Austin Public Safety Commission discusses city budget, domestic violence reports

Austin

Austin police officers stand guard outside the department’s headquarters on May 31, 2020 as protesters demonstrate from the sidewalk. (KXAN Photo/Jody Barr)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin’s Public Safety Commission will discuss the city’s proposed budget, as well as domestic violence reports during the pandemic, at a virtual meeting Monday.

Monday’s meeting will be the first time the commission has met since June.

As the city is embroiled in discussions about the city’s proposed budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the public safety commission will also be hearing presentations on different facets of the proposed budget. Public input on this budget has been heavily focused on public safety and policing, with many people who have spoken out council meetings asking for more dollars to be diverted from the Austin Police Department and invested in other areas of public health and safety.

The commission received Austin Fire Department, Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services, and the Austin EMS Association. Austin Assistant Police Chief was on the call but he was not called on to speak nor did he appear to indicate that he had items to present to the commission.

ATCEMS Jasper Brown told the commission that a new budget amendment proposed by Council Member Alison Alter would give the department two additional 24-hour ambulances as well as new commanders to provide for oversight for the department’s growing staff. Brown said the department also needs more staff to provide administrative support for the department.

“We are looking for those admin. positions that are out there and we are hopeful council will add them in with amendments,” he said.

Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie told the commission she was “extremely disappointed” with the allocations for EMS in the initial budget proposal City Manager Spencer Cronk made. However, Xie said she was grateful to Council Member Alter for her amendment to add support to the department.

Xie noted that medics jobs take more time as they have to decontaminate ambulances and spend time donning or doffing protective gear to protect against COVID-19.

Cary Roberts the executive director of the Greater Austin Crime Commission spoke with the Public Safety Commission during public comment, he asked the commission not to see the city budget as an “either-or” choice between funding police or funding social services.

“No one is afraid of good ideas, but using the police budget as a proxy war is dangerous,” Roberts said regarding continued requests by community groups to further divest from the Austin Police budget. “We ask you to please ask the city council to support the [city] manager’s process.”

Reports of Domestic Violence

The public safety commission gets regular updates at each meeting from Austin’s SAFE Alliance, and during this particular meeting, the committee received an update from SAFE specifically on domestic violence reports during the pandemic.

Juliana Gonzales, the Senior Director of Sexual Assault Services at SAFE, shared some sobering anecdotes with the commission.

“Family violence is functioning as a mother public health epidemic right now,” Gonzalez said.

“We’re hearing from people who are really fearful,” she continued. “They’re fearful of the violence at home, they are also fearful of seeking help.”

She noted that between April and June of this year SAFE saw 25% more calls than during the same period the previous year. Additionally, she said that SAFE is seeing more clients who are experiencing escalated levels of abuse or more dangerous living situations.

The Family Shelter Director for SAFE told the commission that the shelter is seeing a lot of admissions that need to be rescheduled because the person seeking help is at home with the person who is using violence against them.

The shelter director explained that there is a waitlist “all day every day” to get into SAFE’s shelter. Which is why SAFE has been utilizing the Bridge Program in a partnership with the city to provide one-time assistance to get people to a safe location.

If you or someone you know needs support, the 24/7 SAFEline is available by phone at 512.267.SAFE (7233), by text at 737-888-7233, or by online chat at safeaustin.org/chat

Commission versus Committee?

The Public Safety Commission is an appointed group that makes recommendations to Austin City Council on policies. The commission’s work is not to be confused with that of the similarly named Public Safety Committee — a recently formed subcommittee of the Austin City Council designed to help implement police reforms and racial justice measures recently approved. The Public Safety Commission received a presentation from Jimmy Flannigan, the chair of the Public Safety Committee Monday to help the commission better understand the new work coming out of this council group.

The discussion with Flannigan was a conversation about what commissions can and can’t do and how commissions might most effectively serve the city in the future.

Flannigan suggested that the most effective way to establish the roles would be to have commissions serve as an additional public forum prior to council meetings and to continue their work making recommendations to council, while the committees — subgroups of the council– would focus on implementing policies that council had already approved.

Acting chair during the meeting Rebecca Webber told Flannigan, “I think we [commissions] are particularly ill-suited for oversight.”

Flannigan also noted that there could be ways to improve communication between the city’s commissions and council members.

“You’ll adopt a thing and it shows up in my inbox as an email, I got 10,000 emails this week, so I might have missed it,” Flannigan told the commission.

A new commision chair

Commissioner Rebecca Gonzales was unanimously elected the new chair of the Public Safety Commission at this meeting. The previous chair, Meghan Hollis, resigned after taking a position working with the state government.

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