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Council scrutinizes proposed police officer increase

Thursday, August 13, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

City Council members spent over an hour Wednesday grilling Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo and other APD staff on the department’s proposed Fiscal Year 2015-16 budget, zeroing in on a plan to add 82 sworn police officers to the force at a cost of $6.6 million.

Several Council members appeared hesitant about the costs involved with the idea, citing affordability concerns and unmet needs in other areas of the proposed budget as a major constraint.

Acevedo explained that the request is part of a five-year plan the APD developed with the University of Texas to hire 410 sworn officers to increase average uncommitted time for patrol officers to 30 percent by Fiscal Year 2018-19 and maintain that figure in the following fiscal year. The current uncommitted time average, he said, fluctuates between 17 and 21 percent.

Uncommitted time, Acevedo said, is the time in which a patrol officer is not engaged in resolving a specific call. Increasing that time, he argued, would give officers more opportunities to take part in community engagement activities in order to prevent and reduce crime.

“What we want to achieve is, we want our police officer – the one that’s going to come to your door, the one that’s going to come to your home – we want to create space and time for them to be able to build relationships (with the public),” Acevedo said.

“I’ve worked in some very tough places, and I didn’t care what the problem was, there was always a direct correlation between police visibility, police action, police everything,” Acevedo added. “No matter what the bad thing is, when you saw more cops in the neighborhood, the bad outcomes went down.”

The proposal, however, would come at a significant cost. The $6.6 million in funding that the APD has requested in the budget would cover 24 full-time positions for a full year starting in October and 58 positions for a half-year starting in April. The remaining half-year of funding for those late-starting positions would presumably come out of the Fiscal Year 2016-17 budget.

The APD has also requested $425,000 for nine months of funding for three new sworn positions that it has identified as unmet needs, bringing the total request to 85 sworn officers at a cost of approximately $7 million.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, though she said she believes community engagement is “the right direction to be going in,” asked Acevedo to compile a list of alternatives that the APD could pursue to increase uncommitted time for police officers without hiring more. “Eighty-two officers is a lot of officers, considering the budget that we’re dealing with,” she said.

Council Member Greg Casar sought assurance that the uncommitted time would actually go toward community engagement. “I think that some of the concerns on the dais that I’m hearing might be, how do we know that if we increase uncommitted time, that that time will be committed to that community policing work?” he asked.

Acevedo said the APD would track the amount of uncommitted time that officers spend engaging with the community or patrolling neighborhoods.

Council Member Don Zimmerman harshly criticized the idea, arguing that the APD should instead invest resources into solving crimes. “The whole subject to me of uncommitted time – my opinion, and I think my district would agree with (me) – it’s just the wrong metric to focus on,” he said.

Zimmerman pointed to a line in the budget stating that, in Fiscal Year 2014-15, 14.3 percent of “Part 1” crimes have been cleared. This metric includes both property crimes and violent crimes.

APD Assistant Chief Brian Manley put some of Austin’s recent clearance rates into a national context.

“We cleared, in 2013, 57 percent of our violent crimes — the U.S. average is 39 percent — and in property crimes, we cleared 13 percent and the U.S. average is 14 percent. So, we’re right on average in property crimes and we far exceed in violent crimes,” Manley said. “Our homicide rate was 100 percent compared to a national 57 percent.”

When asked if he would commit all new police officers to solving unsolved crimes, Acevedo responded in the negative. “In violent crime, we exceed the national average nationwide. Let me tell you why that proactive policing, community engagement piece is huge. Because if a crime already occurred, it doesn’t matter if we solve it or not, we’ve already failed as a community,” he said.

“I would rather invest in providing our residents additional time for the officers to be proactive instead of reactive,” Acevedo later added.

Zimmerman pressed on. “Imagine the frustration that our taxpayers would feel if they see more and more police in the community, driving around looking to throw a football with a kid – whatever you do to kind of build the image of the Police Department – while the unsolved crimes remain at this, to me, this is a crazy low number of crimes that we’re solving,” he said.

Mayor Steve Adler appeared more sympathetic to Acevedo’s request, but noted that the proposed APD budget, at $394 million, is a significant chunk of the $3.5 billion proposed Fiscal Year 2015-16 city budget.

“I know that the Council is going to be looking at ways throughout the budget (process) to address the affordability issue,” Adler said. “I wish you had come up with a better word than ‘uncommitted time.’ It’s discretionary time, and I think that there is a benefit that comes from having officers with that discretion.”

The APD currently has 1,846 sworn officers and 683 full-time civilian employees.

Photo courtesy of Edward Kimmel [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.

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