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Defund the police? Austin provides a cautionary tale

I believe Minneapolis can learn from Austin’s experience and avoid the mistake we are now trying to correct.

Demonstrators hold a sign reading "Defund the police" during a protest in Rochester, New York, over the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, after police put a spit hood over his head during an arrest on March 23, 2020.
A protester holding a sign reading "Defund the police" during a protest in Rochester, New York, over the death of a Black man, Daniel Prude, after police put a spit hood over his head during an arrest on March 23, 2020.
REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Minneapolis voters will be offered a chance to amend their city charter on Nov. 2, by ending the Minneapolis Police Department, creating a new Minneapolis Department of Public Safety.

Most important, according to an NPR story on July 28, “If the ballot question passes, the charter would no longer prescribe a minimum number of officers” in the city charter. That requirement is the funding of a police force of at least 1.7 employees per 1,000 residents.

Minneapolis has been coming to grips with the aftermath of the senseless, illegal, and unconscionable killing of George Floyd in May 2020.

Important reforms have come from his tragic death, including many police departments banning the use of chokeholds, and a national law enforcement consensus on the require that police officers render aid.

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Some activists have used Floyd’s death to pursue a more radical agenda, which has fallen under their umbrella term, “Defund the Police.” Initially that term was a rallying cry. Now, it is seen as an extreme idea, with even national Democrats in Washington decrying its use.

But the words are not the problem. The policy is the problem.

As Minneapolis voters consider whether to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on this charter amendment, perhaps my hometown of Austin, Texas, can offer a cautionary tale.

In August 2020, our mayor and City Council voted 11-0 to cut up to one-third of the police budget ($150 million of a $450 million budget). They immediately cut $20 million and gave themselves the authority to move the rest of the $130 million to any program they wished. They’ve moved at least $65 million so far.

While it is undeniable that some funding went to good purposes like domestic abuse prevention, the deeper consequences of this policy shift on our city have been dramatic.

Our police department had an authorized strength of 1,959 two years ago, with around 1,800 officers active. Today we are under 1,600. As one of the fastest growing major cities in the U.S, our population is just under 1 million, according to the latest census.

But these numbers do not tell the entire story. According to our police department, 96% of scheduled shifts are not fully staffed. We are losing 15-22 officers a month to retirement and attrition, and we will not have another graduated cadet class until next spring.

Currently we have the same number of officers that our city did in 2008, when we were 45% as large a city as today. By the end of the year, we will be at 1998 staffing levels (when we were 25% as large).

The consequence of this staffing crisis, which has caused priority one 911 call response times to jump 20% since January, is a violent crime wave unlike anything Austin has ever seen.

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Some claim violent crime is increasing everywhere. That’s not true. Large cities like Miami and Nashville increased their police budgets and they have seen violent crime drop.

Last year Austin set an all-time record with 48 homicides. We are currently at 52 homicides with 4½ months left in the year. Aggravated assault, robbery, battery, stabbings, rapes and arson are all up at least 20 percent year over year.

Matt Mackowiak
Matt Mackowiak
In Austin, a group of concerned citizens began to rise up two years ago to push back against extreme policies at City Hall.

It began with an effort to reinstate the public camping ban, which was in place for 23 years and had a 93 percent voluntary compliance record, according to the Austin Police Association. On May 1, 2021, we passed Prop B 58%-42%, with nearly 91,000 voters concluding that unregulated public camping was bad for the residents and the homeless.

For context, our homeless population likely tripled in the two years that camping ordinance was in effect.

After collecting nearly 28,000 signed petitions in 55 days, Save Austin Now PAC has successfully put another ordinance on the Nov. 2, 2021 ballot.

Our #MakeAustinSafe ordinance ensures adequate police staffing (2.0 police officers per 1,000 residents plus a minimum of 35 percent community engagement time for eligible officers), doubles police training to the most of any major U.S. city (from 40 hours annually to 80 hours), and enacts important police reforms (minority hiring incentives, retention pay for officers with no serious complaints).

Every city is different.

Austin and Minnesota voters face different choices in November.

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Minneapolis will open the door to #DefundThePolice if its measure passes.

Austin will be the first city to overturn #DefundThePolice if our ordinance passes.

I believe Minneapolis can learn from Austin’s experience and avoid the mistake we are now trying to correct.

Matt Mackowiak is the co-founder of Save Austin Now PAC, a nonpartisan political action committee that advocates for policies and candidates that support quality of life issues and public safety. Learn more at http://www.SaveAustinNowPAC.com.

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