By Kara Valentine
Three-segment feature: Prop A’s Landslide Loss by Austin Voters, Officer Shortage and Reimagining the APD, Understaffed Police Leave Burglary Victim to Collect own Evidence. An in-depth look at Austin, Texas politics, Austin City Council, Austin Police Department and the community affected.
Prop A’s Landslide Loss by Austin Voters
As Austin voters reject police staffing initiative, Prop A on the Nov. 2 ballot, proponents for the proposition are concerned the growing homicide rate will continue to rise without an increase in police presence.
The final vote for Prop A – initiated by Save Austin Now, a political action committee – tallied 31.12% voters in favor of the proposition, while 68.88% voted against it.
Prop A details a police reform that proposed an increase in police staffing to two sworn officers for every 1,000 residents among other modifications to Austin Police Department (APD), with potential cost ranging between $54.3 million and $119.8 million, as estimated in the fiscal analysis submitted by Austin’s Chief Financial Officer, Ed Van Eenoo.
“We’re not going anywhere. The city needs more police, crime is getting out of control. This is just ‘back to the drawing board’ for us,” said Save Austin Now volunteer and Prop A advocate, Will Clark.
Clark says the committee was hopeful ahead of the November 2021 election, anticipating the election outcome“would reflect favorable results for reform from Austinites.”
“Save Austin Now won over Austin voters in May with the reinstatement of the public camping ban, so we know we can do it again,” Clark said.
Save Austin Now successfully campaigned for Proposition B – an ordinance criminalizing solicitation and sitting, lying down, or camping in public places – winning approval from Austin voters by a 15-point margin in the May 2021 election.
East Austin resident, Lane Wood, says she worries about police staffing and the rate and speed at which police officers respond to emergency situations.
“Yeah, I voted for Prop A. And I’m really anxious to see what happens with the crime rate now that it didn’t pass,” Wood said.
“When I had the break-in at my home, an officer never responded,” Wood said. “When I called 911, they said that since the burglar was no longer actually in my home, to call 311 because it was no longer considered an immediate threat to my safety. They still have never come by to check on my case.”
APD reports the city has 82 recorded homicides this year, exceeding the previous record of 59 homicides in 1984.
No Way on Prop A (No Way), an alliance formed in response to Prop A, assisted in the defeat of the proposition.
The coalition – endorsed by Mayor Steve Adler and composed of more than 80 groups, such as labor unions, Austin Justice Coalition, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and the Travis County Democratic party – claimed victory as Prop A failed to pass.
Wesley Story, coordinator for No Way, reflects on his participation in the overwhelmingly successful campaign, “We did all that we could to preserve other essential city services that would have suffered financial consequences had Prop A passed. We rallied and canvassed neighborhoods almost every weekend in the months leading up to the Nov. 2 election,” Story said.
“I’m really honored. No Way on Prop A campaign worked hard. And it worked! We won!”
Officer Shortage and Reimagining the APD
Austin Police Department and Austin City Council remain committed to achieving an inclusive, diverse, and less militarized police department after Austin voters reject staffing initiative, Prop A.
If passed in the November 2021 election, Prop A – initiated by political action committee, Save Austin Now – would have increased APD police staffing to two sworn officers for every 1,000 residents. However, the ballot measure proved unfavorable in the polls, as 68% voted against it.
“We understand the PD’s staffing levels are reaching a critical low. It’s a priority for us to get the officers we need,”said APD spokesperson Stephanie Jacksis.
According to the Austin Police Department, as of October 1, the department reported 191 vacant positions – bringing the number of officers employed to 1,618 of the 1,809 full-time positions pre-approved for by council.
“The APD has experienced a higher-than-normal attrition rate since 2020, with officers either retiring, resigning, or being relieved of their duties for various reasons,” said Jacksis.
Police Chief Joseph Chacon stated that the department typically sees a loss of five to seven officers per month – which equates to 60 officers to 84 officers per year. Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday said more than 40 officers resigned and another 100 retired in 2020 – equating to 140 officers.
The cause for the increased exodus from the police department is unfounded, as the reason for resignations and retirements of officers is not public information.
The staffing shortage was exacerbated by Austin City Council’s decision in August 2020 to cut the police department’s budget by one-third, about $150 million, as part of an effort to expel the police academy of its alleged racist and non-inclusive curriculum – subsequently suspending three consecutive cadet classes and leaving no replacements for officers departing the force.
“It’s very important that we get the cadet classes going as efficiently and really as quickly as we can…I don’t have anybody to backfill those positions,” said Police Chief Joseph Chacon at a Public Safety Commission meeting.
“There’s certainly a lot of theories and different plans out there, but there’s not exactly like there’s a playbook,” said Chacon of Austin’s goal to reimagine public safety.
“We intend to use a mix of traditional and not-so-traditional approaches to deal with crime police reform in Austin,” said Austin City Council Member Greg Casar.
Austin’s Reimagining Public Safety program – a public safety reform adopted by City Council – prompted the police academy to shift from its traditional military-style to one based more on adult learning techniques.
With approval from the City, APD‘s cadet classes commenced in June 2021 at the Austin Police Department Training Academy located in southeast Austin – with 75 cadets set to graduate in January 2022.
The Academy ‘s 144th class is considered to be part of a pilot program – the first class to complete the Academy’s new curriculum of adopted practices – following a blueprint for a reimagined police force.
Current cadets are expected to join the police force as officers following their completion of the program on Jan.28, but before the 145th cadet class can begin, Austin City Council demands a satisfactory report – collected by independent third-party consulting group, Kroll & Associates – detailing the modifications and progress made within the police department and training academy.
“The City is committed to providing sufficient staffing for the police department,” said Casar. “We’ll see how future cadet classes go after reviewing the cadets graduating in January.”
Understaffed Police Leave Burglary Victim to Collect own Evidence
Business owner in Austin, Texas expresses concern of failed staffing initiative, Prop A, when he was told by police that due to officer shortage, he must gather his own evidence after his store was burglarized.
Kirk Andrews, owner of Petticoat Fair in north Austin, called 911 after his shop was robbed.
He said that after calling 911, he was directed to call 311, where he was then told by police to put on gloves and collect the crime scene evidence because an officer would not be able to assist.
“We were hit four times by four different people in three months,” Andrews said. “I don’t see any deterrent to shoplifting anywhere.”
As of October 1, Austin City Council directed Austin Police Department to stop sending sworn officers to calls where no immediate danger was reported – reserving uniformed officers for calls involving an immediate threat to life or property.
Following this new protocol, Save Austin Now’s Prop A – a proposition that would have increased staffing at Austin Police Department to two officers for every 1,000 residents – failed to pass on the November 2021.
“That’s where the frustration is. And I have to emphasize that everybody I’ve talked to: 311, 911, the detectives have been very helpful, very friendly, very sympathetic to our situation here,” said Andrews. “They’re just flat understaffed.”
Petticoat Fair experienced multiple thefts and burglaries between August 2021 and October 2021 – with an estimated total loss of $10,000 worth of merchandise alone, excluding the destruction of property caused by gunshots from the October break-in.
Of the recent four burglaries: two break-ins were executed through the store’s back door used for employees and deliveries, one was a shoplifting incident caught on video as customers were in the store, and the latest break-in was the most destructive – as the suspect(s) shot out the front window display of the store before burglarizing it and fleeing with stolen merchandise.
However, this isn’t the business owners first encounter with theft.
“15 years ago, we had an overnight break-in. And the next morning, police were out, detectives were out, they were fingerprinting…I mean, doing everything that I thought they did for law enforcement,” Andrews added. “It’s really opened my eyes to what’s going on now.”
Andrews has since taken security measures at Petticoat Fair, installing cameras and a “buzz-in, buzz-out” system at the customer entrance.
“It’s deterrent,” said Andrews. Adding that the company that came to board up his broken window stated that they are out daily boarding up windows shattered by break-ins.
“That’s what the message needs to be. It’s not any negligence, or any not wanting to, but the actual police department and everybody involved, I’ve found them to be very good. It’s just that they don’t have enough people,” said Andrews.