New council committee heard from city leaders on police reform, budget, cadet class

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Thursday at 1 p.m., Austin City Council’s newly-formed Public Safety Committee received an update from city staff and police leaders about how Austin actually plans to implement the host of police reform items the council unanimously passed last week.

The committee is made up of Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, Council Member Greg Casar, Council Member Natasha-Harper Madison and Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza. They were briefed on:

  • The public safety response to protests in June in Austin
  • How Austin Police Department General Orders will be changed in response to reform items council passed last week
  • Options for the Fiscal Year 2020-2021 budget when it comes to changes with allocations for public safety
  • The APD cadet class audit and plans for future cadet classes
  • The future of this committee

Speakers at this meeting include City Manager Spencer Cronk, Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano (who oversees the Public Safety Services Outcome), Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, Assistant APD Chief Troy Gay, Austin-Travis County EMS Chief Ernesto Rodriguez, Office of Police Oversight Director Farah Muscadin, Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo, Assistant to Assistant CIty Manager Arellano Patricia Bourenane, and members of the Community Advisory Team on the APD Training Audit

Thursday’s Public Safety Committee meeting which started at 1 p.m. was chaired by Austin City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan.​ Flannigan was the chair of the council’s Judicial Committee, and his resolution which passed last week converts the committee into a Public Safety Committee. The committee aims to assist in the council reforms passed last week and holding other city leaders accountable for making sure those reforms happen.

While all council members are not required to be in attendance, all eleven were present, asking lots of questions at this virtual meeting.

Public Safety Budget changes

“What are those pieces within the budget of police that can be thought of differently?” Cronk asked the council. “All options need to be on the on the table.”

Austin’s budget adoption process happens in August, but Austin Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo said that city leaders will be presenting a FY 21 budget proposal to council on July 31.

“In the next few days, we need to get all the numbers buttoned down,” Van Eenoo said. He acknowledges that the FY 21 budget may not be able to go quite as far as council is hoping as far as adjustments to policing because the budget was already in its late stages when council requested changes last week.

Council members asked questions about the existing APD vacancies and the future APD positions previously expected to come with this budget which council has since asked to be cut.

Van Eenoo explained that when salary, wages, medical, retirement, and other costs are all factored in, a new police officer costs the city about $100,000 per officer.

Cronk also told council members that certain elements of budget changes related to public safety they have called for may require change at a state legislative level.

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said of the FY 21 budget as it relates to policing “I can’t see me — unless there is a significant move on moving funds –on voting yes.”

APD cadet classes and training

Cronk reminded the council what he had announced in his memo the day before: that he had decided to delay the July Austin Police cadet class.

“We are delaying the start of that cadet class until we can make sure that the curriculum is up to the standards that we all expect in the future,” he said.

A resolution passed by Austin City Council in December created a Community Advisory Team to audit of Austin Police training academy materials and at Thursday’s committee meeting city leaders heard from two citizens on that advisory team, both of whom called for more time to evaluate APD training materials.

Community members Nakia Winfield and Angelica Erazo spoke, explaining that out of the 120 APD training videos they have been tasked with reviewing, they have only made it through eight so far. Winfield and Erazo expressed concerns that some of these videos may be outdated or legally inaccurate. They are working to assess just how long it will take them to complete the work the city has asked them to do.

Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano said that APD’s training academy will now start receiving a course on the history of racism in policing. Arellano said that this new course came at the recommendation of the Office of Police oversight and will also be given to active officers as well.

Public Safety leadership

A City of Austin spokesperson confirmed for KXAN that City Manager Spencer Cronk has “no plans to fire or demote Chief Manley.”

During the public portion of the committee meeting, Cronk told the council members that he really appreciated hearing from them on “how you’ll be holding me accountable.”

“I will also, in turn, hold my entire executive team accountable including our public safety leadership,” Cronk said. “That includes our chief and I’ve had many pointed conversations with him over the past several weeks.”

“I assure you that both Chief Manley and the entire public safety team are committed to this transformational change and as we move forward we will uphold everything that we need to do to move forward in that manner,” Cronk concluded.

At the committee meeting, the council went into an executive session with the city manager. The public is not privy to what happens during the executive session, but we do know that the council was meeting under Sec. 551.074 of the Texas Government Code which is designed to allow meetings to “to deliberate the appointment, employment, evaluation, reassignment, duties, discipline, or dismissal of a public officer or employee” or “to hear a complaint or charge against an officer or employee.”

While it is not public information which public officer or city employee was being deliberated or complained against, this conversation happens as calls continue to mount for changes of leadership at the helm of Austin Police.

The rationale behind the committee

“Committee work is important because that is the place the staff can come back and say look here is what it says in the resolution, but we are running into a problem,” Flannigan said. “What was the council’s intent? How would the council like to see us move forward? Or adjust or tweak.”​

Last week the council, as well as Mayor Steve Adler, unanimously voted for a number of resolutions addressing police reform and racial justice, but Flannigan said now there has to be action.

“It didn’t actually do anything,” Flannigan said. “All it really said to the manager was we are serious about big structural change. This is the kind of stuff we want to see, now get to work.”​

Councilmember Leslie Pool weighed in on this month’s violent interactions between protesters and police that left some injured.

“It was unprecedented and frankly the outcomes were unconscionable and so we are all responding to that and working with the community to find our way forward,” Pool said.

Flannigan expects this meeting will outline, “What steps they are going to take to implement the very long list of policies and objectives that the council approved last week.​We heard, we know what we need to do and now its time for the council to get it done.”

The public safety committee is the only committee tasked to oversee and push for the implementation of these council-approved reforms.

The meeting starts at 1 p.m. and will be streamed live.

“Reimagining Public Safety”

This meeting will happen the day after Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk released a memo spelling out his initial plan for Austin to start “reimagining public safety.”

Notably, this memo spelled out that Cronk decided to delay the July 2020 APD class. In December, Council passed a resolution requiring an additional holistic investigation into APD which will address its cadet class and how changes are being implemented following a third-party investigation issued by the city into allegations against APD leadership.

“The events of the past weeks have had an impact on our ability to carry out Council direction with regard to implementing recommendations from the internal training audit,” Cronk said. “We will be evaluating when we might reschedule the Cadet class”

Also in this memo, Cronk acknowledged that recent protests in Austin were not only catalyzed by George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis, but also “our own officer-involved shooting death of Mr. Michael Ramos have created a community outcry the likes we have not seen in recent memory.”

Cronk explained that he has created a team within the city to start crafting a “reimagined” public safety system for Austin, which will also have advisory working groups that will include community organizations.

He also said that his team has been going over the proposed budget he will be presenting to the council in July (budget approval process happens in August) and expects this proposed budget will highlight several jobs which have previously fallen under APD which could potentially be done under other departments. Examples Cronk listed of jobs that could be “reimagined elsewhere” include the Forensics Lab, 9-1-1 call takers or dispatch, victim services, and training academy.

Cronk said that, as council directed city staff to do, the budget will cut existing APD vacancies that “cannot be reasonably filled within the next year” and to “not add additional officers in FY 21 as originally envisioned in the five-year police staffing plan.”

He noted that doing so will result in the elimination of nearly 100 sworn positions from the initial FY 2021 budget forecast but does not impact the current number of sworn personnel APD has.

Additionally, Cronk is calling for:

  • Increasing resources and authority for the Office of Police Oversight
  • Launching the Community Police Review Commission to work with OPO
  • Creating a Civil Rights Division for the City of Austin
  • Creating a public dashboard on a new website to track progress on recent resolutions related to police reform as well as the recommendations from the third-party investigation into APD.

Cronk said the city will be working on the immediate changes he listed in the memo but will also gather public input on long term efforts “will include exploring changes in discussions with Austin Police Association (APA) as well as legislative changes to public safety civil service statutes.”

“The systemic inequities throughout the history of policing that have played out in our community must be interrupted and reexamined in a deliberate and intentional process,” he said.

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