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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It may not come as a surprise that dating app use surged during the pandemic when many had to swap the benefits of in-person dating for on-screen connections. Bumble revenue swelled to $337.2 million in 2020 compared to $275.5 million, Hinge revenue tripled in the same period and Tinder users broke two records from January to March of 2021.
What may be more intriguing, however, is that many apps anticipate more growth into 2022. Hinge expects to double its revenue by the end of 2021, while Tinder has announced several new features to meet new demands in time for what some are calling a "third surge" of COVID-19.
Vaccinated Austinites who had been eager for "Shot Girl Summer"—a season of in-person dating, going out and making up for time lost—may have to get back on the apps, at least partially, as cases rise higher than they've been since February and mask recommendations reenter the picture.
Austin-area resident Chloe Mohr, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, had sometimes used Tinder before the pandemic. While the app wasn't a supplemental replacement for deeper connections during stay-at-home orders, it did help her stay in the dating game and continue meeting new people.
"Using dating apps during the pandemic was easy when wanting something casual or entertaining," Mohr, who now works in marketing, said.
Chloe Mohr turned to Tinder more during the pandemic to stay connected to people. (Chloe Mohr)
Sixty percent of members came to Tinder because they felt lonely and wanted to connect with people, a Tinder study revealed, and chats were 32% longer during the pandemic.
But dating during a pandemic is no walk in the park when there's fear about contracting COVID, Mohr said. She had fears at the beginning
Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and OkCupid have responded to the new dating criteria, adding vaccination badges to profiles in partnership with U.S. and British governments.
In order to meet the demand for a stricter screening process and the superficial nature of swiping, Tinder has also introduced new features that allow users to add videos to their profiles and chat with others before they've even matched.
The new add-ons could be beneficial for the app as interest continues to swell—Google searches for "dating" have hit a five-year high, according to NPR.
But the future of dating could be vastly different—and stay different—even well into the next decade.
According to a Ypulse study, 43% of dating app users said the apps made them feel less lonely in the pandemic. Even post-pandemic, 40% of Tinder users say they plan on video-chatting with their matches before they meet, and being honest, authentic and respecting boundaries have become big talk on the app in the past year.
While it's unclear how the pandemic will shape dating for good, signs show that Austin residents and those nationwide may lean on dating apps once again if social distancing returns to the norm.
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With more research done on the COVID-19 Delta variant, Austin Public Health is upping its goal of 70% vaccinated to at least 80% due to the extreme virality of the strain.
As more Delta cases are identified—up to 29 cases are confirmed in Travis County—health officials are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots to contain the spread and relieve hospitals from reaching full capacity.
Austin-Travis County surpassed the Stage 5 threshold on Friday and has reached a seven-day average of 61 hospital admissions. However, Austin health leaders have yet to make an official shift as the Delta variant calls for new guidance, APH Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said at a joint Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning.
The new guidance has yet to be released, but Walkes said it will take into account the viral load of Delta on both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox, which has a herd immunity threshold of at least 90% vaccinated.
Although 63.42% of those eligible in Travis County are fully vaccinated, breakthrough cases—where vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19—are being identified. APH has identified 1,496 breakthrough cases of the roughly 800,000 vaccinated. Most breakthrough cases are showing less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to APH.
Health officials are still asking residents to wear masks, although the city cannot mandate any masking orders due to an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Our challenge is going to be whether we're going to stand as a community and everyone who can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, and everyone wear a mask—that's what it's going to take," Walkes said.
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Save Austin Now police petition will reach November ballot after county clerk certifies 25,000 signatures
Save Austin Now is now 2-0 over Austin City Council after its petition to add more staffed police officers to the Austin Police Department was certified, garnering over the 20,000 votes needed to make it on an election ballot.
The petition calls for more police staffing per city resident, quicker response times and more training for city police officers in the wake of increasing violent crime rates nationwide and a year of limited APD staffing. The City Council will now decide whether to implement the ordinance outright or add it to the November election ballot; it will likely do the latter.
Over 25,000 of the 27,778 signatures racked up by the public safety petition were certified as valid, well over the 20,000-vote threshold required to be certified with the City Clerk. City Clerk Jannette Goodall placed the city's seal of approval on the petition on Tuesday morning.
The petition, by the same political group that got the camping ban reinstated through a petition in May, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
Austin's 160 patrol vacancies have dropped its staffing rate to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the department. APD's response time has increased by about one minute and 50 seconds in a year.
The petition comes nearly a year after APD's budgets were slashed by city council following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, which saw several demonstrators severely injured as millions called for justice in the police-related deaths of George Floyd and locally Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black man killed by APD officer Christopher Taylor, in April 2020.
Austin and the U.S. have experienced a widespread uptick in violent crime rates in 2021. The city has reached 49 homicides in 2021, higher than the total number of murders in all of 2020 and the 38 homicides in the city in 2019. Austin police officers have seen response times rise as the department suffers increased vacancies and fewer newcomers while cadet classes are being readjusted.
Opponents argue the ordinance would ramp up a policing budget while taking away from other departments including Fire, EMS, violence prevention, and mental health care. City Council Member Greg Casar, the Travis County Democratic Party and the Austin Justice Coalition have spoken out against the organization's latest public safety move, calling out the campaign as a "right-wing petition" that misleads those who sign.
🔥 PANTS ON FIRE: Republican-front group Save Austin Now is lying about their petition!
They say their measure is about police reform, when it's really about devastating our city budget - all for the benefit of the police union. Watch the video here ⬇️ #ATX pic.twitter.com/Z6QQSfhHfH
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 2, 2021
The latest battle between city council and Save Austin Now will be decided by Austin residents in the Nov. 2 election.
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