With the Texas Legislature now in session, local public safety supporters and reform advocates are paying close attention to the public safety bills being filed in the aftermath of last summer's protests against police violence and the Austin City Council's decision to cut police funding.
In particular, they are looking for a bill that matches up with a piece of draft legislation that is supported by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and would, if passed, put the Austin Police Department under state control—while remaining fully funded by the city of Austin.
Representatives from the Austin Police Association, a union that represents APD officers, and the Greater Austin Crime Commission, which supports public safety planning, said they need more information about the proposal, which remains unfiled and unattached to any state lawmaker. Meanwhile, local police reform advocates and some elected officials say the proposal, in any form, is retaliatory and infringes on the rights of local taxpayers.
Former Travis County sheriff and former Republican state representative Terry Keel and former Democratic state representative Ron Wilson shared the proposal with Abbott in a letter last month.
As drafted, it would apply to cities of at least 950,000 residents, with a ratio of less than two sworn police officers per 1,000 residents and where the governor has determined that "the safety of a municipality's residents is threatened" because of "insufficient municipal resources." Austin currently meets the first two criteria, as do San Antonio and Fort Worth.
Although homicides and aggravated assaults increased substantially in Austin last year, overall violent crime decreased slightly, according to APD's latest monthly report. Austin is also safer than many other big Texas cities, including Houston and Dallas, as PolitiFact reported.
If filed and approved by state lawmakers, the draft legislation would allow Abbott to transfer control of municipal police departments to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The municipality, however, would remain responsible for all costs.
Policing is the largest expense for most cities. During the last fiscal year, nearly 40% of the city of Austin's general fund went to the police department—or about $444 per resident—more than any of the four largest cities in Texas, according to the Texas Tribune.
After mass protests against police violence and racial injustice, Austin City Council voted unanimously in August to cut the APD budget by around 5%, becoming the first Texas city to do so amid the "defund the police" movement. Council members also approved moving an additional 32.5% of the department's budget into transitional funds that will allow several of APD's traditional duties to continue while officials work out which to move out from under police oversight.
This fiscal year, taking into account these cuts and the transitional funds, the city allocated about 27% of its general fund to police—or about $299 per resident, according to budget documents and U.S. Census Bureau figures. Policing remains the city's largest single general fund expense.
Abbott staunchly opposed these budget decisions and swiftly promised to support legislation in the upcoming session that would push back against it, including freezing property tax revenue and divesting cities that defund their police departments of their annexation powers.
When Keel and Wilson shared the proposal—which was drafted by the Texas Legislative Council, a nonpartisan agency the helps lawmakers draft legislation—Abbott tweeted that it had arrived "just in time for Christmas."
Despite the governor's enthusiasm, public safety advocates say they need more information about the proposal.
The Greater Austin Crime Commission, which opposes the recent cuts to APD's budget, won't comment until there's a filed bill. "There's so much we don't know about this (proposal)," Executive Director Cary Roberts told Austonia.
APA President Ken Casaday feels similarly. "We just need to make sure that our bargaining rights and pension rights stay the same," he said.
The filing deadline for the current session is March 12.
On the other hand, some local elected officials and police reform advocates say they know enough about the proposal to oppose it.
State Sen. Sarah Eckhardt called the draft legislation "political theater" in a statement, adding that if the bill were approved it "would trample on the rights of local governments and citizens of Texas' largest cities."
Austin Justice Coalition Community Outreach Director Warren Burkley called it "obviously retaliatory" and said it would stifle local control, including ongoing reform efforts. "It would basically lock Austin citizens out of 40% of deciding what to do with their budget, which is just ridiculous," he told Austonia.
Burkley added that residents who are concerned about policing in Austin would be limited to advocating at the Texas Legislature, which meets every two years, rather than at Austin City Hall, where council meets weekly.
"A (state) senator or rep may not even know about a wrongful death in Austin, and they may not even care," he said.
ACLU of Texas Policy and Advocacy Director Sarah Labowitz agreed that police accountability oversight would weaken under state control, pointing to a recent review of state law enforcement regulation by the Sunset Commission, a state oversight agency.
According to the commission's November 2020 report, "the state's regulatory approach has resulted in a fragmented, outdated system with poor accountability, lack of statewide standards and inadequate training" and "the state's current regulation is, by and large, toothless."
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Austin FC couldn't find the stamina to fight off a 2-0 loss against LAFC for their inaugural match on Saturday.
The match, which saw No. 21 Austin FC go head-to-head with No. 2 LAFC in Los Angeles, was broadcast nationally on FOX and FOX Deportes.
Salute the support. 👏
It's only the beginning for @AustinFC. pic.twitter.com/TduorqYr2y
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) April 18, 2021
Eleven players took the stage as Austin FC players for the first time, with five starters making their MLS debut. "Ringleader" Alex Ring took the captain's armband and wore it well. The defensive midfielder could be seen leading his teammates through their first ever match, but it wasn't enough to stage an Austin takeover in LA.
In the signature style of Head Coach Josh Wolff, the team played with quickness and intensity, nearly connecting on several fast breaks. It was harder for them to stay in front, however, something that Wolff credits with quick decision making and a tough LAFC defense.
"We have a quick attacking team, but I think when you make quick attacks and it fizzles it's just about some decision making," Wolff said. "Are we in position to finish attacks? If not, can we reestablish our attack and get stuff better?"
The club was given some generous breaks from No. 2 LAFC, who had one or both of their star DPs out for the half. While forward Diego Rossi is out for the entire match due to a hamstring injury, Carlos Vela was accidentally pulled too soon on what turned out to be a miscommunication.
"He gave us the sign that he needed to come off," LAFC Head Coach Bob Bradley said on broadcast. "I can't say more than maybe it's my fault."
LA pulled some dramatics and slowly gained more possession throughout the half, but ATXFC's defense wasn't initially as shaky as it seemed in preseason. Jhohan Romana has pulled his weight in getting the ball out of goal, and a 34-year old Matt Besler held his own in center back.
As the second half commenced, however, it became clear that LAFC had the advantage over Austin's first major league team.
Goalkeeper Brad Stuver had his work cut out for him, fending off 24 shot attempts, 11 of which were on goal. He didn't have much time to prepare, either: in the first 30 seconds of play, Stuver had already made a save to keep the match 0-0.
LAFC finally connected in the 61st minute of play as Corey Baird shot one into the bottom right corner. The team capitalized off their momentum and put one past Stuver a second time, drawing roars of approval from the LAFC crowd.
While some last-minute attempts from Jon Gallagher and others were made, Austin FC didn't have the endurance to bring a tie. After seven additional minutes of stoppage time, the club lost their first match 2-0.
While the scoreboard tells one story, Wolff said that the team did well considering the skill of LAFC and the pressure of their club debut.
"We've got to be realistic," Wolff said. "This is the first time this organization has been in front of TV with an opportunity to show itself and I think there were some promising moments. And we're going to maximize those and continue to try to develop those, but there's lots to build on."
The team may have lost, but it still won the support of thousands of Verde fans, dozens of which made it to watch their team's first match. When Stuver and the team made it to bthe stadium, Los Verdes fans were already there to show support, and Stuver said his wife saw the same back in Austin.
"The moment that we pulled into the stadium, we saw Black and Verde fans cheering us on as we got to the stadium," Stuver said. "During warm up, you can just look around and see different groups sitting in different sections of the stadium and it's just truly amazing to see the support in our first game. We know that we want to give the fans everything, because this we play for the city and we play for them."