New coalition pushes back on Austin’s efforts to ‘reimagine public safety’

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Tuesday, a new coalition came out against the police funding cuts Austin mapped out to “Reimagine Public Safety.”

“We want to launch this coalition so that we can highlight the consequences of failed policies at the city level,” said Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak. “It should not be too much to ask that the city put public safety first.”

In a press conference, the new coalition criticized the city’s recent moves to halt cadet classes, cut vacant officer positions and reallocate millions of dollars in funding from the Austin Police Department.

“I support smart efforts to reform and retrain policing, but I do not support policies which make our city less safe,” said former Austin city council member Ora Houston.

The group put blame on the mayor and city council for changes that have left APD with 77 currently-vacant patrol positions.

“We have a city council and a mayor right now that are undermining public safety… proactively, intentionally, unconscionably undermining public safety,” Mackowiak said.

The Austin Police Association said 95 officers in specialized units have already been pulled off their assignments to help fill patrol shortages, and 38 more will do so in early June. That’s when whole units like the DWI unit are set to be disbanded.

“Without a unit dedicated out there looking for drunk drivers, more people are going to die,” said Dennis Farris of the Austin Retired Police Officers Association.

However, Chas Moore, who serves on the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force told KXAN in response, “that’s not something we recommended.”

Moore said when the police budget was reduced, APD chose where to make a lot of the cuts, and that includes the DWI unit.

Moore said the task force, tasked with coming up with suggestions for council is making other recommendations where members feel there’s room to safely redefine public safety.

“It can’t solely belong to the police,” Moore said. “It has to be this huge collective of many different things achieving the same goal.”

Mayor Steve Adler’s office did not want to comment about the new coalition.

However, Austin Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison and council members Greg Casar, Alison Alter and Anne Kitchen sent KXAN this joint statement in response to the new coalition’s Tuesday press conference:

“Ensuring the highest level of public safety is the most important thing local governments do, but that only happens when we have everyone at the table engaging in honest conversations that rely on real data and fact. Homicides are up in Austin and we need to address that fact, but that’s also happening in Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas, and dozens of big cities. 

Austin remains one of the safest large cities, both in Texas and nationally. What we have seen in cities across the country, though, is a rise in violence due to the health and economic challenges associated with the pandemic and an increase in the number of guns, and that is exactly why our City is working to address issues at the root of crime. We have a moral imperative to be bold and continue our work to reimagine public safety.

Last year following the killing of Mike Ramos, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, our offices heard from tens of thousands of Austinites via email, phone calls, social media, public testimony, and public demonstrations demanding change from their leaders. This came months after credible allegations of open racism in the top ranks of the Austin Police Department and after years of countless reports of a broken culture within APD. 

Amidst this unprecedented outcry for justice, we voted to reimagine public safety in our community and to reinvest in research-backed public safety solutions. The reimagining process builds on years of pre-existing efforts to reform public safety in Austin, including reforming the City’s contract with APD to improve oversight and accountability, leading to the creation of the Office of Police Oversight; initiating a comprehensive evaluation of how sexual assault survivors are treated in our justice system; and launching an independent review of the APD cadet academy.

Now, days after the killing of Daunte Wright, a select few are working to undermine the voices of Austinites. We can disagree on policy, but what they’re opposing is research-backed public safety measures and humane treatment of all Austinites. Suggesting we took $150 million out of policing or that Austin is not safe because of city council policies is not based on facts.

When will we put the political rhetoric aside and focus on the facts and data? That’s the only way we move forward.”

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