Police funding and reform dominate focus of public testimony on proposed budget

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The vast majority of people who have spoken to the Austin City Council so far about the city’s budget have discussed police funding and reforms to the department.

The first of two public input meetings regarding the City of Austin’s proposed Fiscal Year 2020-2021 budget started at 10 a.m. Thursday, and more than 400 people signed up to chime in on it.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler said the large group of speakers should equate to around 13 hours of speaking time considering each speaker gets 2 minutes, so in order to hear everybody, the council has scheduled times in two-hour blocks for people to call in and provide input.

This will be the first of two public hearings on the proposed budget, the second will be July 30. A relatively large number of residents are weighing in on the city budget process this year. The city says, according to transcripts from the budget hearings last year,  45 people signed up to speak on the first day of budget public hearings last year and 160 people signed up on the second day of public hearings — meaning that the first day of public testimony alone for this year’s budget will exceed the total number of people who publicly weighed in on the proposed budget last year.

As of 1:30 p.m., 120 people had spoken and the vast majority of those people discussed the funding for the budget of the Austin Police Department. Of those people who spoke on police funding, the vast majority told the council that they were not content with the proposed budget and that they want to see more dollars removed from APD’s budget and reallocated to things like social services and public health. However, several community members did speak out against the calls to reduce police funding, including the Greater Austin Crime Commission and UT Safety group SafeHorns.

Joell McNew with SafeHorns told the council that while she supports having more of a conversation about the budget process, “we do not support eliminating 100 officers or taking away more budget money.”

McNew added “I think it’s important that there are people who support public safety and who understand public safety.”

“We have an expectation of living in a safe community,” she said.

Joan Denson, who identified herself to the council as a white, 75-year old retiree sold the council Thursday was the first time she had spoken before them.

“I’m not one who wants to defund the police and start over,” but she asked that when it comes to APD’s budget, that the council “fully cut it by one half.”

Brenda Ramos, the mother of Mike Ramos who was shot and killed in an incident with Austin Police on April 24, was one of the speakers at council who called for further reductions to APD. She reminded council members that the officer who fired his patrol rifle at her son is still on paid administrative leave.

Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and the death of Mike Ramos, who was shot and killed in an incident with Austin Police, demonstrators and community groups have called for reductions and reallocations from Austin Police Department’s budget.

In June, the Austin City Council approved several resolutions focused on police reform and racial justice.

One of the items directed the city manager to eliminate open positions within the Austin Police Department that APD cannot fill and asked Cronk to look at redirecting those funds to other services.

City Manager Spencer Cronk’s proposed budget calls for taking $11.3 million from APD to allocate into other departments and services. Last fiscal year, APD operated with a roughly $434 million budget. Earlier this year, in April, the city proposed $445 million for APD for FY 2020-2021. After the protests and council resolutions calling for police reform, the latest proposed budget for APD is now at $434 million, reflecting the $11.3 million reallocations. That means APD’s FY21 budget is around $151,000 less than APD’s proposed FY20 budget.

Many speakers Thursday told the council that they believed a difference of $151,000 was not enough to address the demands from the community.

Chas Moore, executive director of the Austin Coalition, invoked lines from hit musical “Hamilton” in an effort to appeal to the council to reallocate police funding to other departments.

“As citizens, we are not able to be in the room where it happens, we are not able to make the budget decisions you are able to make,” he said.

Moore added that the $151,000 difference from last year’s APD budget “is not something that is leaving the community satisfied at all.”

Calling on the council to reduce APD’s budget by $100 million, he told the council, “remember that in this moment, history has its eyes on you. I really hope you don’t throw away your shot to do something big.”

Some community groups like Austin Justice Coalition have called for reducing APD’s budget by at least $100 million and other groups like Grassroots Leadership have called for reducing APD’s budget by at least 50% (more than $200 million).

The Austin Police Association says officers are dealing with fatigue due to the increase in crime, heat and COVID-19. Representatives say they need more officers on the force.

“We have a police academy that’s been canceled for months, we have numerous people retiring, we need to grow up and be adults here, we need more officers, we need this academy to start immediately because they are playing games with officers lives and citizens lives now,” said Ken Casaday, President of the Austin Police Association.

According to the Chief Brian Manley’s monthly report, despite the lockdown, Austin has experienced a crime wave. Here are the numbers found in the report:

  • Murder increased by 64% 
  • Statutory rape is up by 50% 
  • Auto theft increased by 30% 
  • Building thefts are up by 24% 
  • Robberies increased by 16% 
  • Aggravated assaults are up by 14% 
  • Arson increased by 9% 
  • Burglaries are up by 8% 

Several other members of the public spoke on budget issues outside of policing, including funding for food insecurity, homelessness, COVID-19 response and the park systems.

Here are the scheduled times council will hear the feedback:

  • Call meeting to order
  • Batch 1: 10 a.m.-12 p.m.
  • Lunch Break: 12-1 p.m.
  • Batch 2: 1-3 p.m
  • Batch 3: 3-5 p.m.
  • Dinner Break: 5-6 p.m.
  • Batch 4: 6-8 p.m.
  • Batch 5: 8-10 p.m.
  • Batch 6: 10 p.m.-12 a.m.

The next public input meeting on the proposed budget is July 30. Work sessions are scheduled for July 28 and Aug. 4, with more public hearings and adoption set for Aug. 12-14.

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