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Council to consider approving grants for APD safety projects

Wednesday, August 26, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Thursday’s City Council meeting agenda has 10 items requesting approval of grant awards to the Austin Police Department for a variety of ongoing projects. While the grants support important community programs like mental health first response, sexual assault evidence testing and victim services, Council members pulled each of the items Tuesday to clarify that the grants won’t fund projects that contradict or undermine Council’s decision to reform the department’s budget and operations.

“We’ve gotten through the budget; I think we did some good work there as a full Council, but we all know these keep coming up on every agenda,” Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said. “I don’t want the public to think that we’ve taken our eye off the ball even though many of these items seem perfectly great on the surface.”

Council will consider grants supporting several police programs and divisions including the Forensic Science Bureau, Air Support Unit, Bomb Squad, Sexual Assault Evidence Testing Project, Violence Against Women Investigative Project, First Responder Mental Health Program, Victim Crisis Intervention Project, the 2019 Justice Assistance Grant Program and Project Safe Neighborhoods. Most of the grants would be awarded from the state’s Criminal Justice Division. Only two would require a city funding match.

“At a high level, there are really important functions that policing has in our community to keep us safe,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “And when we have the opportunity to have these functions supported from outside of our budget beyond what our taxpayers pay, it’s something I think we should be taking advantage of.”

With the city just beginning to dive into the weeds of reshaping the department under the approved $150 million budget reduction, Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said this may not be the appropriate time to apply for a grant for a targeted enforcement program like Project Safe Neighborhoods.

Kyran Fitzgerald, grants manager at APD, said the department has already applied for the $128,000 grant for Project Safe Neighborhoods and expects to receive the award. The program aims to reduce violent crime in Riverside and downtown, where a 2018 citywide report showed the highest levels of crime, using a mixture of on-the-ground enforcement by the Organized Crime Division and prevention and education campaigns.

“I want a person to tell me what it is that we hope to accomplish here and how we are going to be as careful as possible about targeting particular communities in this way,” Harper-Madison said Tuesday.

Following a June 11 Council resolution directing the city to create new metrics for use of the police force and equity outcomes in enforcement, Fitzgerald said the department is working on a revision to the Project Safe Neighborhoods language that will “incorporate a more forgiving type of approach to addressing crime.” For now, the department is preparing to bring the project concept to the Public Safety Committee and Public Safety Commission to discuss how to move forward, based on Council’s direction.

“We heard what was said at the Council meeting in June and the Council meetings since then, and have no plans to move forward until we have agreement from the Public Safety commission and committee on any plans to move activity forward – we won’t do it without everyone being on the same page.”

Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza also questioned the need for an $88,000 grant to purchase rappelling rescue equipment for a city helicopter when the Travis County STAR Flight program already has the ability to rescue people without landing. According to Commander James Mason, the department has never faced a situation where a life or property has been lost due to lack of the rappelling equipment, but Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano said he will elaborate on the need for the equipment in a written response before Thursday’s meeting.

Council Member Alison Alter said the opportunity to get the additional rescue equipment at no cost to the city is “super important,” especially considering the city’s greenbelts and risk of wildfire.

“STAR Flight is really important and they do really important work. I think the issue is that this helicopter is out and about doing its daily work with respect to traffic and other kinds of things and may be called upon to do something and may be the resource that is closer and may mean the difference for somebody if STAR Flight is being used elsewhere.”

Any grants that are approved would be awarded directly to the city of Austin, meaning the city could still make use of the grant funds if corresponding programs are ultimately moved out of the police department over the next year.

“I think that as we continue to reimagine and look at our own processes as a result of the Council direction back in June, this type of discussion and conversation is really critical,” City Manager Spencer Cronk said.

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