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Group behind Austin’s camping ban revival says it has new plan to put police staffing on the ballot

Thursday, May 27, 2021 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Save Austin Now, the local political action committee behind the campaign to reinstate rules against camping in public, has started circulating a petition to put a new proposition on the ballot – a mandate that would require certain levels of staffing at the Austin Police Department.

“Austin … used to be one of the greatest places to go, to hang out, to be, and we need to continue to keep it that way,” Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who represents far-Northwest Austin, said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “We need officers who can help protect us and help us get to where we need to be as a community so we can feel safe for our families and each other.”

Supporters of the petition say this is in response to the rise of some violent crimes in Austin and City Council’s decision last year to cut millions from the Police Department – a move that will likely be financially impossible to do in the future, as a bill penalizing cities for cutting police budgets is likely to become law in Texas.

Petitioners need to collect 20,000 individual signatures from Austin voters in order to get their proposal on a ballot; they say they are planning for a public vote in November. Matt Mackowiak, Save Austin Now co-founder and chair of the Travis County Republican Party, said the committee has started collecting signatures.

The petition, if it gets on a ballot and is approved by voters, would require that the Austin Police Department employs at least two full-time sworn officers per every 1,000 residents. Currently, the department has roughly 1.7 officers for every 1,000 residents.

While APD has long used the ratio of two officers for every 1,000 residents as a reference, a spokesperson said the department no longer uses that scale to determine staffing needs.

In a 2012 study of police staffing, outside consultants said that ratio appeared arbitrary. They went on to recommend that the police department add 228 sworn positions, resulting in 2.11 officers per 1,000 residents.

Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon did not respond Wednesday to a request to comment on the petition.

“George Floyd was killed one year ago, and instead of working on police reform, this group is fear-mongering and trying to avoid police accountability,” Council Member Greg Casar, who represents North Central Austin, wrote in an emailed statement.

“Their petition drive is about writing a blank check of taxpayer funds to their own department, while cutting off funds for all our other public employees and critical public safety needs.”

The petition would also require an additional 40 hours of training for officers once they graduate from the cadet academy. While the petition does not dictate exactly what kind of training this would be, it says it should focus on “critical thinking, defensive tactics, intermediate weapons proficiency, active shooter scenarios, and hasty react team reactions.”

“It is not contradictory to both support the police and advocate for changes that can improve the effectiveness and accountability for the police,” Cleo Petricek, co-founder of Save Austin Now, said at Wednesday’s press conference.

Several of the changes asked for by Save Austin Now appear to be either part of APD’s protocol already or something that the city is working on. For example, the petition asks that officers receive additional pay if they speak languages other than English; according to the department’s most recent contract, that policy is already in place.

Those who spoke at the press conference, including the president of the Austin police union, said the petition would help make Austin a safer city. They argued that Council members’ decision to reduce its police budget has led directly to a rise in violent crime.

Council reallocated about $20 million from the police department last year, voting to transfer the money to efforts to house people experiencing homelessness and non-police responses to mental health crises. Council members argued they were increasing funding to programs that would cut down on calls to police, and thereby reducing potentially fatal interactions with officers.

“Mayor (Steve) Adler likes to talk about ‘reimagining.’ ‘Reimagining’ is just another word for having dangerous streets in Austin in the name of wokeness,” said U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, whose district stretches from South Austin to San Antonio and west to Kerrville.

According to recent statistics from the police department, some violent crimes in the city have risen; the number of murders and aggravated assaults, for example, are up compared to this time last year. At the same time, instances of kidnapping and rape are down.

However, some experts say there is no evidence that investing more money in policing necessarily leads to a reduction in violent crimes.

A spokesperson for the mayor said his office was reviewing the petition and would have a response in the days ahead.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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