AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Council members will vote Thursday on an ordinance that would create an Emergency Communications Department to handle 911 calls, independent from the Austin Police Department.
If approved, 222 civilian positions within APD’s current call center would be transferred out of the police department. The move would decrease funding for APD by more than $16 million and move it to this new Emergency Communications Department.
This is the latest item up for a vote in the city’s efforts to reimagine public safety.
Right now, any emergency call in the city goes through APD’s center, then is routed back out if firefighters, paramedics or a mental health professional is needed.
“A vast majority of our 911 calls have no violence component,” said Austin City Council member Greg Casar.
Casar and others on the council like Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison want to create an independent, city-run Emergency Communications Department.
“I do think taking dispatch out of the PD really helps our department zero in, get really granular with its focus on its fundamental role, and that’s to protect the people and property of Austin,” Harper-Madison said. “Just imagine them managing this call center with hundreds of operators, you know? That’s one of those bureaucratic administrative things that they don’t even need to be worried about.”
The Austin Police Association told KXAN it’s supportive of the change, as long as professional standards are met. Austin-Travis County EMS told KXAN it doesn’t expect any impact from an operational perspective.
Council members said they expect passing the ordinance could bring more efficiency.
“With the police department running 911, sometimes you might end up getting a police officer when you should have had, for example, a mental health response,” Casar explained.
As council prepares for Thursday’s vote, ensuring mental health calls get the right response is a topic the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force is asking the city to take even a step further.
Reading one of the task force’s working group’s recommendations, Rodney Saenz said, “A determination of appropriateness of police intervention should be made by the community member requesting assistance in conjunction with the mental health first responder, not by the dispatcher.”
The ordinance council will vote on Thursday would also free up police from having to respond to home alarm systems. A lot of times, Harper-Madison said, those are false alarms, that could be better handled by someone else.
AFD, however, continues to respond to fire alarm activations, including those that are monitored to alert fire crews when a site is unoccupied.
“These activations allow for a timely investigation of the building for signs of fire and fire protection systems that are operating to reduce property damage to the building,” wrote a spokesperson in a statement for AFD. “While false alarms do sometimes occur in these alarm systems, the benefits of having them and our subsequent response are paramount in reducing the risk to occupants of a building and the damage caused by fires. In short, we treat every activation as if it is an emergency…because it may be.”