What would you do if somebody broke into your home? How would you handle seeing a violent crime in progress? What if a loved one was in immediate danger? The majority of Americans would pick up the phone and dial 911 to request help from their local police departments. But what happens when there aren’t enough public servants to answer everybody’s plea?
In Texas’ capital city of Austin – home to a major university and a spot that attracts millions of tourists annually – the man currently at the helm of the city’s police department is worried. He says his hands are effectively tied after the city council voted last August to strip millions from the Austin Police Department.
“I call it a crisis because it is a crisis,” interim Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said.
Chacon was referring to unprecedented staffing shortages inside his agency, including top administration leaders, as a result of the partial defunding. Chacon himself is currently vying with six other candidates in the ongoing national search for the department’s top spot, which is to be filled in August.
“About 150 positions are vacant right now,” Chacon said. “That’s not good for our overall crime rate in Austin.”
With fewer officers on the streets and no major recruitment plans in the works, law enforcement experts say it’s having a major ripple effect through one of the fastest-growing U.S. cities.
“Murders are up 96% compared to this time last year,” Cary Roberts of the Greater Austin Crime Commission said.
While Roberts stressed that Austin crime was going up even before the police department’s budget was cut, now the situation is even dicier.
“These are categories that concern the community so we need to do everything we can to address these problems, and to do it quickly,” he said.
To make matters worse, now just getting officers to the scene of an emergency is proving to be a challenge. Current data shows the average police response time to a Priority 1 call (the most serious) is around nine minutes.
“When they get there, they then likely have to wait for back-up,” said Kevin Lawrence, who serves as executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association.
“They don’t have the resources they need to actually address whatever the situation is,” he said.
Lawrence and others said the situation has grown increasingly dire in the last year, after the Austin City Council cut $21.5 million from the police budget and diverted another $128 million away, injecting it into other city departments. That reduction accounted for a third of its total police budget. Austin was one of at least 20 major U.S. cities to trim police funding in the wake of 2020’s protests against police brutality.
Supporters of the defund the police movement lauded the Austin City Council’s decision. Kathy Mitchell, with a group called “Just Liberty,” said it was much needed.
“We don’t want to have an overfunded Austin Police Department,” she said.
Joao Paolo, a member of the Austin Justice Coalition, agreed with that sentiment but expressed fears that change could soon be on the way. This week, the city council is expected to review and approve next year’s police budget. Paolo is afraid the members will cave to political pressure.
“Everything that we won last year is now at stake,” he said.
Members of the law enforcement community don’t see it that way. They fear if the same amount of money is withheld again, the situation could easily go from bad to worse.
“We have to make evidence-based public policy decisions that keep the community safe & not be reactionary and reckless,” said Cary Roberts of the Greater Austin Crime Commission.
In an effort to keep other Texas cities from following in Austin’s footsteps, Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has since signed multiple pieces of legislation that would penalize communities for taking funds away from police budgets.
If a municipality larger than 225,000 residents takes away funding from law enforcement, the state would ban the city from increasing property taxes and sales tax revenues would be withheld. Larger metro areas (with more than 1 million residents) must now hold local elections before any reductions or allocations can be made with police department budgets.
“We have seen the consequences of defunding and dismantling law enforcement in communities across the country,” said Abbott. “This puts residents in danger and invites crime into communities and we can’t allow this in Texas.”