Austin could remove forensics lab from police oversight this fall, releases timeline to dismantle APD

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The City of Austin could remove the forensics lab and five other programs or services out from under control of the Austin Police Department this fall. It’s the first step in a larger plan to dismantle many areas of the police department and reallocate them under other city departments.

Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano outlined the city’s plan in a new memo to City Council, which detailed a timeline for dismantling and moving a dozen programs overall. Some are pretty big, including the 911 dispatch center and Internal Affairs.

Including the forensics lab, the city could move six programs out of the police department in the first quarter of the 2020-2021 budget, which would be this fall:

  • Forensics Lab
  • Administrative & Management services
  • Technology services
  • Officer Wellness Program
  • Municipal/Community Court Security
  • Protective Services

The memo said the following five programs could be moved out in the fall but would most likely get moved in 2021.

  • Chief Medical Officer concept
  • Strategic Support
  • Emergency Call Center & Police Dispatch
  • Internal Affairs
  • Special Investigations Unit

Nuisance Abatement would likely be the final area to move, doing so in late 2021.

In addition to the 12 programs and areas the city has already targeted to remove from APD control, the memo also highlighted seven other areas that could possibly be removed, as well. The soon-to-be established City-Community Reimagining Task Force will decide on these areas:

  • Crisis Intervention Team & Mental Health Response
  • Park Patrol, Lake Patrol, & Airport Police
  • Victim Services, Crisis Counselors
  • Community Partnerships
  • Officer Training
  • Vehicle Licensing/Highway Enforcement
  • Governance

The city says the timeline is evolving, so this could still change. They must also look at the impact of things like pension or civil service rules and other legal obligations.

Council Member Greg Casar is leading efforts on council to move a lot of the functions out of the police department. He admits it could take the city months to set them up as new, independent departments.

He says creating a new forensics lab run entirely by scientists to replace APD’s curent DNA crime is one of the top priorities.

“We have been talking for years since 2016 about the failures in our forensics process, and I think really bolstering the forensics lab, having it be independent and getting it done in this budget would be a really important thing for survivors of violence and harm in our community,” Casar said.

In a statement, Stop Abuse for Everyone (SAFE) Austin said its leaders have been directly involved in conversations with the city about potentially changing the lab’s oversight.

“We support independent forensic laboratories, including the DNA Lab, and believe this will have a positive impact on the communities we serve. Our primary concern is that whatever entity or entities provide oversight in the future keep survivors in mind with every decision they make,” a representative for SAFE Austin said in a statement.

Greater Austin Crime Commission President Corby Jastrow recently sent out a newsletter warning too many resources quickly could result in legal challenges and operational problems. Casar says the city will work around those.

“I hear time and time again how there’s going to be operational challenges, how there’s going to be legal questions, and so often that’s what keeps us in the status quo, keeps us doing the same things where misconduct happens, there isn’t an investigation that everybody can trust, there’s an issue it gets dragged out for months and then nobody is satisfied with the result,” Casar said.

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