Thoughts on public safety & policing
Crime is up in major cities across the country, particularly murders and vehicle break-ins. Austin, being the nation’s 11th-most-populated city, is no exception. While it is still too early to confirm with data, it is clear that a combination of the economic and social pressures of the global pandemic are wearing severely on cities in particular where the vast majority of people live. However, there’s plenty reason to believe we have the tools to keep Austin in good standing as one of America’s safest big cities. On average, Austin has been safer than Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, and when looking exclusively at violent crimes over the years, our city has typically fared better than those large cities and even smaller Texas cities like Arlington, Corpus Christi and Fort Worth. Our caring, educated, hard-working and open-minded community values surely show up in the data somewhere.
But it shouldn’t take a statistician to acknowledge that another contributing factor to the current influx of crime in American cities, Austin included, is associated with two factors: 1) Police departments like Austin’s have experienced a major wave of retirements, resignations and diminished recruitment efforts not to mention COVID outbreaks as many departments have not mandated vaccines; and 2) The tenuous relationship between police departments and communities of color, particularly Black and Hispanic communities, came to a head during the summer of 2020 following the police-led murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. To disassociate these two realities from the pandemic-timed surge in crime would be an exercise in cognitive dissonance Austin should not tolerate.
As a City Council member, I would work to address both of these aspects of our City’s public safety and policing efforts to ensure Austin remains a safe city.
For starters, I would work to ensure we are bringing all the right people to the table to advance the broader discussion on re-imagining public safety in our communities. For too long, we have overtasked Austin’s police officers with functions and roles that do not reflect the best use of their time and training from criminalizing low-level marijuana possession (needless) and policing homeless encampments (better served by other City departments and City-affiliated nonprofit experts) to higher-magnitude duties like the forensics and victims’ services divisions that could receive better accountability, expertise and operational excellence externally.
While phrases like “Defund the Police” made public safety a political wedge issue, acknowledging the aforementioned overtasking of our sworn officers will only aide in the process of bringing a genuine and collaborative mindset to any conversation and vision for public safety that spans not only policing, but also social work and mental health professionals, emergency workers and firefighters, disaster preparedness and resilience planning experts, and medical professionals who also share the responsibility of keeping our city and people safe.
Most importantly, everyday residents need to be a part of the dialogue, and not just reactively at Council meetings, but proactively during planning sessions and negotiating tables when public contracts that dictate how our municipal tax dollars are spent are debated and discussed to ensure community trust is a foundational pillar to these multi-year agreements. Policing and public safety are about trust, and more trust is established when these discussions involve people from the communities that are to be served and those that are often most impacted, which historically has been communities of color.
In addition to having a more comprehensive and open discussion about matters of public safety, it’s also important to have a City- not union-led approach to managing the workforces of public safety. Later this month, the Council will review potential pathways for providing paid family leave for police officers that is already provided (six weeks) to civilian city employees. While the police union did not negotiate this paid leave into their last contract with the city, it remains to be seen if this should instead be budgeted from the general fund or require negotiation as other benefits are between the union and city. I don’t have the data to say one way or another today, but I do believe the city should view police employees holistically as a part of its public safety responsibility meaning relying on the police union alone to manage its workforce recruitment strategy - which includes compensation and benefits - may lead to short-sighted planning that hinders our ability to retain sworn officers to keep our communities safe.
While anti-gun and violence prevention programs are solid strategies for crime mitigation, the best method to reduce crime and keep our city safe starts with people and good data at City Hall. City Council may not have day-to-day management oversight of public safety and the police department, it does have a fiduciary and civic responsibility to ensure we are best utilizing our tax revenues and federal/state funding to keep our city safe. That means everyone from the City Manager to the Police Chief to the beat cop and EMS worker and nonprofit social worker should have a clear understanding of the city’s public safety priorities, its workforce management, recruitment and retention strategies (and best practices), and have access to a shared data set that allows anyone with a public safety role to know how their work aligns with and contributes to the mission.
Police officer training must reflect a broader mission than doing things the way they’ve always been done just as our strategy for addressing homelessness must have a broader vision than whack-a-mole type hotel purchases without a long-term policy for citywide affordability and housing availability. We can continue to treat each of these things as individual problems to be solved with individualized focus or we can acknowledge the interconnectedness of these issues as our city continues to grow and create a master plan for public safety that embraces the intersectionality of policing, race and socio-economic history, housing affordability, public and mental health, resilience and disaster preparedness.
What Austin has experienced since 2020 is a reflection of a fast-growing city with a public safety vision that is moving at a rate slower than the growth itself. If this sounds familiar it’s because it is; our city’s housing strategy has also been too reactive to meet the rising needs as Austin’s population surged.
Where there is not open, honest and transparent discussion, there can be no shared vision. And without shared vision, we are set to continue with a rise in crime, diminishing returns on our police cadet classes, increased retirements and resignations that lead to understaffed police departments and, ultimately, lowered capabilities to keep our city safe.
Negotiating better police contracts to ensure we can recruit and retain the best sworn officers, consulting with experts on racial and socio-economic dynamics, providing benefits to emergency workers, delivering more resources to nonprofits that help address food insecurity and other needs that mitigate crimes of need, and other matters of public safety can no longer be relegated to one corner of City Hall where one small group of unelected people dictate what our city’s priorities are for maintaining a safe community.
Our city has far outgrown the outdated Jim Crow-era model of simply trusting the city manager’s office or the police union to either administrate or negotiate our entire community to a level of safety and public trust that is tolerable enough in the wealthier, whiter parts of town while communities of color suffer. Austin has grown as a city and so too has the responsibility of City Council to proactively assess and create the best-possible conditions to ensure Austin remains one of America’s safest big cities. That work must happen in public, with the public, and as part of a broad and bold vision for public safety.