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Petition-backed measure to mandate police staffing will go to Austin voters

Wednesday, August 4, 2021 by Andrew Weber, KUT

A ballot measure that would set a mandatory minimum for police staffing in Austin is on its way to voters. The city clerk on Tuesday certified petition signatures from the group Save Austin Now, paving the way for a November referendum.

If passed, the ballot measure would require the city to employ two officers per every 1,000 people, mandate officers spend 35 percent of their time on patrols or in communities, and require officers to undergo 40 additional hours of training.

The department currently has 1.7 officers for every 1,000 residents.

The petition was a response to City Council’s decision to cut and reallocate $150 million from the police department last year. Save Austin Now argues the move led to a rash in violent crimes and the city’s higher-than-average murder rate this year.

The political action committee was also behind the petition to reinstate Austin’s ban on public homeless encampments.

In a statement Tuesday morning, Travis County GOP Chair Matt Mackowiak and Democrat Cleo Petricek, co-founders of the group, said the police cuts have made Austin “measurably less safe.”

“We are pleased that the city certified our signed petitions and that we will now be placed directly on the November 2nd ballot,” they said in a statement. “The upcoming election poses a stark choice for Austin voters: If you vote for our proposition, Austin will have adequate police staffing, the best trained police force in the nation, and enact important police reforms.”

Opponents say Save Austin Now’s ratio of officers to citizens is arbitrary because funding and staffing don’t always equate to more safety. The benchmark was a suggestion from a 2012 study by a city-hired consultant.

In a joint statement with members of the Austin Justice Coalition and the local chapter of the American Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees, former City Council Member Bill Spelman said the staffing ratio “isn’t the best practice.”

“It was a rule of thumb applied in the past when APD was responding to more calls and more crimes than they are today,” Spelman said. “Then, you add the requirement for all officers to have 35 percent of their time free for some undefined ‘community engagement,’ and there could be no limit to the number of officers APD could demand each budget cycle.”

He said the ordinance would tie the hands of the city going forward.

Spelman and others, including Mayor Steve Adler and District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, have joined a campaign against the measure, arguing Save Austin Now’s canvassers used misleading language to secure signatures for the petition.

The city clerk confirmed Save Austin Now had more than 25,000 valid signatures on its petition, enough to put the question to voters. Now, City Council has to certify ballot language before the Nov. 2 election.

Voters could also see measures on whether to decriminalize marijuana and ban no-knock warrants.

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

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