Austin at Large: More Than We Could Imagine

At an unexpectedly delicate moment, Austinites can flip the script on public safety

Is it time to put APD's police horses out to pasture? (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

When it was first conceived last summer, the City-Community Reimagining Public Safety Task Force was expected to deliver its final report in March, the middle of the city's budget year. This would allow the panel's recommendations to be followed by amendments to this year's budget that would ideally add up to the $150 million or so that City Coun­cil, and particularly its left wing, wanted to reallocate from the Austin Police Department this year to show that it heard and felt the swelling pain and outrage of a city that had taken to the streets with unprecedented vigor to demand that Austin's relationship with its police force change now. That deadline slipped, because deadlines do, and ended up on 4/20, which we assured you was no joke. As the RPS Task Force laid out its work for Council to consider, and as everyone involved knew that a verdict had been reached in Min­ne­apolis and would soon be revealed, it became very, very much not a joke.

Some justice advocates, including some who became leaders on the RPS Task Force, feel City Hall's phases and stages of de-policing are already and always half­-measures, taken because Austin's leaders are afraid to seriously and diligently consider a future without police. They fear that every slip in the timeline or decision to not yet cease or change an aspect of the APD status quo explains and justifies the abyss of distrust and disconnection that separates the people that run the city – and the well-educated, largely white, relatively affluent caste that defines Austin's brand and "quality of life" – from the people those advocates came to represent, who reflexively fear and avoid the police after years of bad encounters and whose actual needs go begging.

Yet Others Feel Otherwise

So, so very much of the discourse around de-policing over the last year presumes that this worldview simply does not exist among people whose participation matters in local politics. It's a given that many people disagree with it – not just our GOP overlords and whining police unionists, but plenty of ordinary friendly folk who are clearly made uncomfortable by talk of defunding, let alone abolishing, the police. Some of that resistance may reflect people's credible perceptions of their own safety needs and risks, but we know a lot of it doesn't. People are frightened by bad things they see on TV, or nervous about not conforming with their cohort's cultural beliefs, or beset with dislocation and some trauma after the wild rides of the last year, or two years, or four years.

This perspective that of course police are needed, and have always been needed and will be until the world ends, has been the default setting of the political sausage machines in America's cities for a long, long, long time, even among people who aren't that fond of or swayed by myth-making copaganda. When Austin and other cities in 2020 listened to their people and, for the first time in most politicians' careers, realized they were not required to build their local budgets for social programs and community development and public health (during a pandemic!) solely from the scraps left on the table and floor after the police got fed, and that their real-life constituents would rather they do otherwise, they were at a loss as to how to go through a door that had never before been opened.

The sweaty and absurd schemes being concocted at the Legislature to prevent cities from de-policing also show how little people with power have thought about this stuff until now. But the people on the other side have thought about it a great deal. Though the work of the RPS Task Force and its many community collaborators has clearly been arduous, they were ready and able to deliver the goods in the time allotted. And what they have delivered into the shaky hands of Council and city management will be hard to pretend does not exist.

So Many Things To Get Done

As I hinted at last week, and as we'll explore in a lot more detail next week, the recommendations of the RPS Task Force's working groups vary in scope and scale; some are already workable, others have been heretofore incomprehensible. While City Hall isn't ready to implement the whole gamut no matter how strongly some justice advocates feel about it, many things are indeed happening now that represent more than cosmetic gestures at de-policing. On this week's Council agenda (Thursday, April 22) are items that will create a separate emergency communications department to take over 911 dispatch from APD, and to move managing security alarm permits and calls to the Development Services Department. These are things that consume a lot of time and money, which police complain are in short supply, and that do not need to be done by licensed peace officers. More importantly, they shouldn't be, because sending police to every 911 call, or to every tripped burglar alarm, creates unneeded stress and introduces the presence of deadly force into what need not be crises of any kind.

These moves follow the earlier creation of a decoupled forensic science department, to be managed by skilled professionals and not the police chain of command that ran the APD crime lab into the ground a few years back, and adding mental health first response as an option alongside police, fire, and EMS when one calls 911. This latter move still needs to be fully funded to be effective, and other long-discussed decouplings and reallocations still need to be executed, like converting APD's lake patrol to an EMS unit, or finally putting APD's police horses out to pasture. (And its dogs, which the RPS Task Force sadly observed have all been trained to bite.)

That's all stuff that, as we've observed before, should be amenable to good-government centrists and conservatives who'd run the city like a business. The task force also devoted much attention to things that those people may scoff at as irrelevant, much as they now have forgotten what "infrastructure" means, but which would likely pencil out as more effective interventions and uses of public funds than policing. For example, improving community engagement, and thus trust and information sharing, with City Hall as well as APD. Or deploying community health workers (promotoras) in Austin's neighborhoods instead of cops. Or supporting all survivors of violence, not just those who feel comfortable reporting their crimes. Or reducing the threat of arrest and risk of overdose for all drug users, not just dope smokers. This stuff all has an evidence-based track record of success; its suitability as one-to-one replacement for investments in policing may be unproven, but trying it is not an absurd proposition.

Another recurring theme in the task force report is further empowering the city's Equity Office, for reasons that are likely self-evident. The director of that office, Brion Oaks, is a co-chair of the task force, which includes five city staffers; while this probably raises some eyebrows among our many public scolds, the point remains that city management has been participating in and observing this process all along. The lack of obvious pushback could, perhaps, suggest that even other city departments, even City Manager Spencer Cronk himself, find freedom from the dead hand of police power over their jobs and budgets liberating. There's carping from the cop lobby that its views have gone unheard and unrepresented by the RPS Task Force, but c'mon: We know what they think already, we hear it all the time, and they have the governor in their corner. Devoting basically the entire RPS process to surfacing and centering the people who don't have bullhorns was a choice. As the news of the week gently restores a little faith and hope among those who want Austin and America to be better, it's proven to be a wiser choice that perhaps we could ever imagine.

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