AUSTIN (KXAN) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday vowed to pass a law in the upcoming legislative session to prevent cities from cutting police funding.
“The state will fix this,” Abbott wrote on Twitter. “Texas will pass a law this session supporting law enforcement and defunding cities that defund the police.”
The governor’s pledge came less than an hour after U.S. Attorney Gregg Sofer criticized the City of Austin for cutting $20 million from the police budget.
Surrounded by federal, state and local law enforcement representatives — including police chiefs from Austin, Round Rock, Cedar Park, Lakeway, Kyle and the University of Texas police department — Sofer described what he called “four pillars” of the “Operation Undaunted,” a new campaign targeting violent crime investigations.
Sofer commented numerous times on the “dangerous” and “reckless” move to reduce the Austin Police Department budget. He said that “Operation Undaunted” will soon roll out in Austin and later the surrounding area.
The Austin City Council’s cuts came in August with unanimous council approval. The council also moved an additional $130 million dollars in programs — including the DNA crime lab — to other departments.
Councilmember Greg Casar, who is poised to become Mayor Pro Tem, said the city “absolutely must do better to keep everyone safe, especially in low-income areas.” He said the city council is committed to doing that through investments in anti-gun violence programs, family violence shelters and violence intervention initiatives.
“If the Trump Administration was truly looking to combat crime, they would prioritize any of the other big cities in Texas which all have much higher homicide rates than us, rather than engage in theatrics,” Casar said, referring to the fact that Sofer was appointed to his role by the president in October this year.
IN-DEPTH: Violent crime in Austin
Sofer’s announcement highlighted the rise in violent crime in Austin in 2020 and described the murder rate here as “skyrocketing.” But Austin isn’t alone in that crime increase.
In the past year, the murder rate in Austin increased by 55% from the year before, with 45 murders as of November compared to 29 at the same time last year, the Austin Police Department reported.
“That graph needs to go down, not up,” Sofer said. “You don’t move it down by taking away resources from the people whose job it is to go out in the streets and to stop people from getting hurt.”
However, recent studies have shown that violent crime has increased in cities across the U.S., and not just those that have announced changes to their police budgets. Crime analyst Jim Asher looked at 51 cities (including Austin, Dallas and Fort Worth) and compared their murder data from January to September in 2019 and 2020. Overall, there was a 35.7% increase, and Asher found the difference was nearly identical between cities with Democratic and Republican mayors — 36.2% and 35.6%.
Casar pointed to a Wall Street Journal article that identified Austin and San Jose as the two large cities with the lowest number of homicides in the United States.
“We are fortunate in Austin that our homicide rate is so much lower than other cities that surround us, but we also have to be equally as concerned with the increases that we’ve seen this year,” said Austin Police Chief Brian Manley after the press conference.
The coronavirus pandemic likely also played a factor in the increase in crime, Manley said.
“I do think it’s appropriate to consider the stress that our entire society, not only our city, has been under with all of these COVID restrictions,” Manley said. “I think we have a lot of people that are out of work we’ve had kids that are out of school for a while so we have a lot more people that have time to go out and engage in activities that lead to violence.”
Manley said he believed the situation would be studied for years to come to understand exactly what led to the increases. Stofer said there’s not a good way right now to statistically determine whether COVID-19 is responsible for the rise in violent crime.
Statistics from the City of Austin show that violent crime was already on the rise before the city council made changes to APD’s budget. That change happened in August. Murders in July were up by 54% year-over-year and aggravated assaults were already up by 17%.
Austin’s population is also increasing, which could be another factor.
“We don’t want to have big city problems like they do in other places where the homicide rate is out of control. Now is the time to act, not when that number instead of 40 or 60 is 140 or 160,” Stofer said.
4 pillars of Operation Undaunted
The first is increased use of the National Integrated Ballistics Information Network, or NIBIN, which compares evidence gathered from shooting crime scenes to help generate leads and identify suspects. Local law enforcement already has access to this multi-state tool, Sofer said, but he wants to enhance its use and put more people to work on it. Manley added additional officers had already been added to work on it in the past few months, but expected to be able to use it “to a greater extent than in the past.”
The second involves working with district attorneys, anti-gang centers and law enforcement to prosecute repeat offenders, or those who “simply refuse to stop committing violent crimes” as Sofer put it. That includes those who commit crimes while out on bond. Sofer said they would prosecute those people at a federal level if necessary.
The third pillar also involves federal prosecutions, what Sofer calls the “most serious” robberies involving guns, gangs, gun stores or those that happen across jurisdictions. He said robbery crews, in particular, are affecting the community.
“Gangs and cartels are here,” he said, adding he couldn’t go into detail but that many of those in law enforcement surrounding him are “hard at work on cartel and gang-related activity.”
The fourth pillar, an apparent response to investigations at Fort Hood earlier this year that led to the ouster of 14 leaders, involves enhancing cooperation to investigate violent crimes on military bases and target the “worst violent offenders,” Sofer said.
“Both to those who follow the law and those who refuse to do so, we will do everything we can to protect innocent lives, interrupt violence and restore peace to our neighborhoods.”