In America’s season of unrest, calls for police reform have too often been met with sloganeering rather than considered debate illuminated by fact and data. Unfortunately, one major city in Texas isn’t immune to this phenomenon: Austin.
Of Texas’ six most-populous cities, five plan to increase their law enforcement budgets: Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. El Paso looked to increase its public safety budget 3%. Dallas Police Chief Hall emphasized countering violent crime while also “reimagining public safety.” Houston budgeted a 2% increase to its police department while San Antonio considered a 1.6% increase.
But Austin just approved a $150 million cut to its police budget. Shifts in funding account for about $80 million, with the funds for functions such as forensics and the 9-1-1 call center going to other departments.
As for the other $70 million in cuts to public safety in Austin, here’s where things get weird.
More than $21 million in cuts come in the form of an amendment from Councilmember Greg Casar and include canceling the three planned 2021 police cadet classes (51% of the new recruits were to be minorities), reducing overtime by $2.8 million, and cutting supplies. Cutting overtime while reducing staffing will be especially difficult, as overtime typically results when an understaffed agency has to deploy existing personnel for more hours than anticipated.
The remaining more than $49 million in cuts, also by Casar, comes under the rubric of “Reimagine Safety Fund.” It includes ongoing annual cuts of $3 million from overtime, $2.2 million from the mounted patrol, $1.3 million from the organized crime K-9 unit (drug interdiction), $279,086 from the police explorers program for youth ages 14 to 20, $18.5 million from traffic enforcement, $2 million from the regional intelligence center (focused on detecting, preventing, apprehending, and responding to criminal and terrorist activity), $10.7 million from training (which is odd, given the almost universal agreement that more police training is needed to avoid the potential for police abuse), $3.6 million from recruitment, and $7.3 million in reductions to the specialized units that patrol the lake and the parks.
Of the cuts, $21.5 million is shifted in the form of “reinvestments” to programs such as $100,000 for abortion access and $6.5 million a year for the homeless under the “Housing First” policy of sheltering and feeding the homeless, with no expectation for them to seek treatment—essentially allowing them to live off taxpayer support until they die.
So, “defund the police” looks like fewer cops and more abortions. Who knew?
Meanwhile, downtown Austin has become like a ghost town due to COVID, as white-collar professionals do much of their work remotely, only making quick trips into the city for key meetings. This has left Austin’s burgeoning homeless population short on people to ask for money. The result is increasingly dystopian, as the homeless frequently outnumber office workers on the sidewalk—with the latter trying to find a place to eat that’s still open or quickly making their way to the parking garage, while the former call after them for drug and alcohol money.
In the lead-up to Austin’s $150 million public safety budget cut, Councilmember Casar said during a June 8 news conference, “No more chokeholds. No more shooting at people fleeing. No more using tear gas at First Amendment demonstrations.” Joining him was Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who also demanded, “Zero racial disparities in traffic stops. Zero racial disparities in arrests and tickets from traffic stops. Zero use of force incidents and zero officer involved deaths.”
She referred to a report on traffic stops that showed African Americans make up 8% of Austin’s population but account for 15% of traffic stops, while Caucasians make up 54% of the 18-and-over population but account for 47% of traffic stops. Democratic Austin Mayor Steve Adler declared at the same press event that “Austin is poised, I believe, in every way to do what it takes to root out institutional racism in all aspects of our lives.”
According to the FBI, compared to Texas’ other large cities in 2018 (the latest full-year data available), Austin had the second-lowest violent crime rate but the third-highest property crime rate. In the first six months of 2019, Austin’s violent crime rate fell by about 1% but aggravated assaults jumped almost 20%, while property crime soared 15%.
Austin had the third-highest per capita number of law enforcement officers. Measuring only sworn officers, Austin was tied for third with Ft. Worth.
From a logical perspective, citizens might expect their elected representatives to speak to the data on crime when discussing the police budget.
The members of the Austin City Council are very concerned about racial disparities in traffic stops. Imagine for a moment that they were instead concerned about gender disparities in traffic stops. The FBI estimates that only 8.8% of homicides were committed by women in 2018. In fact, crime is disproportionately committed by young men. Further, much of this crime is concentrated in certain high-crime areas. Therefore, it’s highly likely that Austin police pull over far more men than women and are more prone to doing so in certain areas that feature higher crime rates. Unfortunately, the Austin traffic stop study made no effort to detail the gender of those stopped. It seems nobody cares about gender disparities in traffic stops.
How are traffic stops used as a crime fighting tool? In this case, not all cars with broken taillights are viewed the same by police. A person commuting home on Mopac at 6 p.m. is considered differently than a car with three young men driving by a convenience store at midnight. If both cars have broken taillights, police can pull either over. But one is more likely to be stopped than the other with the traffic stop used on pretextual grounds to develop probable cause to search a vehicle.
It’s important to note here that it is illegal to make discriminatory traffic stops in America. Racial profiling is unconstitutional. But criminal profiling isn’t racial profiling.
Ironically, Austin Mayor Adler’s call to “root out institutional racism,” combined with Mayor Pro Tem Garza’s demand for “zero racial disparities in traffic stops,” could lead to an unconstitutional racial traffic stop quota system.
Austin’s preening politicians are playing politics with policing. The result is predictable: police morale will suffer, officers’ effectiveness will decline, crime will rise, and more people will be killed, injured, and robbed. Welcome to your brave new, post-logic world.