With more than 25K signatures on petition, Austin voters may be able to decide on ‘re-funding police’

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The nonprofit organization behind a petition to increase policing in the city of Austin says it’s received more than 25,600 signatures — making the proposed changes eligible for the November 2021 election.

The local political action committee Save Austin Now began the petition in May and now says it’s completed the drive it hopes will make several changes to “#MakeAustinSafe.”

The petition still must be certified by the City Clerk’s office, which could take 12-15 days.

“We believe at this point that every petition we turned in was valid,” said Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak. “There may be a couple duplicates in there due to human error. But the vast, vast, vast majority of the ones we turned in are going to be valid.”

If approved by voters, the ordinance would:

  • Require a minimum of two officers per 1,000 people
  • Require that 35% of officers’ shifts is spent interacting with the community, rather than only responding to 911 calls
  • Double the amount of yearly post-cadet training hours from 40 to 80 hours
  • Make changes to boost diverse hiring and provide retention bonuses for officers who have not received complaints

“To everyone who has supported this effort by signing our petition, collecting signed petitions, volunteering, donating, and sharing our content, we are deeply grateful. Austin has never been less safe than it is today and the police staffing crisis continues to worsen,” said SAN co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek in a statement.

Several police associations joined SAN in a press conference Monday announcing that they’d met their goal for signatures by their deadline.

“We want to end the war on law enforcement, and actually focus on the war on crime,” said Texas Police Association Executive Director Erwin Ballarta.

When KXAN asked the group for an estimate on how much implementation of the measure, if passed, might cost, SAN did not give a direct figure.

“The question of funding wasn’t really an issue before they defunded,” Mackowiak said. “So, the money was there, then it can be there again.”

City leaders point out that the proposed budget for the upcoming fiscal year would already allot $442 million to APD, making for Austin’s highest police budget ever.

Mayor Steve Adler and Council Member Greg Casar told KXAN Monday that even more funding for extra officers would hurt other city departments.

“Right now, we are struggling to figure out how to pay for a dozen more medics so that we’re ready for something like the next winter storm, or a dozen more firefighters, which we’ve been struggling to hire,” Casar said. “And, so, we are hiring new police in this budget, but we’re struggling to figure out how we’re going to make sure our pools are open on the weekend and how to make sure we have enough EMS staff. And we could even be talking about how we can prevent layoffs of some of our other public safety departments and other critical city services.”

“We should have a balanced approach to public safety,” Adler said. “We shouldn’t be cutting fire and EMS and parks– because we’re going to have to cut in those areas in order to be able to make this work.” 

Adler also argues the police staffing standard of two officers per 1,000 people the group is referring to, which was recommended in a 2016 city study, is outdated for modern policing.

“It’s something that doesn’t make sense in today’s world, and that’s what our police chief tells us,” Adler said. “We’re working with the police chief now to come up with what is a correct and proper and modern way to identify police staffing, and I expect that to come from the police chief.”

Mackowiak disagrees and says while the proposed budget increasing police funding is positive, it’s still not enough.

“The problem is it does not adequately address the staffing crisis that we are facing. They moved the 911 call center back in, they moved the DNA crime lab back in, they are allowing two cadet classes to be scheduled to graduate. The problem is that the attrition that we’re suffering over that period of time is going to almost entirely wipe out the gains we will get from those cadets who graduate.” 

Adler argues, “We can’t pick one aspect of public safety and then put ourselves in a position where we have to cut everything else in order to be able to make that work. We needed a balanced approach to public safety.”

Multiple local and state organizations released a joint statement Monday opposing SAN’s petition. The release called the ballot effort “misguided,” claiming it could devastate budgets for EMS, mental health care, victim services, homelessness solutions and park improvements.

The 25 groups that opposed the SAN petition are: ACLU of Texas, AFSCME Local 1624, Austin Area Urban League, Austin Community Law Center, Austin Justice Coalition, Black Lives Matter Austin, CAIR Austin, Grassroots Law Project, Ground Game Texas, Indivisible Austin, Indivisible Rosedale Huddle, Just Liberty, MEASURE, Planning Our Communities, Statewide Leadership Council, Survivor Justice Project, Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance, Texas Fair Defense Project, Texas Freedom Network, Texas Women’s Coalition, Travis County Democratic Party and the Workers Defense Action Fund.

Several organizations are in support of the initiative, including Austin Police Association, the Texas Police Association and the Texas Municipal Police Association.

“In just 107 days, Austin will become the first major city to overturn defund the police through a citizen vote. Our city supports law enforcement, even if City Hall does not. Our message to Steve Adler and Greg Casar is this: November is coming,” Save Austin Now’s release said.

That message comes nearly a year after the council voted unanimously to incrementally transition millions of dollars from APD to other areas of public health and safety.

While some called this “defunding” APD, Austin City Council says it aimed to reimagine public safety by improving systemic treatment of vulnerable populations who would otherwise have been dealt with by police.

At the time, Adler said: “I want to be clear that this budget is not punitive, it is not intended to punish police. We’re going to improve public safety in Austin together. We need — and I welcome — the knowledge, the expertise, and the goodwill that our first responders are going to bring to this process. And one thing I know is that if we do this together, when we do this together, we’re going to reach a much better place.”

Meanwhile, Casar said the vote was intended to shift away from over-policing and instead funding “community solutions.”

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