by Bethany Blankley
The city of Austin faces a crisis of rising violent crime after the City Council voted last year to drastically reduce the police department’s budget, interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon says.
Last summer, the Austin City Council voted to defund the police department by $150 million, which resulted in canceling multiple cadet classes and disbanding multiple units responsible for responding to DWIs, domestic violence calls, stalking, and criminal interdiction.
Instead, the council redistributed the money to other city programs and suggested that community organizers respond to 911 calls, instead of the police department.
Response times to 911 calls are now 20-30 minutes on average, and the homicide rate is at a level that “we’ve never really seen here before,” Chacon told attendees at a recent lunch held at the Headliner’s Club.
Chacon said he’s met individually with “each council member to explain the dire situation we are in. And I’m going to call it a crisis, because that’s what it is, and they all get it.”
Calls to dispatch are categorized with the most critical referred to as “P0” for shootings, stabbings, rape and domestic violence in progress. Current response times on average for these calls is nine minutes and two seconds. Calls referred to as “P1,” crimes that have been committed where the alleged offender is still in the area, take about 10 minutes and 41 seconds for police to respond. Both instances might be too late, Chacon said.
Slow response times are due to not having enough police, Chacon said, and the low staffing level is “not sustainable.” The Austin Police Department is currently losing 15 to 20 officers a month, the chief said, with many quitting and retiring and not enough new recruits to replace them. The department is projecting 235 vacancies by May 2022, and 340 vacancies by May 2023.
“We need to have more police officers in order to get to scenes quicker,” Council member Mackenzie Kelly, a former firefighter, told KXAN. Austin’s crime situation is “a life or death situation,” Kelly added, saying it’s the City Council’s job to “deliver public safety at a quality time to individuals who need it.”
After successfully passing a voter referendum to remove homeless encampments in Austin, the advocacy group Save Austin Now is leading another petition to get a public safety law added to the November ballot.
If approved by voters, the proposed law would require the police department to be staffed by a ratio of two police officers per 1,000 citizens, according to a nationally recognized “Safe City Standard” defined by the U.S. Justice Department.
“Austin doesn’t feel as safe recently. Because it isn’t,” the group argues. “We’ve seen a series of city policy decisions over the last two years that have led to a surge in both violent crime and property crime against Austinites. A 300% increase in murders this year. A double-digit increase in property crimes such as burglaries and car jackings.
“As Austin’s crime rate has soared, the federal government has taken note of it and sent in resources to help stabilize the chaos,” it adds. “But we cannot rely on the federal government’s Operation Undaunted to provide us with the local resources we’ll need to fight this trend: We’ll have to do it ourselves.”
Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk recently presented the city council with a preliminary budget for next year, which returns some funds to the police department. But it’s not enough, Save Austin Now argues.
“We need to mandate that they hire actual police officers with the funds, not reimagine their way into continued chaos,” the group tweeted, referring to its petition requirements.
“We must stem the rise in violent crime,” the group says. “Our do-nothing city council defunded, reluctantly opened a single cadet class, and is now doddering over more while Austinites suffer. Stand with Save Austin Now to AGAIN do what they will not.”
The petition needed 9,000 more signatures by July 18, in order to be added to the November ballot. Since many petitions were mailed in, it remains unclear if the group reached its goal.
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