by Daryl Slusher

Governor Greg Abbott and members of the Austin City Council are squabbling again. This time it’s over the Austin Police Department (APD) budget passed by the Council on August 13. Both are accusing the other of playing politics with public safety. Also joining in the political fray are incumbent Republican members of the Texas Congressional Delegation whose gerrymandered districts include parts of Austin. These Congressmen face the strongest Democratic challenges since their districts were drawn, back at the dawn of the 21st century. Now, they see the Council budget vote as what far right Congressman Roger Williams termed a “winning message” to pin on their Democratic challengers — none of whom are on the Austin City Council. The issue could also be at play in state legislative races where Democrats have a real opportunity to take a majority in the Texas House.

It is always wise to be suspicous when politicians start accusing each other of playing politics. In this case though it looks like both sides are right. 

All summer the Council has been hearing from hundreds of speakers demanding that they cut $100 million or more from the APD budget. The lead group on this was the Austin Justice Coalition which offered line items and a spreadsheet showing $100 million in cuts to APD. These proposals are consistent with calls around the country to “Defund the Police.” The core idea was to cut funds from APD and reallocate them to mental health and other social services seen as alternatives to police being involved in as many matters as they are today.

Several Council Members enthusiastically embraced that goal. For instance at a June 8 Council meeting, Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said, “My instinct is that there is going to be more than $100 million of improvement that we’re going to be able to find.”

Around the same time, however, City Manager Spencer Cronk said that it was too late in the budget process to make that level of cuts and instead offered to work with the Council during the year on potentially more changes.

Several Council Members, however, vowed to continue pushing for more cuts/reallocations. For instance, at a June 18 meeting of the Council Public Safety Committee Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza said that without significant “moving of funds” she would be unlikely to vote for the budget. Garza was then in the midst of a runoff for County Attorney and this stance doubtlessly helped push her to victory on July 14.

When the City Manager’s budget was released in July it fell far short of cutting $100 million, offering only $11.3 million in cuts, but eliminating upcoming cadet classes as earlier directed by Council resolution. The proposed budget also offered a process for Council to further examine the APD budget and make amendments during the year. 

That did not satisfy the hundreds of speakers at Council or the Council Members themselves. Council Member Greg Casar in particular vowed to reach the $100 million goal. The Statesman summarized his position at the time: “Council Member Greg Casar said he continues to stand with those in the community who are demanding the $100 million reduction and will fight for additional cuts.”

As the summer progressed, the budget deadline bore down, and speakers continued to demand huge cuts, Council Member Natasha Harper Madison suggested that the Council only approve the APD budget for six months and continue to work on transforming/reimagining the department during the first six months of the fiscal year. 

Mayor Steve Adler embraced this strategy, then enhanced it. Ultimately the Council altered $150 million of the APD budget, but only $21 million of that, a fraction, was actual cuts to APD related spending accompanied by reallocation to social and mental health services. Instead Council created two provisional budget categories and put chunks of $80 million and $50 million into them. The idea is that during the next six months the Council will look at transferring some current functions of the Police Department to other departments. That most prominently includes forensics and the Internal Affairs Division, which investigates potential police misconduct. Both these proposals have plausible rationales behind them, but, as the Council determined, need more discussion.

Council Member Casar, however, ignored any such distinctions on the day of the budget vote. Shortly after Council completed votes on the Police budget, but hours before the overall budget passed, Casar tweeted —  under a picture of himself against the Austin skyline (see image at top of article),“We won: We did it!! Austin City Council just reduced [emphasis added] APD’s budget by over $100 million and reinvested resources into our community’s safety and well-being. Tens of thousands of you have called, emailed, and testified. You made the impossible into a reality. #blacklivesmatter”

Casar provided a little bit more context in a post-vote email, also headlined “We Won” and topped by the same picture of himself. There, he wrote, “The Austin City Council just unanimously passed our bold, transformational budget proposal! We reduced [emphasis added] APD’s budget by over $100 million and reinvested the money into much needed public health and community safety funding, and in creating more independent public safety departments separate from APD.”

Shortly afterward, on the same day, Governor Greg Abbott entered the fray, releasing a short statement:  “Some cities are more focused on political agendas than public safety, Austin’s decision [on the Police budget] puts the brave men and women of the Austin Police Department and their families at greater risk, and paves the way for lawlessness. Public safety is job one, and Austin has abandoned that duty. The legislature will take this issue up next session, but in the meantime, the Texas Department of Public Safety will stand in the gap to protect our capital city.”

A few days after his initial statement Abbott, flanked by Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, threatened legislation that would prevent property tax increases for cities that defund police departments.

The Mayor and Council Members fired back accusing Abbott of playing politics with the issue. Mayor Steve Adler told the Statesman that Abbott was seeking “some political advantage.”

Mayor Pro Tem/County Attorney-Elect Garza landed some particularly solid punches, calling the Governor’s property tax threat, “staged political theater” adding, “If the governor really cared about public safety, he would expand Medicaid, he would invest in our child care infrastructure that is crumbling right before our eyes, he would have mandated masks earlier in this pandemic.”

While firing back at Abbott, however, the Mayor and Council Members also started backtracking from Casar’s claim of over $100 million in cuts — probably due not just to Abbott’s intervention, but also because they were hearing concerns from their constituents.

For example, Mayor Adler, appeared on KVUE the morning of August 17 and was asked, “There seems to be a disagreement on the actual dollar amount of cuts. Many say you most definitely cut $150 million from the Austin Police Department. Councilmembers Greg Casar and Natasha Harper Madison did not take issue with the $150 million number. However, you disagree now with that number. Can you explain why?”

Adler replied, in a rare semi-break in his lock step alliance with Casar, “We didn’t get $150 million out of the police budget, but we did do real transformative change that ultimately will make the city safer.” He then explained that there were “three buckets.” The first was $21 million of cuts to the APD budget with the funds reallocated into other functions — including “to actually put more EMS people on the streets..” A second bucket of $80 million was “functions that won’t end, but functions that we think should be independently run.” Adler mentioned specifically forensics and internal affairs. Then, a third bucket of “$50 million of things that we just want to take a look at to see whether or not they’re a good idea to move like training.”

Adler replied, in a rare semi-break in his lock step alliance with Casar, “We didn’t get $150 million out of the police budget, but we did do real transformative change that ultimately will make the city safer.”

Casar then posted on a FAQ on Twitter. He began by saying,“I’ve seen a lot of numbers thrown around,” without mentioning he was one of the ones throwing around those numbers, Casar then gave the same numbers as Adler did to KVUE.

Politicians Playing Politics

What we just heard was definitely some political back and forth. Political back and forth, however, is not necessarily bad. It is part of democracy. In this case though it appears that both sides are right when they accuse the other of playing politics — although the politics is accompanied by some sincere beliefs on both sides .

The Mayor and City Council Members clearly care about racial injustice and institutionalized racism within police departments. Nonetheless, their budget cuts played politically, even pandered, to protestors — most clearly with Casar’s “We Won” tweet and picture which exaggerated the actual level of cuts and reallocations away from the police department..

On the other side of the dispute, the Council’s budget actions almost certainly do cause Governor Abbott to worry about public safety. That is clearly though not the only reason Abbott chose to insert himself into the issue. Regardless of how much the Governor cares about public safety in Austin, he also jumped on the issue because he saw political opportunity — to help Republican candidates in November and possibly to placate farthest right elements that are hounding him for urging mask wearing and taking other more reasonable coronavirus stands after the deadly failures of his reopening policies. 

Casar and the Austin Council for instance might want to consider that having the Governor attack you right after you take an action might not necessarily signify that you have rattled the state power structure. Instead it could mean that the Governor thinks you have played right into his hands and is moving quickly to take advantage of it.

Having the Governor attack you right after you take an action might not necessarily signify that you have rattled the state power structure. Instead it could mean that the Governor thinks you have played right into his hands and is moving quickly to take advantage of it.

With all that in mind, let’s look at some of the less political folks involved in this drama, in hopes of better understanding the situation and possibly finding some common ground.

Protestors and Young Folks

The majority of those protesting in the streets and advocating police cuts at City Council are young — although some have been involved in social and criminal justice issues for several years. Many who spoke to the Council, however, have not been as actively involved in politics, or even active at all. Like so many people around the country they were moved to get involved by the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing national uprising. 

Although some, at times, may seem unrealistic or even poorly informed we should be thankful that so many young people are speaking out about the police treatment of African Americans nationwide. We should all be glad that so many have gotten involved in trying to end this historical injustice.

There are also a number of other issues which young people have a right to be angry about. Let’s see, there’s 40 years of the distribution of wealth shifting toward the very rich. On top of that the country is now in the second “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” in the last 12 years. 

There are also a number of other issues which young people have a right to be angry about. Let’s see, there’s 40 years of the distribution of wealth shifting toward the very rich. . .

Millions of young people have been left to try to earn a living in the gig economy/service economy. Millions also have student loans on which Republicans have blocked reforms that would provide at least some relief on interest. On top of that the price of buying a home is beyond the means of many young Americans.  

Also, young people are inheriting a planet in deep trouble because of the unbridled pollution and greenhouse gas emissions by previous generations, and continuing today. That’s not even to mention Covid 19 under which they, and everyone else, is supposed to stay at least six feet away from each other and avoid large gatherings. So youthful anger and activism is more than justified.

Before getting too carried away though, let’s note that a lot of young people helped bring some of this on themselves by not voting. For instance just a few more votes in a few states could have prevented the presidency of Donald Trump. Likewise young people stayed home in droves during the 2010 midterms when Republicans took control of Congress and made it more difficult, and often impossible, for Barack Obama to get things done. Before that, young folks voted in low numbers in the 2000 presidential election that brought us George W. Bush.

Also despite the justified grievances, there is sometimes an air of certainty and self assuredness among many speakers at Council, instantly experts about City government and how to operate a police department — even though many paid no attention at all until very recently.

Average Citizens

If there ever was such a thing as an “average citizen,” there probably isn’t anymore in today’s polarized America. For our discussion here, however, let’s consider folks who might strongly support reform of the police and realize action needs to be taken in the current moment, but at the same time sense that there must be an approach more in the middle than what the Austin City Council just did.

Perhaps such citizens even agree with Council Member Casar that hiring more cops won’t prevent crime — as he said in addressing the three recent murders in his district. Maybe, however, they worry that crimes will be harder to solve with a smaller police force and the budget cuts; like police found the three alleged killers in one of those killings, the murder of a beloved, elderly ice cream vendor. Perhaps they worry that criminals will be emboldened.  Most likely is that many average citizens worry about a combination of:

  • A rising violent crime and murder rate;
  • Growing population;
  • A potential exodus of cops to retirement or other cities;
  • With cadet classes to train new cops canceled;
  • Plus a lot of new positions that the department planned to bring forward for a long time were eliminated by the Council.

The Cops

Overall the Austin police force has done itself few favors recently, making it harder and harder to defend them. There was the young African American teacher a few years ago yanked from her car and thrown to the ground after a stop for a minor speeding violation. Then, a different officer who was driving her to jail told her that African Americans have “violent tendencies” — missing the irony that a white officer had just violently hurled her to the pavement for no legitimate reason at all. 

Then there was the Assistant Chief who evidently used the N word a lot at work.

Even more recently was the police shooting of Michael Ramos. This shooting occurred before the George Floyd murder, but got even more intense scrutiny afterward. In his recent State of the City address, the Mayor called the shooting “a tragedy we have yet to explain.” He’s right, if by “we” he meant APD management. And, there is a lot more explaining to do now that people have seen the video.

As Ramos stood with his hands above his head, an Austin officer shot him with a beanbag round. Not surprisingly Ramos seemed stunned, probably uncertain of what had hit him. His impulse was to get in the car and drive away. Of course that’s not the best impulse to have when police are trying to detain you. But, really, was shooting him to death the only option. And, why did police have to shoot him with the bean bag in the first place as he stood with his hands up? That is certainly not clear from the tape. Like the mayor said, it remains unexplained.

Photo by Jana Birchum

Then there was the scene of Austin police perched on the freeway overpass like snipers firing rubber bullets, or some sort of “less lethal” rounds, down at protestors in front of the police station; and also firing bean bag rounds into the crowd from ground level. 

Some of the protestors on that first day of protests were being intentionally violent, provocative and hostile toward the police — for example throwing rocks at officers. But, the police definitely hit innocent nonviolent protestors — like shooting a pregnant African American woman in the stomach — knocking her to the ground in shock, fear and agony; and shooting a young man in the head who was just standing nonviolently in the protest. The young man sustained brain damage and possibly life long injuries.

Nonetheless, I know that there are many solid, decent, non-racist cops on the force. I know there are cops committed to moving beyond tragedies like these and bringing the department into a new era.

And, just a word to them: Good cops need to turn in the bad cops much more frequently. It is best for everyone, including the good cops, that the bad cops be rooted out.

Plus, despite the tons of negative publicity hurled their way, police officers still have to go to work every day and they still have to respond to any call that comes in. They are still expected to staff the frontline in dealing with many of America’s long simmering social problems, And it is still a very dangerous job. 

Police officers still have to go to work every day and they still have to respond to any call that comes in. They are still expected to staff the frontline in dealing with many of America’s long simmering social problems, And it is still a very dangerous job.

Morale within APD is reportedly, and understandably, very bad. There is talk of a wave of retirements and other exits at the end of the year. For just one example of how officers and police management worry that the cuts will affect them, the Council cut the overtime budget at the same time they eliminated cadet classes and rejected the new positions APD planned to bring forward this year.

Texas Republicans

Now, let’s move to a group even less sympathetic than the police; Texas Republican leadership. For the first time in this century Texas Republicans in statewide offices and Congressional seats are in danger of losing seats. It is even possible that there might be  a competitive governor’s race in 2022. This became a possibility through tragedy back in May when Governor Abbott caved in to the most craven, farthest right elements of his party and rushed Texas into reopening too soon — costing thousands of lives in the process. At the same time the pandemic has exposed more than ever the inequities and injustices in Texas, especially in health care. We’re #1 after all in the number of uninsured, and have been for a long time.

Potentially more at risk than Abbott, and sooner, are: Republican members of the Texas House where Democrats are mounting a serious effort to take the majority; Congressional Republicans with gerrymandered seats that include parcels of Austin; and Senator John Cornyn who is locked in his most serious challenge since winning his seat, with M.J. Hegar. These are all still long shots for Texas Democrats, but not out of the realm of possibility. And, Democrats are running strong races in all these seats.

Republican Congressman Roger Williams who faces Democrat Julie Oliver in the November 3 election

It was with the Republican candidates in these races in mind that Abbott jumped into the Austin police budget debate. He really has no power over city police budgets and any attempt to gain that power would be difficult, even in a Republican majority legislature — although not impossible.

For now though Republicans like Roger Williams see the Austin Council vote as a life raft thrown to them in turbulent waters. And, they mean to use the issue not just in Austin, but to scare those in other communities into believing that electing Democrats will result in drastic cuts to police and endanger public safety. 

For example, during CBS coverage of the Republican convention, Major Garrett of CBS reported that Republican focus groups show their best chances lie in emphasizing three issues: the economy; cancel culture; and law and order.

The Austin City Council just played big time into the last one. Whether that works or not remains to be seen. It would be worth the risk if their approach were the only way to reform the police. It sure seems, however, that just a little bit of shift in approach and rhetoric would have made their actions less difficult to defend, under Republican attacks that likely would have come anyway. Activists might not have been as happy, but the overall cause might have been strengthened.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez

“Poll-tested slogans and electoral feasibility is not the activists’ job. Their job is to organize, support and transform public opinion, which they are doing. Our job as policymakers is to take the public’s mandate and find + create pockets to advance as much progress as possible.”

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez

Here the Council might learn from Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) of New York, who back in June tweeted about the difference between protestors and elected officials. “Poll-tested slogans and electoral feasibility is not the activists’ job. Their job is to organize, support and transform public opinion, which they are doing,” tweeted AOC.

She then added, “Our job as policymakers is to take the public’s mandate and find + create pockets to advance as much progress as possible.”

Older Democrats (Boomer Alert)

Almost certainly, the group most worried about an effective Republican backlash are older Democrats, which include the author. We have after all lived through a lot, and tried to pick up a few lessons along the way. For instance there was 1968 when Richard Nixon ran on a law and order campaign based on riots and antiwar protests. He rode that theme into the White House. 

Then there was 1988 when Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was 17 points ahead after the convention, but got wiped out by George H.W. Bush’s race baiting Willie Horton campaign. 

Of course we need to stand united against anything like that which emerges during the election. But, a lot of older Democrats believe it is wise to be mindful of not playing into that strategy, of not needlessly providing ammunition to Republicans who know how to use it to capitalize on the worst fears and prejudices of Americans. Sometimes, a big part of that is resisting the urge to play to the crowd, or your base. Doing somight ultimately hurt those you are trying the most to help.

All older Democrats though can share with the Austin City Council a hope that in November Texas Republican leaders are not able to say, “Thanks in part to the Austin City Council, We Won.”


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