Drawing from years of experience in community organizations, Councilmember Greg Casar made it his priority to rethink Austin’s approach to public safety and violence prevention. It was clear that the community wanted to create a safer city without methods like over-policing and mass incarceration. During several budget negotiations from 2015 to 2019, Councilmember Casar encouraged his colleagues to reflect on the city’s current resource allocation, which was starving vital services to fund a police department budget that made up over 40% of the City’s general fund budget. In 2017, the proposed budget would fund the hiring of 30 new police officers, despite the Department not being able to meet its hiring goals of the previous year. Casar proposed authorizing fewer officer hires in order to support other violence prevention methods, but his proposed amendment could not pass the Council.
After the 2017 budget process, Councilman Casar’s office worked closely with a coalition of groups organizing for police reform and more transparency in the Austin Police Department. These groups included Grassroots Leadership, Austin Justice Coalition, Homes Not Handcuffs, and many others. Later that year, in November 2017, the council had a very public contract negotiation with the city’s police union. This negotiation provided an opportunity to broaden the coalition of groups advocating for reform to include labor unions, religious organizations, and activists from all districts. This was also the first time other council members took a bold stance against the police union’s bullying tactics and resistance to reform by voting against the proposed contract and sending it back to the negotiating table, giving the city council another opportunity to push for transparency and accountability in the police department.
In May of 2020, George Floyd was murdered by an officer in the Minneapolis Police Department. This flashpoint in the national conversation around policing and public safety created a new political will for local elected leaders to address the systemic causes of poverty, inequality, and police brutality. The killing of unarmed Austinites by police in 2020 were highlighted by local activists as well.
Councilmember Casar’s office continued to partner with the reform coalition, sought best practices from other cities, and prepared for the 2020-2021 budget session with amendments to the city manager’s proposed budget. This close collaboration proved successful when the Council and Mayor agreed to jointly author budget amendments with Casar, as laid out below.
The council unanimously approved a budget that cut the growth of the police department and reduced police spending by millions of dollars, resulting in a $40 million reinvestment redirection of funds to create and enhance community programs. The numbers below represent the breakdown of the reallocation:
+$5 million: Emergency Medical Services Covid-19 response
+$4 million: Mental health first response and community medics
+$2 million: Violence prevention, including gun violence prevention programs
+$14 million: Family violence shelter and protection
+$6.5 million: Homelessness solutions, including housing and services
+$500,000: Victim services
+$1 million: Substance use programs
+$400,000: Food access
+$250,000: Abortion access
+$1.5 million: Workforce development/jobs programs
+$2 million: Equity Office, Office of Police Oversight
+$400,000: Re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated people
+$500,000: Covid-19/epidemiology team at Austin Public Health
+$2 million: Creation of the Austin Civil Rights Office
In addition to the $40 million allocation, the city put $300 million in anti-displacement and affordable housing programs onto the November 2020 ballot as part of a mass transit election.
Furthermore, the council created a $50 million Reimagine Safety Fund. The purpose of the fund is to review the functions of park patrol, mounted patrol, K-9 units, and traffic enforcement. The fund will identify certain responsibilities that could potentially be led by other existing departments, a new department, or non-armed civilians. For example, they might consider questions such as whether a park ranger could take on the duties of park patrol as opposed to an APD officer, or whether civilian staff can manage traffic concerns around marches and protests, rather than mounted police or police in riot gear.
They will review these functions for a year and gather community and stakeholder input. If they do not find better solutions by the 2021-2022 budget session, these police roles and money will revert back to the police department.
Councilmember Casar’s office worked closely with community allies and stakeholders from the very beginning of this work. The specific reallocations were determined by the needs voiced by community members. The work has not stopped since the budget passed. Councilmember Casar’s office continues to meet and strategize with its most active allies. Community advocacy and organizing is critical to see these programs funded, the Reimagine Safety Fund utilized, and to continue the process of envisioning the future of Austin’s public safety systems.
Organizing and combating misinformation is critical, particularly since the city’s police union and the Texas Governor launched their own counter-messaging campaigns. Councilmember Casar’s office is working with advocates to build out their narrative to ensure that community members have accurate information and are not deterred by misinformation campaigns.
In addition to reallocating funds, the budget removes services from within the APD, the forensic lab and the department of internal affairs, and creates these as independent functions. This change drastically improves the city’s ability to maintain a fair and accountable police department. It allows the forensics lab to be run by scientists who follow national best practices, instead of by police. Internal affairs still exists, but moving it out of APD affords more autonomy and transparency over investigations into complaints against officers from the public. This alone will ensure that cases are properly investigated and treated equally in the forensics lab and that the APD will no longer be the ones investigating themselves.
“Policing will never fix the root causes of the inequities in our city and it’s time that we prioritize the health and wellbeing of our people.” —Councilmember Greg Casar
- Preemption: While cities generally have discretion over their budgets and budgeting process, some states with more conservative state legislatures, like Texas, will often threaten to punish cities that take what they perceive to be drastic measures to cut funding for local police departments. While the legality of some of these proposals from state legislatures remains to be seen, it can be an effective scare tactic.
- Local government dynamics: After years of organizing and public discussions on what makes communities safe, the Austin City Council has become increasingly supportive of reallocating funding from law enforcement to broader public services and resources, ultimately resulting in a unanimous budget vote in 2020.
- Policy strength: Law enforcement departments are traditionally well-funded in city budgets. Efforts to reallocate funding to poorly resourced communities and alternative services in city budgets is a strong example of people and community centered budgeting.
This case study was last updated: January 19, 2021.