Less than a month after approving $150 million in cuts to police, the Austin, Tx., City Council decided to use $1.8 million in state grants for new public safety initiatives that are aimed at changing law enforcement’s role in the face of growing criticism of police behavior.
While some council members argued that funding law enforcement only two weeks after cutting the police department’s budget by a third was inconsistent, the decisions offered an example of how police defunding initiatives are playing out in practical municipal politics.
Only $20 million of the Austin police budget was cut immediately. The remainder of the police budget will be designated for “transitional funds” targeted at social services.
Meanwhile the state grants will be used for programs such as the Austin Police Department Victim Crisis Intervention Project, First Responder Mental Health Program, Project Safe Neighborhoods, APD Violence Against Women Investigative Project, and Sexual Assault Evidence Testing Project.
Austin’s measures also reflected the pressure Texas cities are under since Gov. Greg Abbott threatened retaliation against cities who participated in the defunding movement, declaring their property tax revenues would be frozen.
The issue underscores the dilemma faced by many small cities across the U.S. caught in the crossfire over the defunding police movement.
So far, of Texas’ five major cities, Austin is the only one that has gone ahead with a defunding plan.
Houston increased its police budget by $19 million, despite Council Member Letitia Plummer’s efforts to win approval for redistributing some of the budget towards areas like loans for mental health programs and minority-owned businesses.
Mayor Sylvester Turner, however, said he plans to create a task force for police accountability and transparency.
Fort Worth’s proposed budget will not cut police funding. However in mid-August, Police Chief Ed Kraus said he is looking to shift certain responsibilities away from officers, KERA News reported.
In a meeting with reporters in early August, Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax said the there were no plans to defund the police, but he acknowledged the city was interested in expanding existing community-based services involving law enforcement and creating new programs to address issues raised by activists.
For example, RIGHT Care, a program that partners police with mental health workers and paramedics when responding to those in distress, will be getting a boost.
San Antonio is planning to increase its police department’s general budget by $8.1 million.
Of those who spoke up during the public comment portion of the city’s budget proposal meeting and the hundreds of people who submitted comments online, most appeared against the increase, pushing for funds to be put into areas such as housing and education.
However, during the Public Safety Committee’s listening sessions, comments collected showed opinion was evenly divided, with 97 comments in favor of defunding, and 94 in favor of maintaining current funding levels. Some 83 comments as well pushed for altering the police union contract.
The defund movement has ignited fierce passions across the state.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton charged that Austin’s decision to cut the police budget “disregards the safety of our capital city, its citizens, and the many guests who frequent it.”
Austin Council member Gregorio Casar said such critics were misleading the public about the purpose and extent of defunding.
“Extreme, anti-civil rights voices will try to send us backward and are already working (to) mislead people about this vote,” Casar tweeted.
“But today, we should celebrate what the movement has achieved for safety, racial justice and democracy.”
A recent report by the Texas Justice Initiative found that not only had officer-involved shootings in the state’s five most populous countries increased between 2016-2019, but Blacks and Hispanics were disproportionately victimized by them.
Laura Bowen is a TCR news reporting intern.