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City seeks to separate forensics lab from APD while complying with state law

Tuesday, February 8, 2022 by Amy Smith

It’s never too soon to talk about the 2023 city budget, especially as it relates to the Austin Police Department and the divisions that were separated out from under APD before the state Legislature penalized cities for thinking outside the box.

The Public Safety Commission kick-started the budget conversation Monday with a discussion about the 911 call center and the forensics lab, two functions that City Council had moved out of APD’s budget and placed in separate divisions in actions taken in the last two years.

Other Texas municipalities took similar budgetary actions in response to police overreach during Black Lives Matter protests across the country in 2020. Last year, the state Legislature returned serve in the form of House Bill 1900, which effectively punishes cities that reduced or restructured their police budgets. As the new law states, any city with a population of more than 250,000 that either reduced or restructured its police department loses its right to raise property taxes.

With that, the city reincorporated the 911 call center and the forensics lab back into the APD budget, as well as other police functions that had been separated out.

The new law allows for a small bit of wiggle room, however, so city staffers are currently focused on making the forensics lab a separate entity while still complying with state law, Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano, who oversees the city’s public safety departments, told the commission. Pulling out the emergency call center, however, is a more complex process.

“It’s a proposal we’ll be looking at,” Arellano said of the forensics lab, referring to the ongoing work for the 2023 budget. He again stressed the city’s commitment to remain in compliance with HB 1900.

That was welcome news for longtime community activist and Just Liberty leader Kathy Mitchell, one of the speakers invited to address the commission. She agreed with Arellano that removing the call center from APD in the 2023 budget year would come at a high price.

These issues are certain to instigate ongoing discussion among commission members. Commissioner Rebecca Bernhardt and co-sponsor Commissioner Nelly Paulina Ramirez are expected to introduce a resolution at next month’s commission meeting to address the forensics lab and the 911 call center as a budget recommendation to City Council.

Photo by CAMIOKC, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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