1st Response
Alliance for Safety and Justice
Emergency Rental Assistance
We support fully funding the RISE fund and full funding for housing-first solutions for our homeless population, and note that there are also other sources for those funds, such as federal funding, in addition to the money freed up by this year’s divestment from the police department.
Immediately stop the “smoke and mirrors” with empty positions
The City must sweep all existing Austin Police Department open positions because they cannot be filled this year (in accordance with the City Council resolutions of June 11.) With 100 open positions there is an immediate $9 million available for reinvestment into programs that will increase safety in the community that do not and never have required a response from a person with a gun.
In addition, the police academy has been shuttered. The academy should be closed for this entire fiscal year to establish a new curriculum and new teaching methods that will address issues raised in multiple complaints, audits, reports, recordings and statements by this Council. This process cannot even begin until October, upon the completion of the current independent community audit this Council commissioned. A one-year hiatus at the academy allows reallocation of $1.9 million from cadet stipends, $45,000 in cadet training, plus about $267,000 in non-staff recruitment expenses for this fiscal year.
As we identify and build alternative ways to staff our city’s public safety needs, normal attrition will reduce the police force over the course of this year. That will also add another $4.7 million to the money available for reallocation.
Eliminate expensive police overtime
Another priority is to cut police overtime and reallocate an estimated $10 million in savings. The city has traditionally allowed the police department to staff activities without regard to budget limitations by authorizing nearly unlimited overtime. If the Department exceeds its overtime budget, the unbudgeted money comes from the “unfilled positions.” To meaningfully reallocate the unfilled positions and spend that money to build alternative staffing models, we must also require management to take control over overtime and strictly live within its means.
Scrub for unspent funds
We have identified an additional $7.2 million in excess funds. These line items were reviewed in the last budget and appear to have been unspent at the end of Q3 (latest available information). The asset forfeiture fund has some legal limits on how it can be spent, but can by law be spent on a number of the specific items in our reinvestment proposal. Cell phones for police officers can be cut for this year (an unspent line from last year). “Services-other” also has unspent funds that we recommend removing this year to increase funding available to build and staff non-police approaches to public safety with better-trained people and for less money.
Cut units and reduce or civilianize personnel
Using conservative assumptions (matching the CM budget assumptions to the best of our ability) we’ve identified $26 million in immediate cash savings from personnel cuts that the city can make immediately and without moving staff, plus millions more in staff savings when the city cuts or civilianizes parts of our traffic and patrol departments, along with internal investigations and data and planning systems. We currently use very expensive staff to do things that less costly staff can and should be hired to do, as well as things that civilian staff with appropriate skillsets could do better than sworn (like data management.)
End unnecessary or unnecessarily dangerous policing
Mounted Unit – This unit is used primarily for crowd control, which often leads to complaints from community members who are pushed and injured by the horses, as well as concerns for the safety of the horses. Police horses are from a bygone era and the continued use of them is due to romanticism and sentimentality. Additionally, there is a pricey and looming issue of housing the horses with a new stable. Austin must join other cities that have recognized that there is no longer a necessity or benefit of having police horses, including Las Vegas, Baltimore, and Kansas City.
K-9 Interdiction Unit – Use of K-9 units dates back to slavery. Slaveholders/human traffickers used dogs frequently to hunt escaped slaves. Studies show the use of police dogs continues to be racialized, having a disparate impact on Black people. Specifically, studies show that dogs respond to the subconscious cues of their handlers, so that if an officer believes a person has drugs, the dogs will pick up on those cues and alert to drugs, even if no drugs are present. This ultimately results in human biases passed to the dogs with high racial disparities in stops and searches by K-9 units. Additionally, the decision of whether to use dogs is often affected by racial bias. A study showed that LAPD deployed dogs disproportionately in African American neighborhoods. Further, there are concerns about putting animals in positions that are unnatural to them and therefore putting them in danger. We propose cutting the K-9 Interdiction Unit, which is used solely to search for drugs.
DL Readers/Program – Automatic License Plate Readers are a little-noticed surveillance technology designed to track the movements of every passing driver. Austin has contracts with GTS Technology Solutions, Inc., and Millenium Products, Inc., to scan the license plates of every vehicle with Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs) and cross reference the license plates with information located on “hot lists,” which can include license plates that have been listed as stolen, B.O.L.O (be on the look-out), AMBER alerts, or that are associated with warrants, including warrants for failure to pay fines and fees. However, ALPRs are fraught with privacy issues, and the ACLU reports that they are “becoming a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance.” On average, only .5% – that is, one half of one percent – of license plate scans were attached to a hotlist. This means that 99.5% of the license plates captured by ALPR are actually not connected to a public safety interest at the time they are captured. In Austin in 2019, just .1% of license plate scans were attached to a hotlist.
Explorers Program – The APD Explorers program is a youth PR and recruiting tool for the police department. APD goes into schools and gives presentations to youths about being a police officer and attempts to teach them about “mak[ing] ethical choices.” However, we consider this program an unnecessary cost to taxpayers.
Civilianize Certain Safety Functions
1st Response Management
Dispatch Center and Emergency 911 – Safety does not equal police, yet APD manages the 911 call center on behalf of all public safety entities (EMS and FIRE). APD has acted as a gatekeeper, limiting response by other agencies and sending many calls best handled by others to APD officers. After the city attempted to create an alternative 911 response for people with mental illness last year, very few calls were directed to the sole clinician on the dispatch floor and this resource was used as a telephone counselor rather than a way to change how calls are triaged. This role of gatekeeper for all public safety agencies is an unnecessary role for the police department to fill, and 911 dispatch management would be improved if these two units were pulled out of APD and administered instead by an independent civilianized public safety department. We would expect this independent department to also do a better job at encouraging the most effective response to all calls, and avoid several agencies all responding to incidents — an overallocation of resources.
Invest in EMS and Mental Health 1st Responder Clinical Support (New Investment) – Use savings from divestment to improve our handling of people with mental health issues, as this is not a crime although individuals may create a “disturbance.” We need better first response and safe spaces for people with mental illness and/or who are in crisis if they are homeless or can’t stay home. This budget cycle, we must build alternative first responders and plan for the development of those safe spaces. It will take a multi-year strategy to overcome the reductions in funding for all kinds of mental health services over the past three decades, but we must first end the current process of feeding these individuals into the criminal justice system through arrest and jail. Instead, we need to send non-police first responders, address many cases on site, and determine the need for non-jail-based mental health services and spaces.
(Certain investigatory functions should be separate from the police department as a matter of best practice)
Forensics – This department can and should be run by scientists, not police officers. This will ensure that forensic outcomes are not biased by the beliefs of police investigators. Since the demise of APD’s DNA lab, the replacement of the crime lab leadership, and the calls for reform from the sexual assault community, it is past time for the crime lab to be pulled out of APD and managed as an independent unit in accordance with national best practices. An independent crime lab led and staffed by scientists, launched today, can start with the best scientific practices and avoid the many pitfalls that lead to wrongful convictions and criminal cases being overturned because the methods were wrong or the testimony inaccurate or biased.
Internal Affairs and Special Investigations Unit – Internal Affairs is in charge of investigating APD employees for violating administrative rules. The “special investigations unit” investigates APD employees for criminal offenses. These departments should be independent, and should be staffed by non-police investigators. This is the only way for the investigations to have integrity and gain community trust.
Traffic and Roadway Management
(Create an accident safety agency or move traffic safety functions to the Transportation Department. Migration to Transportation will encourage the continued development of design-oriented solutions to traffic problems)
AV/Wrecker – The police department manages a program to move stalled cars out of rush hour traffic, and maintains a list of “approved” towing companies. These do not need to be police functions. Police are not needed at most collision scenes, or to manage dispatch for wreckers when a car breaks down on a major roadway. This program can be managed by civilians as well.
Motorcycle Police – Austin has the largest motorcycle police force in the state. According to APD, the primary functions of the motorcycle unit include a number of road safety issues like removing debris and assisting with routing traffic, and that could easily be converted to civilian staffing. Traffic enforcement (as measured by number of citations) has been in steep decline across all units over the past several years in Austin and statewide. Last year, the motorcycle unit made headlines when it was determined that it was doing very little traffic enforcement and the Chief responded with quotas, which then resulted in mostly traffic warnings. Instead we suggest that this unit has outlived any usefulness, should be disbanded, and its primary duties in accident and debris management should be picked up by a new traffic-oriented civilian safety division outside APD.
Traffic Major Investigation – This unit handles the investigation of complex and often deadly traffic accidents. To the extent that such investigations reveal the presence of intoxicants, an independent and civilian lead investigation team can recommend that the DWI unit (which we recommend remain at APD for now) make an arrest as needed. But much of the work to facilitate information required by insurance companies can be handled by civilians.
Traffic Administration – This is already a civilian function at APD and can be migrated to the new traffic safety civilian administration.
Traffic Accident Management (New Investment) – We propose a new civilian traffic accident management division (can be housed in the Transportation Department) that will do traffic and debris duties formerly staffed by sworn officers through the motorcycle unit, Traffic Major Investigations, Wrecker and Traffic Administration units.
Motor vehicle repair vouchers (New Investment) – Instead of writing criminal tickets for people driving cars with mechanical problems such as a broken taillight, we propose launching a motor vehicle repair voucher program to assist people with a voucher of up to $400 depending on the repair that needs to be addressed. These vouchers can be administered with one additional staff person in our newly independent and civilianized traffic administration department, and vouchers can be handed out by police officers or civilian traffic staff.
Engage alternative approaches to crime
Victims Services – We should explore the opportunity to increase the authority, visibility, access, and services for survivor healing at the Victim Services Department while maintaining their existing and essential access to APD. Our proposal for investment includes a substantial increase in the unit budget, and we propose a system that ensures Victim Services’ continued co-location at the police department and access to victims, crime scenes, police reports and investigators.
Trauma Recovery Center (TRC) (New Investment) – This cutting edge approach to addressing the unmet needs of crime survivors, which targets support to those victims from communities hardest hit by crime and violence, will ensure that more of our residents are healed, able to work, and contributing to their families and communities after being victims of crime. There are 35 TRCs nationwide and this would be the first one in Texas. The data show that someone served by a TRC is more likely to see improvements in mental health and quality of life, apply for victim compensation, return to work, cooperate with law enforcement to solve crimes, and receive more comprehensive services, delivered in a more cost-effective way. TRC staff working with Victim Services can train law enforcement in trauma-informed approaches.
Invest in Harm Reduction for people with substance use (New Investment) – This year, the Austin Harm Reduction Alliance has proposed a cost effective expansion of alternatives (not arrest and jail) for people who are intoxicated. Austin has already explored this idea for people who are intoxicated on alcohol through the successful but underutilized “Sobriety Center.” This proposal expands on that idea and allows us to meet more types of intoxication with a harm reduction approach.
Violence Prevention (New Investment) – Violence is a public health crisis and we support investments in alternative violence prevention projects. We support the ask from the Gun Violence Task Force to commit a minimum initial investment of $5 million dollars to fund an Office of Violence Prevention, contract with an outside technical assistance provider to develop a triage and long-term strategic plan, and then provide a minimum of $5 million dollars each year ($25 million total) for community-led solutions that prioritize the needs of individuals and neighborhoods disproportionately impacted by persistent and concentrated levels of structural, community, and police violence.
Retain but restaff some specialized units
Park Patrol – We do not need armed police to patrol parks. There is also a specific ask for additional park rangers in this upcoming budget, so we propose replacing sworn positions with civilian park rangers.
Lake Patrol – We do not need armed police to patrol lakes. The Parks and Recreation Department also has a specific ask for additional park rangers in this upcoming budget, so we propose replacing sworn positions with civilian park rangers for the lakes.
Special events – Special event staffing has long been a target for reform. It is the single largest line item in the police overtime budget. Some Austin communities have already started substituting community-based event security as much as possible. We have developed a proposal that retains the same number of people paid for event security but substitutes civilian staff and contracts with outside vendors. We would expect to be able to get event security at a lower cost than we currently pay officers at overtime rates.
Crime data, crime solutions, measurement and analytics, reporting
(Our police department has not done well with data, measurement and analytics. We propose moving several units out of the police department to civilianize, integrate and improve the focus on data and measurement, enterprise data systems, and outcomes)
Crime Analysis – This unit should be providing crime analysis both for officer use and the public, and doing so in a way that allows insight about the role of policing in either improved or worsening crime problems. We believe an independent unit focused on improving and integrating APD’s data systems will be necessary as we migrate towards alternative approaches to criminal enforcement and need to measure new outcomes related to these approaches against traditional approaches.
Police Records/Records Management — This unit should work closely with other data units in order to improve record keeping for both the public and internal purposes. Among the many findings in the Tatum report, information about misconduct that should have been available to auditors could not be found. Last year the department accidentally reported all use of force incidents as traffic-stop data, putting Austin briefly in the national spotlight as having dangerously aggressive traffic enforcement. These are not the first instances of questionable data management practices. Further, data management should include new practices that tie management decisions about public safety to outcomes. This will require both improved data systems and new approaches to collection and reporting. Police data is so critical to discussions of public safety, and needs to be integrated with other sources of public safety data in ways that will be improved by pulling all the data systems into a new administrative structure focused on public safety data and able to accommodate other public safety divisions like EMS and Fire as well as health department information, Integral Care information and more.
Public Information — This unit has struggled to keep up with open records requests and routinely violates the timeframes for access to public information. Datasets are often posted long after they should be available (data is data).
APD Information Center — This unit should be integrated with the Public Information Office so it better provides access to information both online and through the PIO. Both these units should be pulled out of APD to improve their functioning.
Units to explore and evaluate for function and funding
Explosives and Blasting – Various APD units spend $647,457 on explosives and blasting, and APD has an entire explosive ordnance team budgeted at about 10 full-time sworn officers. We do not know how frequently this force is called out, for what purposes, or how often it has actually had to diffuse bombs (likely rare). To the extent that these resources help with bomb threats, it is unclear why staff dedicated to dismantling bombs need to be police officers. They need to be people with certain skills that most police officers do not have. We propose examining these budget items and civilianizing activities necessary for public safety while reducing police force militarization, in accordance with Council’s resolutions of June 11th.
Street Narcotics Unit – There seems to be a community consensus that enforcing non-violent drug crime should not be prioritized by our criminal legal system, including police. Units like these disproportionately harm black and brown people and continue to stigmatize people who use drugs instead of using a harm reduction approach. We propose examining the role of the street narcotics unit and investing in harm reduction programs.