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City may add as many as 85 new police officers

Tuesday, August 4, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

How many police officers should Austin have? That is a question that City Council members will likely be wrestling with over the next few weeks as they consider the Austin Police Department’s request for 85 new officers in the proposed city budget – 26 more than it took on last year.

According to the proposed fiscal year 2015-16 budget, the new positions “are part of a five year plan to improve proactive community engagement time.” Under that plan, which was announced in July, the APD would add 82 police officers per year to its force with Council approval.

The new sworn positions would cost the city $7 million, which covers a full year of funding for 24 positions starting in October and a half-year of funding for 58 positions starting in April. Since most of the new positions wouldn’t be effective until halfway through the coming fiscal year, their full cost would not likely be felt until the next fiscal year.

The other three positions were listed as “unmet needs” in the proposed budget.

The 58 positions that would start in April, as laid out in the proposed budget, would serve to “maintain available community policing time.”

APD Police Chief Art Acevedo explained the concept of community policing to Council during the proposed budget unveiling on Thursday by relating it to uncommitted time. “What we are looking at in this budget is really taking a look at what we call ‘uncommitted time,’ or time that we have to be able to do something other than going from call to call to call,” he said.

“That type of investment, as it relates to the community policing time or uncommitted time, is an investment that we believe – as we move forward with a five-year plan – will lead to some tremendous outcomes in terms of safety, in terms of legitimacy and, more importantly, in terms of the relationship between the police department and the community we serve,” Acevedo continued.

Council Member Greg Casar sought clarification on how the APD would manage the additional time. “I do think that moving toward being able to tell our constituents what it is we are getting when we bring more police officers on is helpful,” he said. “It is a harder pitch to say that we are getting uncommitted time for police officers compared to getting community policing time.”

Casar also noted that the additional resources are “a significant part of the budget increase.”

To put the cost of the additional officers into perspective, the city’s proposed overall budget of $3.5 billion is $39 million larger than the current adopted budget.

Under the proposed budget, the APD operating budget would increase by $25 million over last year. That amount encompasses a $21.1 million, or 6 percent, increase in General Fund requirements.

The proposed APD budget also includes $1.9 million to cover the annualized cost of the 59 sworn positions added last year and $1.2 million for civilian positions consisting of 15 911 call takers, two telecommunications supervisors, two telecommunications training specialists and two administrative specialists for records management.

Public safety, which includes the APD, the Austin Fire Department, and the Emergency Medical Services Department – along with the Municipal Court – makes up 71.5 percent of the $906.7 million General Fund in the proposed budget.

City Manager Marc Ott said that the request for additional officers is not based on a population metric that the city previously used to determine growth in the police force, which required a minimum of two sworn police officers per thousand city residents.

“The chief and I and our financial team have worked on that,” Ott said. “The chief has really focused on, not a justification based upon that particular metric, but justifying his request for additional officers based on need and the mission of the department.”

That metric fell out of favor when the Police Executive Research Forum criticized it in a July 2012 report on the APD’s patrolling needs.

“Officers per thousand ratios are frequently used to compare departments to each other, but they have little value because they do not provide insight into how officers are used,” the report reads. “To assess the staffing needs in the APD, the department’s workload – the nature, quantity, and duration of tasks carried out by the organization’s units – must be considered.”

The report called the APD “a very busy department, struggling somewhat to keep up with calls for service response and the incoming flow of criminal cases that need investigation.” At the time, the city’s population was 824,000, and the APD had 1,718 sworn officers.

According to Deputy Chief Financial Officer Ed Van Eenoo, the city’s current population is 880,000 and projected to grow to 908,000 by April. The APD currently has 1,931 sworn positions and 705 civilian full-time positions. The APD currently has 1,846 sworn positions and 683 civilian full-time positions.

The first volume of the proposed budget includes a “citywide dashboard” for public safety that tracks violent crime rates, property crime rates and average police response time for emergency and urgent calls. According to the chart, the APD is “on track” to reach its goals for the measured criteria in 2015, with the exception of response time.

The APD’s goals for the coming fiscal year include keeping the average response time below seven minutes and 45 seconds (it is at seven minutes and 30 seconds so far this fiscal year), reducing the violent crime rate by 1 percent to 4.96 per 1,000 residents (from 5.01 this fiscal year) and reducing the property crime rate by 1 percent to 50.77 per 1,000 residents from 54.49.

The APD’s request for additional sworn officers during last September’s budget deliberations for the current fiscal year met with some resistance.

Former Council Member Bill Spelman, known for being critical of officer increases, made a motion at the time to limit the proposed 59-officer increase to 46 – the number of officers that APD Assistant Chief Brian Manley said would go to patrol. The motion received a second from former Council Member Laura Morrison but died for lack of additional support.

At the time, Manley said that the APD had whittled its request down from 126 sworn officers.

Council is scheduled to hear a more detailed presentation about the proposed APD budget on Aug. 10. Once approved, the next budget will take effect at the start of the new fiscal year on Oct. 1.

Photo by Matty Ring [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

This story has been corrected.

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