In September of 2019, Austin city councilman Greg Casar spoke before his colleagues as they were poised to infuse an additional $20 million into the city’s police department, in part to hire 30 new officers. He hoped to restrain the city’s spending on the department, after some policemen had been accused of using excessive force against Black and brown citizens. He didn’t have the support to cut the police budget, so he argued instead to reduce the proposed increase by funding only 26 new patrol positions and shifting $700,000 toward domestic violence prevention and services to its victims. He didn’t win support for that measure, and the city council passed the general municipal budget, with the full Austin Police Department allocation, ten votes to one. The vote set up APD to account for 40 percent of the city’s general fund in the 2019–20 fiscal year, a higher percentage than in Texas’s other large cities, such as Houston (33 percent), Dallas (36 percent), and San Antonio (38 percent).
It was a familiar story in Austin: efforts to rein in APD’s budget—which has grown every year since 2009 and by 50 percent since 2013—had for years received little political support. “We would always talk about the need for reallocation,” said Chris Harris, a member of the City of Austin’s Public Safety Commission and director of the Criminal Justice Project at Texas Appleseed, a social and economic justice organization. “But the fights themselves always ended up being about just trying to limit or prevent [budget] increases.”
Considering that history, social justice advocates were surprised this summer when Austin became one of the only cities in the nation to successfully begin reallocating significant funding from its police department to other city programs. In August, the council voted unanimously to eliminate upcoming cadet classes in the troubled police academy, diverting $20 million to programs that address homelessness, mental health, and family violence prevention. Over the course of the year following the budget vote, another $80 million will be reallocated from the department by placing some functions, such as forensics and 911 dispatch, within other parts of the city’s government. The council also flagged another $50 million for “community led” review. Notably, not a single officer was laid off to accommodate the budget changes.
While the city council’s vote came in the wake of intense nationwide protests that followed George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in Minneapolis, the decision to divert millions of dollars away from APD wasn’t simply a reflex response. It marked the latest step for the city’s growing social justice movement—spurred by a handful of high-profile police shootings in Austin in recent years—and the culmination of fairly recent developments that have allowed Black and brown communities to be better represented in local government.
“Too often, city hall has settled for Austin’s progressive branding without necessarily living up to the progressive values that people in Austin espouse,” Casar said. “When they see such blatant injustice, more and more people become committed to making Austin’s progressive reputation more than brand.”
For much of the past hundred years, Austin City Council members were elected on an at-large basis by a citywide majority vote, rather than representing specific geographic districts. That effectively diluted the voices of Austin’s Black and brown populations, which have long been largely segregated from the city’s white, affluent neighborhoods. There was an informal “gentleman’s agreement” dating to the seventies that allotted just two council seats for Austin’s largest minority communities: one for a Hispanic councilmember, and the other for a Black one. As a result, only four or five (there’s some debate there) Hispanic council members had been elected throughout the council’s history, and the first Black council member wasn’t elected until 1971.
But in 2012, a coalition of local organizations advocated for a ballot measure to expand the council from seven to ten seats and to assign each to one of the city’s new geographically designated districts. The measure passed, and in the years since, the council has slowly come to more closely represent those who live in Austin, which is only 48 percent non-Hispanic white. Now, three of the council’s ten members are Hispanic, and a fourth member is Black—which has had a profound effect on the body’s policy stances. “That hasn’t solved everything,” Harris said, “but it has meant that, particularly on policing and criminal justice issues in general, there’s a lot more successes.”
Perhaps the most important city council vote that set the stage for the monumental budget changes was the one that reformed Austin’s contract with the local police union, which went up for renewal in 2017. The contract, described as “one of the most problematic” in the country, limited transparency and insulated APD from public accountability mechanisms. The citizen oversight panel had no power to discipline police officers and the agreement ensured a 180-day statute of limitations on allegations of misconduct. Amid calls from activists for more accountability, the council voted not to renew the contract, and renegotiated a new one in 2018 that strengthened Austin’s independent police oversight office, extended the investigative period for complaints that allege police officers may have committed crimes, and created the option for citizens to file complaints online, among other reforms.
On the heels of the contract vote, the city council loosened anti-homeless panhandling laws in June 2019, and in January this year passed a resolution requiring APD to stop arresting or ticketing Austinites for most low-level marijuana offenses. Both measures were significant attempts to reduce potentially deadly interactions between vulnerable populations and armed officers. A wave of audits and reports conducted by the city in the last few years have found the department has disproportionately stopped Black residents. According to one report, in 2018, 15 percent of traffic stops and 25 percent of arrests targeted African Americans, who make up 8 percent of Austin’s total population. (When Casar had brought up the arrest disparities in 2018, weeks before the council passed a resolution calling on APD to stop the discretionary arrests that disproportionately targeted racial minorities, the president of Austin’s police union accused him of “race-baiting” and “trying to stir up hatred towards police officers.”)
Brian Manley, Austin’s chief of police, said in a statement provided to Texas Monthly that the “Austin Police Department is committed to doing all that we can to ensure our service and practices serve everyone in a fair and equitable manner. We are working diligently to address disparities and will continue to engage with the community in these efforts.”
In May, Austin police shot and killed Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black and Latino man. Not long after, George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Austin, chanting the names of both men. At demonstrations, police seriously injured at least 41—including a 16-year-old boy who was watching, but not participating, in a protest—prompting calls to fire Manley.
Public support at hearings and meetings for APD began to wane. So, too, did the police union’s influence in local government. In June, Austin’s mayor and all ten council members pledged not to accept political donations from the police union’s PAC. Hundreds of citizens called in to a virtual city council meeting to comment on APD’s actions at the protests, offering emotional testimony about the devastating impact of brutality against those demonstrating.
“I wish that those folks never had to come and testify,” Casar said. “But the fact that they did, and so bravely were able to tell their stories, was very critical to push those of us at city hall so that we couldn’t look away from the real human cost of the status quo.”
At a virtual budget hearing in July, more than 250 people called in to address APD’s budget. About 98 percent of those callers supported reallocating some of APD’s funding to other city-operated social services. Buoyed by popular support, the council voted unanimously to redistribute about $150 million from APD, whose budget now stands at $294 million.
Asked about the budget reallocation, APD spokesperson Angelique Myers deferred comment to an unnamed city spokesperson, who wrote in an emailed statement that Austin is “committed to implementing policy and cultural changes to address the disproportionate impact of police violence on people of color and other affected communities.”
Unlike Austin, other Texas cities have increased their police budgets this year in the wake of protests against brutality. In early June, Houston added $20 million to its police budget, bringing its allocation to $964 million, and in October, Mayor Sylvester Turner announced plans to “saturate” six so-called “hot spot” neighborhoods—which have primarily Black and Hispanic residents—with cops, using $4.1 million of federal CARES Act funding to pay officers overtime for the surge. In September, San Antonio’s City Council approved an $8 million increase in spending on police, bringing the department’s total budget to $487 million. Some council members in Houston and San Antonio have received thousands of dollars in political donations from their local police unions.
Texas governor Greg Abbott has blamed Austin’s diversion of police funding for a short-term increase in violent crime in the city—even though experts have warned that looking at crime data changes over short periods of time doesn’t give an accurate picture of trends or public safety—and has threatened to place APD under state control. Abbott has also said that, in the legislative session that begins in January, he’ll push for the state Legislature to pass measures that would freeze property tax revenues in cities that have “defunded” their police departments. (Abbott hasn’t clearly defined what he considers to be “defunding,” though his targeting of Austin indicates it includes cities that trim their police budgets.) Many Texas Republicans vying for office—particularly those with districts that include parts of Austin—similarly pounced on the city council’s decision and sought to tie their Democratic opponents to it.
Those few who did speak against the budget changes during the July budget hearing often cited the recent slight increase in violent crime as the main reason they didn’t support diverting funds away from APD. One person who spoke said he was in favor of budget changes on a smaller scale than what was being proposed, and favored improving de-escalation training for officers, but believed slicing hundreds of millions of dollars from APD’s budget would be imprudent.
With a long process ahead before the majority of the funds earmarked for reallocation are redistributed, activists say that there’s still more work to do. Some of the most ambitious reforms are outlined in the City of Austin’s initiative to “Reimagine Public Safety,” which aims to end racial disparities in policing, improve APD’s process for investigating sexual assaults, and overhaul APD’s use of force policies and reduce the department’s stockpile of deadly weapons.
Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly reported that Mike Ramos was experiencing a mental health crisis when he was shot. The story has been updated.