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Save Austin Now announced a new petition to address public safety concerns amid rising violent crime rates on Wednesday. (Christa McWhirter)

Save Austin Now, a local nonprofit that successfully campaigned to reinstate a ban on public camping, announced a follow-up petition effort to address concerns about public safety, including rising violent crime rates, police staffing levels and diversity within the force.

"This is not our first rodeo," Save Austin Now co-founder and Travis County GOP chairperson Matt Mackowiak said at a Wednesday press conference.

The petition calls for a series of changes:

  • Implementing a minimum staffing level of two police officers per 1,000 residents
  • Mandating officers dedicate at least 35% of their time to community engagement
  • Adding 40 hours of required post-cadet training
  • Offering bonuses to officers with foreign language proficiencies and those whom the department wants to retain
  • Requiring council members, the mayor and their staff attend the citizen police academy

"It is not contradictory to support APD and to be active in advocating for minority groups," Save Austin Now co-founder and Democratic activist Cleo Petricek said.

Citizen-led petitions allow registered city voters to pass laws without City Council approval. If 20,000 eligible residents sign the petition and it is validated by the city clerk, council can either adopt the petition into law as written or put it up to voters, as was the case with Proposition B. Save Austin Now aims to collect 50,000 signatures in 50 days, with a goal of making it onto the November ballot.

Save Austin Now leadership was joined by public safety advocates and Republican elected officials, who cited Austin's growing population and rising violent crime rates as reasons for supporting the petition effort. Opponents say the petition stands in the way of police reforms, which thousands of Austinites marched in support of, and falsely equites the increase in murders to local policy when it is a trend seen nationwide.

There have been 31 homicides in Austin this year, nearly double the number that had occurred by this time last year and closer to triple the number that had occurred by this time in 2019. APD launched a gun crime prevention program in partnership with the Travis County District Attorney's Office last month in light of rising violent crime rates, and U.S. Attorney Gregg Sofer announced Operation Undaunted, a new federal program designed to address violent crime in Austin, late last year.

District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, the lone Republican on City Council, said she supports this petition because of the success of Prop B and her concerns about bringing her 11-year-old daughter to work with her at City Hall. "The police need our support," she said. "My colleagues on the dais have not shown that support to officers."

Former District 8 Council Member Ellen Troxclair, also a Republican, said the current council has failed to live up to its promises to residents. "They told us they were going to reimagine public safety," she said. "What has been done is that they have cut the budget."

Austin City Council voted unanimously last August to immediately cut $20 million—or about 5%—of the APD budget, including eliminating funding from three planned police cadet classes, after thousands of Austinites marched in protest of police violence and hundreds of constituents called in to support defunding. Council recently approved a pilot police cadet class, which is due to start June 7 after a yearlong training academy hiatus due to myriad concerns, including hazing and discriminatory recruiting practices.

Ken Casaday, Austin Police Association president and Save Austin Now board member, said the cuts have led to increased vacancies within the department and slowing response times.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar, who spearheaded the push to cut APD's budget, issued a statement in response to the Save Austin Now announcement. "George Floyd was killed one year ago, and instead of working on police reform, this group is fear-mongering and trying to avoid accountability," he said, adding that the petition would fund APD at the expense of other public safety needs. "This petition goes directly against what the Black Lives Matter movement is all about."

Chris Harris, director of criminal justice programs at Texas Appleseed, tweeted to dispute the claim that the rising murder rate in Austin is linked to recent budget cuts. "Given that murder is up nationwide & coinciding w/ a pandemic, those making this claim are clearly ill-informed or being dishonest," he wrote.

This story was updated at 5:20 p.m. on Wednesday to include a responses from Council Member Greg Casar and criminal justice reform advocate Chris Harris.


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