FAQ: Austin’s Police Budget Transformation

Greg Casar
5 min readAug 19, 2020

All the answers on this historic change in one place.

Why did the City Council reduce the police budget?

Public safety, civil rights, and saving lives were our top priorities in this budget. Austin historically has spent *more on the police department* than any of Texas’ other major cities when adjusted for population. Prior to this budget, 40% of the total general fund budget went to police. For decades, we have heavily invested in the Austin Police Department at the expense of other means of preventing violence and harm. The City Council’s action redirected a portion of police spending into other forms of public safety — like a family violence shelter, mental health emergency responders, and ambulances for COVID-19 response. We did not lay off any officers, but we did postpone new police cadet classes in order to better train our officers in order to reduce needless police violence. We invested money in programs to reduce gun violence, provide substance use treatment, and more.

So you reduced the APD budget — where did that money go?

We invested over $40M in additional funds to community programs from the police budget and other sources. The figures below are what we added above and beyond current budgets (for example, the Emergency Medical Services budget is over $80M, and we added over $5M, listed below)

+$5M: Emergency Medical Services COVID response

+$4M: Mental health first response and community medics

+$2M: Violence prevention, including gun violence prevention programs

+$14M: Family violence shelter and protection

+$6.5M: Homelessness solutions, including housing & services

+$500K: Victim services

+$1M: Substance Use programs

+$400K: Food access

+$250K: Abortion access

+$1.5M: Workforce development/jobs programs

+$2M: Equity Office, Office of Police Oversight

+$400K: Re-entry programs for formerly incarcerated people

+$300K: Parks

+$500K: COVID/epidemiology team at Austin Public Health

+$2M: New civil rights office

Plus we put $300M in anti-displacement/affordable housing onto the November ballot as part of the mass transit election.

I’ve seen a lot of numbers thrown around — how much was actually cut/reallocated?

We immediately reallocated about $21M from the police budget, primarily by reducing overtime expenses and putting this year’s cadet classes on hold. This money is immediately being reinvested to address substance use, gun violence intervention, house the homeless, COVID-19 response, etc. (That $21M, plus over $20M from additional sources — like money we saved by not growing the police department , and new money generated by the construction of new buildings— totals to over $40M in new community investments listed above)

Additionally, about $80 million of APD’s budget will be removed over the course of the coming year by making certain functions within APD (e.g. our forensic lab and internal affairs, etc.), independent functions within the City. This will separate these duties from APD. This allows our forensics lab to follow national best practices by being run by scientists rather than police. Internal affairs will still exist, but moving internal affairs out of APD affords more autonomy and transparency over investigations into complaints against officers from the public. This means no more APD investigating APD.

Together, the reallocations plus making functions independent represents a $100 million+ reduction in the APD budget over the course of the year covered by our budget (October 2020- October 2021).

I’ve heard there will be no more traffic enforcement, no more protection of parks, and no more K-9 units. Is that true?

In addition to the $100M listed above, we also created a $50M “Reimagine Safety” fund. These two numbers put together equal the $150M you’ve likely seen in headlines recently. This “Reimagine Safety” fund includes things like park patrol, mounted patrol, K-9 units, and traffic enforcement. This fund does not eliminate these police functions, rather these will be under review about ways to improve them or have more civilians take on these issues. So no, what you’ve heard isn’t true.

Several questions will be central to the year-long review of these duties. Some examples of such questions include: Do we need an armed APD officer patrolling a park, or would a park ranger be better suited for non-criminal park issues? Can our civilian staff manage traffic concerns around marches and protests, rather than mounted police or police in riot gear? We can reform police practices in this fund over time, and direct millions of dollars in savings to community programs.

What about the rise of some violent crimes in Austin lately? Is this really the time to be having this conversation?

Violence is up across the country because of the public health crisis and economic crisis. We have to address the public health and economic needs in our community if we want to make our communities more safe. Furthermore, we must address the increase in family violence and gender-based violence with resources like the new shelter we passed in this budget.

It’s true that the number of homicides committed in our city is up this year, including the callous murder of a local paletero, Adelaido Bernabe Urias. Any homicide is a tragedy, and the increase in homicides in our city is not a number we should accept. Yet, our city remains one of the safest in the country. Of the 15 biggest cities in America, Austin and San Jose are the two cities with the lowest homicide rates. Additionally, a recent study showed less than 1% of 911 calls are related to violence and that less than 10% of APD’s time is dedicated to addressing violence. Largely, police respond *after* harm has occurred — but more and more police are not the most effective way to prevent violence and harm in the first place.

The good news: the money we shifted away from APD was reinvested into proven methods for preventing violence from spreading in our community. We can’t simply incarcerate our way to becoming a safer city. We can address Austin’s issues with a stronger social safety net, robust economic opportunity, and deep investments in strategies such as those we funded in this budget related to family violence, substance use treatment, and jobs programs for example.

I saw that the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, and outgoing Speaker announced that they support a law to “defund” cities that reduce police budgets. What’s up with that?

No transformational change comes without a backlash. This has been true for civil rights movements throughout American history, and it’s true today. The Governor’s press conference was retaliatory, deliberately misleading, and an attempt to score political points while distracting people from his failure on COVID-19.

The message from the tens of thousands of Austinites who made their voices heard in this year’s budget process was clear: We must decrease our over-reliance on police to handle all of our complex public safety challenges and instead reinvest in domestic violence shelters, mental health first responders, and more. That’s what our City Council did — and it’s exactly the work we’re committed to continue.

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Greg Casar

Austin City Council Member District 4. National Co-Chair of Local Progress. Grassroots organizer first, politician second. He/him.