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Cronk: Police reform efforts put Austin in national spotlight

Tuesday, January 4, 2022 by Jo Clifton

Looking back at 2021, City Manager Spencer Cronk feels proud of the way city employees performed in the face of a seemingly never-ending pandemic, an unprecedented ice storm, and state legislation that not only redirected use of city funds, but restricted how much money the city can collect. This followed on the heels of a 2019 bill that dictated a 3.5 percent cap on the city’s authority to raise property taxes without an election.

The Austin Monitor sat down with Cronk in mid-December, just as stories about the new Covid-19 variant called omicron were beginning to dominate the media. Cronk had hoped a year ago that we would not be having a conversation about the virus again, but now he expects Covid will continue to be with us. He reiterated what he said in an earlier meeting: “We may be done with the virus, but the virus is not done with us.”

Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown had just extended the health authority rules until June 10, 2022, making it mandatory that students, faculty and staff in local schools continue to wear masks. They also extended masking requirements for buildings under their control. Cronk said he did not anticipate any additional rules in the near future.

According to Cronk’s data, 68 percent of Austin/Travis County residents over the age of 5 were fully vaccinated by Dec. 6. Austin Public Health, which was a little-known department prior to the arrival of Covid-19, had administered a total of 355,607 vaccine doses since vaccines became available on Dec. 18, 2020. Nevertheless, the number of Covid cases in Travis County had risen to 125,592 by December 20, 2021.

Cronk said, “I think that there was the impression that once the vaccines came this would be over, like a light switch, that we would be able to move on, and this is clearly something we’re going to live with.” While some disagree with measures taken to curtail the spread of the virus, “It is important that we continue to talk through the importance of vaccinations, the importance of getting a booster, how it has allowed us to do more things than when we were in Stage 5, but it’s going to be with us and so we can’t stop talking about it.”

In 2020, with a strong push from police reform advocates, City Council cut the police budget for the first time in recent memory. The cuts included eliminating three cadet classes in order to reform the training new officers would be getting. However, the planned $150 million reallocation of funds would have resulted in serious damage to the city’s overall budget because of a state law passed in 2021 to prevent any cuts to big city police budgets.

Nevertheless, Austin has proceeded with its plan to reimagine public safety in order to downplay armed police intervention when weapons are not required. That includes investigation of burglaries, for example. In November, 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley suggested that Austin’s work to reform its police department might become a national model for how to take on such a task.

Cronk told the Monitor that the program “showed that we really should be proud of our efforts. We know that it’s a continuous process and we’re never where we need to be, but will continue to refine our approach and improve on what we’ve learned. Despite everything that’s happened over the last year and half, the continued focus and support of our reimagining public safety efforts from the Council and city management really has allowed us to be in the national spotlight.”

The CBS reporter asked Cronk if moving funds back into the police department, as required by state law, negatively impacted the city’s plans for reform. Cronk said, “I think it doesn’t do much to be honest, because this plan has never been just about resources. This plan has always been about how do we think differently about providing safety to our community.”

Summing up the year’s highlights, Cronk noted that the Austin Police Department academy has already begun its initial cadet class under new regulations. New cadets are receiving anti-racism training and training in community engagement and the history of policing. The department is also engaging in a process by which police can receive community input on the training content related to racial equity and justice.

Cronk said he has not received much negative feedback on deployment of civilians to non-emergency calls. One measure of whether the community wants more officers, and at what cost, was the Nov. 2 vote on Proposition A. More than two-thirds of Austin voters rejected the proposition, which would have cost hundreds of millions of dollars and required the city to hire two officers per 1,000 residents. Opponents said the measure would have required cuts to numerous other departments, including parks and libraries.

Cronk noted that the change in how the city responds to burglaries and fender-benders “is a trend we’re seeing across the country as resources are more limited and we are trying to right-size the response to a situation.” However, he added, “I just think it will take time to ensure that we’re meeting the community’s expectations.” He said seeing how other places provide services helps reassure the public. “Just because we’re changing this doesn’t mean that the level or quality of service is going to change,” he concluded.

Even the process of selecting a new police chief, Cronk said, allowed the city to listen to individuals and community organizations to learn their expectations for the new chief. Cronk is especially proud of the decision to hire Joseph Chacón, saying he “embodies someone who is leaning in to ensure that he is addressing those concerns, but not at the expense of keeping the community safe. So, he understands that balance and he has already demonstrated his ability to work cooperatively with both advocates, community members, and our Council, and I couldn’t be more proud of having him as our chief of police.”

Cronk and city staff were preparing for a tabletop exercise designed to improve the city’s response to extreme winter storms such as Uri. Cronk wanted to stress the dedication and commitment of city staff members, who left their homes and families to help other Austinites. Many ended up sleeping on floors and on cots at work in order to respond to the situation. Cronk described them as “everyday heroes working behind the scenes” in a way he found both humbling and inspiring.

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