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Mike Kanin is the Publisher of the Austin Monitor. As such, he doesn't report on much--aside from the workings of the Monitor--any more. In his previous life as a freelance journalist, Kanin has written for the Washington City Paper, the Washington Post's Express, the Boston Herald, Boston's Weekly Dig, the Austin Chronicle, and the Texas Observer.
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Contract sets up coming discussion of police officer-population ratio
The Austin City Council is set to approve a $97,871 agreement with Police Executive Research Forum to conduct a study of “current and future police staffing needs” on Thursday. The results of that study, which are expected before Council members engage in their August budget debates, will serve as the starting point for what promises to be a captivating discussion about policing needs in the city.
The study is the lone formal result of an attempt last year by Council Member Bill Spelman to reduce the city’s officer-population ratio from the long-held 2.0 officers per 1,000 residents to just under that figure. Spelman, whose pitch came during the city’s last budget cycle, suggests that the figure confines the Council’s ability to make policing policy.
The issue got something of an airing at the Council’s retreat last Wednesday. There, the final time block was reserved for discussion of the idea. Council Member Laura Morrison reminded her colleagues of Spelman’s idea. “If we, instead of doing 2.0, actually went to 1.99 or 1.98, it would free up this amount of money that might be invested in a greater decrease than having those…other officers,” she said.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo later said he welcomes the study. “I think that the study is going to hopefully confirm what we already know: We have engineered our department into a true intelligence-led (operation),” he told In Fact Daily.
Acevedo added that, even with budgetary obstacles and the fact that the city is “hundreds of officers below the national average” for large cities, the department gets “a lot more done with a very low staff.”
Public Safety Commission Chair Michael Lauderdale – who, like Spelman, studies the issue as a scholar – believes that his group’s support of the 2.0 ratio will hold as it digests the information from the report. “It is a useful approximation of the police (staffing) that the community needs,” Lauderdale told In Fact Daily.
He added a nod to Spelman’s suggestion that a slightly lower ratio could allow the city to spend more money on prevention programs. “I feel…that there certainly is great value in prevention programs,” he said. “But (the 2.0 ratio) is the minimum that we need to have.”
Lauderdale also suggested that the discussion of the ratio could open the door to other staffing conversations. “(There might be) an additional discussion…of what kind of people are being hired and how they are being deployed,” he said. Lauderdale added that there could be issues about the educational background of the officers that the department hires, as well as whether the city should conduct local or national searches for its officer pool. All of this, he said, could be included in a discussion about the officer-to-population ratio.
Spelman, who has worked with the foundation, told In Fact Daily that the organization would reach out to the community to gauge its priorities about how policing should be applied. “(They’ll) focus on community expectations,” he said. “I think it’s the right study and I think it’s the right time to do the right study.”
As for the police-population ratio, he noted that cities such as San Diego, El Paso, and San Jose all had lower crime rates than Austin, and that they’d managed to do so with a lower ratio. He added that, though there could be many different reasons for that fact, it could also be that those “cities might be very efficient” with their resources.
“This is why we need the study,” Spelman said.
At the retreat, Spelman also argued for a reallocation of police time. “The critical issue in community policing is having proactive time,” he said. “Patrol officers, detectives, (district representatives), whoever else in the community…identifying problems, figuring out where they came from, developing responses to them, making sure they get implemented, and making sure those responses actually work.”
For that to happen, Spelman argues, police need to have time away from their radios. Right now, 28 percent of patrol officers’ time is uncommitted. Deputy City Manager Michael McDonald, a former Austin Police Officer who rose to Chief of Staff in the organization, suggested that a better goal might be “a third to 35 percent” of uncommitted officer time.
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