During the last two weeks the Independent has featured a series on Austin’s spiraling number of homicides, a trend which is sadly consistent with an array of cities around the country. In this, our third installment, we look at potential solutions, but also explore whether the current polarization, ideological rigidity, political tribalism and resulting gridlock makes progress on any potential solutions virtually impossible.
The hopeful part is that polls show fairly sizable majorities of Americans in basic agreement on both how to go about fighting crime while at the same time acknowledging and supporting the need for reform of policing and the criminal justice system.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that too many elected officials, media outlets and other institutions are either completely aligned with the more rigid elements in their political camps; or they fear angering those elements and the consequential backlash. Therefore, they refuse to take anything resembling the middle, majority-backed, course. Let’s take a look.
The following are numbers from recent national polls, and are consistent with previous polls on similar subjects. I have not been able to find local polls on this issue, but national ones are clear. First of all, polls show that a majority of Americans believe violent crime is a very serious problem. For instance a late June poll by the Democratic oriented pollsters Navigator Research found that 54% of American rated violent crime in the US as a “major crisis.”
Breaking that down by political affiliation, 52% of both Democrats and Independents, said violent crime is a “major crisis.” Republicans came in only a bit higher at 57%. The cross tabs in the same poll found that 70% of Black respondents believe violent crime is a “major crisis.” Fifty-nine percent of Hispanics rated violent crime a “major crisis,” 51% of whites and 44% of Asians.
So, while the overwhelming majority of Blacks are Democrats, as a group in this poll they were 15% more likely than Democrats as a whole to believe violent crime is a “major crisis;” 13% higher even than Republicans.
A number of other polls have found similar results.
The high levels of Black Americans believing that violent crime is a “major crisis” likely reflects a reality that the Independent found in our compilation of data on Austin murders; a pattern that is also true around the country. That is, Blacks are disproportionately the victims of crime and much of that crime against Black people is committed by other Black people.
I realize that some on the left consider saying that to be just a trope, but it is a fact borne out by a wide range of statistics.
A different poll, taken by Gallup in late June and early July, found, as described by Newsweek, “that 61 percent of Black Americans said they’d like police to spend the same amount of time in their community, while 20 percent answered they’d like to see more police, totaling 81 percent. Just 19 percent of those polled said they wanted police to spend less time in their area.”
Polls have also consistently shown that majorities of Black Americans specifically do not support the Defund the Police movement, or concept. For instance a USA Today-Ispos poll taken around the same time as the Navigator Research poll, asked people if they support “the movement known as ‘defund the police.’” Black Americans were opposed by 60% to 38%. Democrats were against by 63% to 37%, Republicans 96% to 4% against and Independents 79% to 21% against.
First of all, let’s note that the number of Blacks opposed to the Defund the Police movement was 10 percentage points less than the percentage of Blacks in the Navigator Research poll who say that violent crime is a “major crisis.” That seems to indicate that there is a portion of Blacks who believe violent crime is a major crisis, but still support Defund the Police. Still, a large majority of Blacks in the poll were against Defund the Police. This too is borne out in other polls.
In the population as a whole, the USA Today-Ispos found not only strong support for more police and larger police budgets, but also found majority, even bipartisan, support for significant reform of policing. This is a seemingly logical and reasonable combination that progressive activists for some reason frequently resist. At the same time many Republican officials and operatives seem content to simply blame the increasing level of violence on Democratic policies and officials. Although Republicans loudly claim to “Back the Blue,” many defend violent insurrections who viciously attacked law enforcement officers at the US Capitol on January 6.
Poll results, however, show that a large swath of the American public holds views in between the two extremes.
For example in the USA Today-Ispos poll:
- 7 in 10 supported increasing police department budgets;
- 77% said they would like additional police officers deployed on street patrols;
- 62% also said some of the police budgets should be used to fund community policing and social services;
The last point is somewhat consistent with a core Defund the Police principle in that it allocates funds from the Police budget to social services. At the same time, however, broad majorities clearly support increased police budgets and more cops on the street. The message there appears to be that majorities will support increases in social service funding, but not by slashing police budgets or reducing the number of cops on the street. Those latter two approaches pretty much define what the Austin City Council did in 2020, at least as defined by its leading proponent and as called for by activist groups.
On race and policing, the USA Today-Ispos poll 54% of whites said that they do not believe the police treat all Americans equally, while 63% said the criminal justice system doesn’t treat everyone equally. Not surprisingly, the majorities were even larger among Black Americans at 77% and 72%.
Even with Republicans, a plurality, 47% to 31%, said the criminal justice system doesn’t treat everyone equally. Among Democrats that belief was “nearly 9 to 1 (78% to 9%).” Among independents it was more than 4 to 1 (64% to 15%).”
Eighty-one percent, including 67% of Republicans, said they support “Mandating police-involved shootings be investigated by a separate and independent authority.”
A Vox/Data for Progress poll in April asked the racial bias question more directly with similar results. Vox reported, “52 percent agree that police are more likely to use deadly force on Black Americans than white Americans, though this varies by party and race. Eighty-four percent of Democrats believe this, compared to 45 percent of Independents and 24 percent of Republicans. Eighty percent of Black Americans, compared to 61 percent of Latino Americans and 46 percent of white Americans, also agree with this statement.”
The Vox/Data for Progress poll also found majority support for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and its individual components. That bill passed the US House in March, but remains pending in the Senate, blocked by Republicans. Vox noted that public support for the bill “remains strong” a year after the George Floyd murder.
USA Today noted that their polling on unequal treatment by police reflects, “a double-digit decline in public confidence since a USA TODAY/Pew Research Center Poll in 2014, when 32% of Americans said police departments did an excellent or good job in treating racial and ethnic groups equally.”
Seeing poll results like this provides evidence, and hope, that some of America’s worst and most enduring problems can be addressed. At the same time such hopeful poll results can bring despair because so many of our political leaders and our institutions are unable or unwilling to transform the clear public support into actual policy. Far too many instead seem more intent on placing the blame for problems on the other side and pandering to their bases than in seriously seeking to solve the problems.
On another front, polls also consistently show support for stronger regulation of guns, by far the number one weapon used in murders. Political gridlock, led by Republicans and aided by some Democrats (like Joe Manchin), has long kept anything from passing in Congress or, of course, in the Texas Legislature.
Can Social and Economic Legislation Make a Difference in the Murder Rate?
Numerous polls have also shown support for government efforts to boost the economy and broaden economic opportunity, such as the elements contained in the Biden administration’s infrastructure bills and before that, COVID relief packages — which were broader than simply COVID relief. Many Democrats and progressive activists believe that such programs can get at the roots of violent crime — particularly in Black communities. I myself am in that camp. Let’s take a look at the possibilities, but I want to state up front that this leads back to the Defund the Police issue.
It seems prudent to note that at this point we are entertaining a very optimistic scenario. While optimism is not in fashion, and for good reason, the view here is that we should not automatically or cynically discount the possibility that Joe Biden could be a transformational president; or that Democrats could win more seats in 2022 and get much more done.
Nonetheless, even if Biden were to be able to push through programs on the level of FDR’s New Deal or LBJ’s Great Society, it would still take years, maybe even decades, for these programs to truly transform current American society. By programs on the level of the New Deal or the Great Society, I mean, among other things:
- really serious and ongoing efforts to address poverty, the distribution of wealth, and the cruelly low wages in the service industry;
- major reform of an uneven education system that is focused on standardized testing rather than traditional education, while tragically ignoring civics education;
- aforementioned police and criminal justice reform:
- and an end to the War on Drugs.
Even if all this were to happen, fundamental progress leading to reduced crime would still be a gradual process at best. Sure, it is possible that some rapid increases in economic opportunity could help drive down the violent crime rate, but any successful programs are more likely to prevent future criminals than reform current ones. Even if that is not the case, not all violent criminals will reform just because of increased legal economic opportunity. So, assuming for a moment that the Biden Administration and Congressional Democrats are able to push through transformational programs on the level of the New Deal and Great Society, violent criminals will still remain.
While Americans responding to the polls discussed earlier may not have thought it out in just the way I lay it out above, the view here is that the overall polling results reflect a collective understanding that violent criminals will remain in our midst for the foreseeable future. That lies at the heart of majority support for increased police funding and more cops on the streets, even as majorities also support reform of policing and the criminal justice system. So it is possible in theory that such a broad set of programs could actually happen.
Now, we need to come down from the clouds and briefly examine some of the obstacles to such a possibility. Republicans in Congress and at the state level would of course seek to block everything. At least one or two Democrats won’t fight them very hard – looking at you Joe Manchin and Kirsten Sinema. Then there is the sad and pathetic problem of “surge voters,” that is people who only vote when they are particularly excited about a candidate or cause. As noted in an earlier article, at least one poll found that surge voters will be inspired to vote if Democrats get a lot done. This displays a dismal, but very real lack of intellectual heft and civics education on the part of surge voters — not to mention poor math skills. That’s because the current problem is that Democrats only have half the seats in the Senate and thus only have a majority in that body through Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie breaking vote. This in particular gives West Virginia Joe Manchin an inordinate amount of power to block progressive legislation, or any legislation that he or his corporate backers don’t like — including critical voting rights legislation, not to mention refusing to budge on the filibuster. In the House, Democrats have only a small majority that many analysts predict they could lose in the 2022 midterms.
So the way to get more legislation passed, what surge voters say they want, is to get more Democrats in Congress, particularly the Senate. I could lay out why this is by no means an impossibility, but will save that for later. Suffice it to say for now that there are several wacky, vulnerable Republicans up for reelection in 2022, plus several open Senate seats in potentially swing states. So it is not impossible for Democrats to hold the House and make gains in the Senate in 2022. That will, however, require surge voters to show up at the polls.
Discussion of the 2022 elections brings us back to our main theme of violent crime and the rising number of murders. Among other reasons, that’s because one feat Democrats will have to pull off to gain seats is to avoid letting Republicans pin the blame on them for the soaring murder rate and the rise in violent crime.
A Bitter Truth on the Local Level
Before we completely leave the topic of how social and economic opportunity programs might lower crime, I need to acknowledge a bitter truth that could be an argument in the other direction. The self consciously progressive Austin City Council has had more than six years of virtually free rein to push through any social program they want. Led by Council Members Greg Casar and Delia Garza (now County Attorney) the Council instituted a host of new and enhanced social programs amidst much self acclaim about how different what they were doing was than anything that had ever come before.
It certainly seems reasonable to expect for such programs to be paying some dividends by now. That has certainly not been the case with violent crime. As we have already established, Austin is right there with other American cities with a soaring murder rate. Casar has been reduced to reciting lists of Texas cities that still have higher violent crime rates than Austin (as detailed in Part 1). And, County Attorney Garza still argues for the exact same approach. The Austin Monitor summarized her remarks at a July discussion she had with downtown business owners like this, “greater investment in social service programs would eventually curtail much of the city’s crime statistics and the quality-of-life issues that have become a complaint of downtown business owners.”
There’s more that could be discussed on this point, but we don’t have the space here. For now we’ll chalk up the failure of the Council’s social programs to lower the murder rate to the difficulty of trying to solve such issues on the local level — without any help from the state government and very little from the federal government. Sure, Council Members made a lot of noise about being able to do it on their own, but that has not proven to be the case.
Still, Casar, Mayor Steve Adler, the Austin Chronicle and others have a point when they maintain that Austin is still a safer City than many others. At the same time it is clear that Austin is not as safe as it once was. Let’s hear a take on that which we haven’t heard up to now. It comes from APD Downtown Commander Jeff Greenwalt speaking at a July 21 forum on downtown violence called by the Downtown Austin Commission.
I will let readers decide for themselves if they think Commander Greenwalt is among those simply pushing positions consistent with his own beliefs, or his organization. We will note, however, that he is closer to the problem, or the results of the problem, than many others involved.
Thoughts from A Frank Talking Cop
Greenwalt began his presentation by saying, Austin is “experiencing” a “nationwide trend, that violent crime has been on the rise in 2020 and 2021.” He added, “I don’t see that personally as a way to explain away the problem as not being a big deal.” Greenwalt then explained that he has been in Austin for 25 years and on the police force for 20 of those years. But, he said, “It’s only recently that I have ever heard anybody — whether they’re in policing or in politics or in news or just a member of the community — it’s the first time I’ve been hearing anybody compare Austin to any other city in terms of crime. We’ve always been the best place to live and the best place to police. We’ve been a big city with only small town problems. And, it’s only in the last couple of years that we are hearing people compare us to Houston or Baltimore or ‘hey, it’s happening everywhere else, that’s why it’s happening here.”
Greenwalt concluded his aside with, “I wanted to make sure everybody understood that what we have been in the past is a little bit isolated from the rest of the country in terms of violent crime. We’ve been a safer place to live. And, that’s the goal of the Austin Police Department, to get us back there as soon as possible.”
Greenwalt later offered his thoughts on “possible causes” of the increase in violence and murders. The first, he said, began as simply “anecdotal,” in that many police officers believe that “criminals are less afraid of punishment” because they are more often getting “probation, bond and reduced sentencing.” While that view started as anecdotal, continued Greenwalt, “What we’re hearing now from the criminals themselves and from a lot of the confidential informants that we talk to is they know that they’re not being held accountable. . . and they know their competitors in the drug trades and the drug markets are carrying guns, so they have to carry as well. So, it’s kind of a domino effect that has started with no fear of any sort of punishment from the criminal justice system in general. We also have a dual-pronged problem of releasing violent offenders.”
Greenwalt attributed the release of violent offenders to both personal recognizance bonds and the pandemic leading to prisoners being let out of jail who would otherwise have remained. He took pains to more than once say he was “not casting any blame” on the Sheriff’s Office (which manages the jail) because they had to make hard decisions related to COVID.
Greenwalt also said he was in favor of some elements of the national push for bail reform and acknowledged that some people languishing in jails awaiting trial do not need to be there. He explained, however, that in Texas a defense attorney can go to any judge and seek the release on personal recognizance bond of any arrestee regardless of charge, and that some Travis County judges frequently grant such requests — even in the case of accused “repeat violent offenders.” Greenwalt specifically made clear that he was not referring to the new District Attorney or County Attorney in these instances.
He flatly stated, however, “A lot of people who have been arrested for robberies and aggravated assaults and then they get out of jail (by Judges) and they go back and they get arrested again and then they get out of jail and they get arrested again.”
He continued, “We have people who have been arrested up to six or seven times for violent gun crime and they just keep getting out over and over.”
Sorting It Out
It’s unclear how much the Mayor and Austin City Council will take Greenwalt’s framing into consideration, or if they have even heard it. As we have seen there are a lot of other views out there to sort through. For instance Matt Mackowiak of Save Austin Now, and Chair of the Travis County Republican Party, maintains that the rise in murders is due to the Council’s defund the police vote even though many other cities, who didn’t vote to defund their police departments, are experiencing similar rises in murder.
Mackowiak’s stance also ignores the fact that all but eight of the 52 murder weapons were guns, and that his party has for years been busy blocking any and all attempts at regulation of guns, while making it easier to carry guns in public.
On the other side of the ledger, among others, is the City’s “Austin City-Community Reimagining Public Safety Task Force.” In April that group recommended that the City hold “no more cadet classes,” and phase out “all use of deadly weapons.” Also, 14 task force members sent a letter to the Council demanding an ongoing process “that includes (City) compensation for the labor of regularly involved community members,” that is the City paying activists for their activism. The task force presentation also featured two slides with lists of areas to “Defund.” The areas to defund included:
- crowd management;
- gang suppression;
- nuisance abatement;
- Parks Police; and
- Mounted Patrol.
The task force’s “Defund” list also included ending Austin’s participation in the U.S. Marshal’s Lone Star Fugitive Task Force. That task force was involved in capturing at least eight of the 32 suspects who have been arrested in relation to Austin’s 52 murders so far in 2021.
It is hard to imagine a position that would be easier for Republicans to paint as actually favoring violent criminals over crime victims. As I’ve said before, and as is obvious from watching the news, Republicans often just makes things up in order to slander their ideological opponents. When it comes to Austin though, Republicans often don’t even have to make things up (although many do anyway). And, with a few Google searches they can even provide backup for their claims if PolitiFact calls.
Clearly, there is a lot of middle ground between Republican posturing and the recommendations of the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force. And, as we have explored, polls show majorities in favor of both increasing police budgets and police presence while also reforming police departments and the criminal justice system.
This is where one would normally look for mayoral leadership to carve out a more middle path that has broad public support — even if it did anger some constituents. That sort of local leadership has not been forthcoming, although in May the Mayor and a Council majority (everyone but Casar and Natasha Harper Madison) voted to resume cadet classes while also instituting reforms at the Police Academy. That’s a start.
So perhaps some strong leadership and frank discussion can lead us out of this dangerous mess. But, in the meantime, be careful out there.
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