Austin at Large: Carnival of the MAGAnimals
Austin is not an unsafe city. That's not stopping the governor from trying to seize control of our police force.
The last time I felt genuinely unsafe walking in the street – that is, the last time I ran from a stranger looking to cause me trouble – was some years ago in Port of Spain, right before Carnival. The locals in Trinidad and Tobago, which at the time had roughly as many people as did Travis County (1.3 million), knew they were in the grips of a major and unprecedented crime wave, one that dominated the headlines and halls of their Capitol – well, Parliament – as Greg Abbott would like people to talk about Austin now.
That year, TnT had more than 500 murders – that is, more than 10 times the current Austin homicide rate. Most involved the drug trade, a hazard of the nation's location next to Venezuela and Colombia, and were concentrated in the roughest neighborhoods. But people of all communities and ethnicities and stations of life were tense, and armed security was visible all around. And yet everyone still went ahead with the enormous nationwide street party that is Carnival in Trinidad, and a good time was had by all.
Is this a dumb comparison? Austin is also known for its party streets and grand festivals, but if our homicide rate were 10 times its current figure – or even three times the actual rate, like a more typical year in Trinidad, or like Houston right now – we'd run into some turbulence trying to relaunch that segment of our economy post-pandemic, let alone more bourgeois endeavors like, I dunno, nabbing the relocated HQ of a Fortune 100 company. But that's not the case! At all! How often must we tell people to ignore Gruesome Greg Abbott and trust their own lived experience? Austin is not an unsafe city.
Dark, Twisted, Deep-Fried
Yet here we are. After last week's round of syrupy high-octane frozen cop-a-ritas mixed by the lame-duck U.S. attorney appointed by President Apesh*t, drawling on about The Worst Crime in 20 Years in Austin EEEEK, we actually saw a salty round of pushback from not just us locals but national experts, sharing headlines like "Defund the Crime Beat" and detailed takedowns in what's left of Texas' thought-leader press, those outlets Abbott would admit to reading. Then Monday rolled around, and Abbott tweeted with glee that the Legislative Council (which does its best to turn politicos' wack fancies into viable laws real people could be asked to follow) had drafted a bill to transfer control of the Austin Police Department to the Texas Department of Public Safety, "just in time for Christmas." Ho-ho-ho!
Said draft bill, which has leaked, bears the signatures of two stale deep-fried nut clusters from Austin's way-back, former state Reps. Terry Keel and Ron Wilson, the former also once our sheriff, the latter (from Houston) known for pointed efforts to strip Austin of home rule entirely. Both later burrowed in as moles in the House parliamentarian's office before being ousted in the coup that installed Joe Straus as speaker. Neither man's track record reflects coherent governing principles, let alone conservative ones. Their bill would move APD whole-hog to DPS, hand-waving away conflict between Austin's police contract and civil service law, and force the city to reimburse the state. Abbott could decree all on his own that our police budget is insufficient; the bill could apply to other large cities if their police staffing ratios fall below the (wholly arbitrary, but sacred in CopLand) 2.0 officers per 1,000 residents.
On Pander! On Blitzen!
How many different ways can one man, even one with the powers of our governor, be up to bullshit? The list is long. Austin is safe by all metrics, even compared to other also-safe Texas cities. Crime everywhere has increased in the last two years, but from historic lows achieved under Obama, with wholly unsurprising short-term spikes during the privations of the pandemic.
None of this has f*ck-all to do with police staffing or funding! Some cities spent more, some less, some the same; there's no evidence that 2.0 is a magic number that begets low crime. Some of the "data" wielded to slander Austin predates any city anywhere doing anything to defund police. That wasn't a thing until, like, six months ago! (It was a thing activists wanted, not a thing that had happened.) Austin hadn't reduced police funding in over a decade before this year's budget, which didn't take effect until October 1.
And it didn't reduce the size of the APD! Austin postponed cadet classes, so it's not hiring more cops, but we still have more than 1,800 (yes, some are retiring), and Council's already making moves to reopen the academy. The police union has a huge incentive to muddy this up in the public's eyes, as it counts on an endless supply of new dues-paying members, accruing mindlessly to maintain that 2.0 ratio, to support its pensions and wield max clout in future salary talks. All of which would no longer be our problem if DPS runs the department!
And none of this swung the elections! Bed-wetting old Dems think cities like Austin destroyed the party's chances downballot, and the GOP is happy to pretend so, but it's not so. The progressives elected to the Lege in 2018 all held their seats, including the one who faced the vice president of our police union. Even on Council, the guy who voted his conscience on police reform knowing it could cost him his seat – Jimmy Flannigan – lost by a few hundred votes, mostly from one neighborhood that's still mad over an unrelated zoning case. If Greg Abbott were half as brave as Jimmy Flannigan, instead of running for reelection, he would run for Council; he lives in District 9.