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Tug-of-war begins anew over how many police officers Austin needs

Tuesday, April 2, 2013 by Michael Kanin

City of Austin budget season kicked off Monday with a return to a familiar battle over the question of how many police officers the city really needs.


Council Member Bill Spelman expressed his frustration over a report in the Austin American-Statesman explaining that the Austin Police Department would ask for 116 more officers.


Also Monday, the city’s Public Safety Commission again batted that concept around as part of the first in a series of discussions designed to help commissioners develop public safety budget recommendations for Council members.


Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo has repeatedly called for more officers. Spelman has repeatedly questioned the methodology used to account for that need, and has, at times, suggested that it is overblown.


In March, Acevedo told a Leadership Austin ENGAGE breakfast audience that Austin was well behind its peers. “We know that we are 450, 500 officers behind the national average in terms of staffing,” he said. “If you look at the big city numbers, we’re probably closer to 700 officers below where we should be. That’s huge.”


Meanwhile, Public Safety Commission Chair Michael Lauderdale pushed Austin Police command staff Monday to bring back an “idealistic number” when they return to the commission for a more detailed discussion next month.


“I think our responsibility, in this advisory role, is to work with (the police department) to come up with a more idealized perspective so that we can say to the City Council: ‘To truly do community policing, to make certain that there is a police response when we need a police response, to make certain that we are getting a level of uncommitted time where officers are not running from call to call is going to take this number of additional officers,’” he said.


Later, Lauderdale said he was not looking for a practical number. “The City Council is going to have to deal with what is practical in terms of the budget,” he added.


This development left Spelman far from happy. Spelman told In Fact Daily that he remains interested in staffing requests backed by hard data. “Give me a business case,” he said, invoking the term used to describe that type of presentation. “Dr. Lauderdale is free to ask for idealistic numbers, it’s a free country. I am free to ignore them,” he said. “But I am not going to ignore any number that is backed by a strong business case.”


Spelman wasn’t the only party asking for that type of report. Kim Rossmo, a well-published Texas State University professor of criminology and the Vice Chair of the Public Safety Commission, also made that request. “Organizations, including police organizations are horrible hoarders, once they have something, they never want to let it go,” he said. “Very often, you’ll see things happening…that really (don’t) make much sense any more – it’s really not a very good value for money.”


“From a business case perspective, it would be very beneficial to consider how you can get the most bang for your buck out of the extra civilian and sworn individuals,” Rossmo, who said he supported the request for more officers, continued later.


Rossmo has asked police staff for a business case to support their staffing needs for some time. Austin Police Chief of Staff David Carter told commissioners that the department still lacked staff that it had requested to help build that case.


Whatever figure police officials return with, Spelman says it will be put in the broader context of the city’s whole budget making decisions. “I have not heard from Fire, EMS, Floodplain Control, PARD, Planning and Development Review, or any other department yet,” he said. “I understand that there is a competitive advantage to getting there first… (but) I need to hear from other department heads.”


Spelman added that he hadn’t yet seen the proposal covered in the Statesman story. However, he noted that if it “was anything like” what appeared in those pages, “I’m not happy with it.”


Spelman referred to a July study from the Police Executive Research Forum, something commissioned as part of his repeated questioning of the current two-officers-for-every-1,000-residents ratio. The report largely sided with Acevedo, but also said that the department could free up more officers through reassignment.


It also, says Spelman, called for business cases to back requests for more officers. “What I’m seeing in the article in the Statesman is the opposite of that,” he said.

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