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By Jolie McCullough
Gov. Greg Abbott is considering a legislative proposal that, if passed, would put the control of the Austin Police Department under state authority.
Texas' governor tweeted Thursday that he was looking at a strategy that would stop city officials' efforts to shift resources away from police departments and into other social services. Austin became the first Texas city to approve cutting its police budget last month as calls rise to "defund police" during a revived movement against police brutality and racial injustice.
"This proposal for the state to takeover the Austin Police Department is one strategy I'm looking at," Abbott tweeted in response to an article from Reform Austin. "We can't let Austin's defunding & disrespect for law enforcement to endanger the public & invite chaos like in Portland and Seattle."
The cities have experienced months of sometimes violent protests and controversial intervention of federal agents. In Portland, protesters and counter-protesters clashed after a President Donald Trump rally last month, and a member of a far-right political organization was fatally shot.
The potential legislation, sent last week to Abbott by former Texas House members and parliamentarians Terry Keel and Ron Wilson, would allow for a city with a population over 1 million and less than two police officers per 1,000 residents — a bucket Austin falls into — to have its police force consolidated with the Texas Department of Public Safety. The state's law enforcement branch would take over the local police department and form a new entity if the governor decided there were "insufficient municipal resources being appropriated for public safety needs," according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Texas Tribune.
The director of DPS would control operations of the new department, and the state's Public Safety Commission, a five-member board that oversees DPS and is appointed by the governor, would decide its budget, said Keel, who is also a former Travis County sheriff. The money would then be taken from state sales revenue taxes usually sent to the city.
"That letter basically is a roadmap to how the Legislature can address the problem in Austin," Keel told the Tribune last week. "Because Austin opened the door to the Legislature doing that, by defunding the police and by creating a public safety crisis."
Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis sparked protests across the nation, calls for cities to spend less money on policing and more on other social services like health care and housing programs have gained large-scale traction. Floyd was a Black man who died after a white police officer knelt on his neck during an arrest past the point when he lost consciousness.
In Austin, police criticism was heightened in April after an officer shot and killed Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black and Hispanic man who was driving away from police. During protests in May spurred by Ramos' and Floyd's deaths, two nonviolent protesters — a Black man and Hispanic boy — were seriously injured after being hit in the head with police bean bag rounds.
Although calls to remove the police chief went unanswered, the progressive City Council in June issued a vote of no confidence in police leadership to make changes to end police violence against people of color, and, last month, cut the department's budget.
The 2021 Austin budget would immediately cut from the department approximately $20 million that will be redirected to fund areas like violence prevention, food access and abortion access programs. About $130 million was put into two transitional funds that will allow several of the department's traditional duties to remain funded while officials work out which responsibilities to keep under law enforcement and which to move out from under police oversight.
Policing is the most expensive item in most cities' budgets. Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio budgeted more than one-third of their general funds for police departments during the 2020 fiscal year. Austin, which has now decided to reduce its funding and reorganize its police department, budgeted $444 dollars per resident on police in the 2020 fiscal year, more than any of the four largest cities in Texas. In that city, violent crime rates dropped by 25% between 2008 and 2018. This year through July, there were 29 homicides, compared with 19 during the same period last year, according to the police chief's monthly crime report.
Abbott said in a statement after the budget vote that it paved the way for lawlessness and DPS troopers would stand in to protect the city. Days later, Abbott and other Republican state leaders held a press conference to denounce the decision and promoted a vague proposal to freeze property tax revenues for any city that defunds law enforcement, citing a recent uptick in crime.
Austin City Council member Greg Casar said Thursday that Abbott's latest tweet was another attempt to draw attention away from the state's failed response to the pandemic.
"This, just like the other likely illegal, absurd proposal, are attacks on Austin's local democracy and attacks on our focus on civil rights," he said. "When you look at it, it seems pretty clearly like an attempt at political theater and grandstanding."
An Abbott spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests about the proposed legislation last week.
The proposal for state police to take over a local police department is an action Casar and multiple policing reform advocates said they had never heard of happening before, but DPS is often entangled in city policing. The governor can send troopers into areas deemed in need of support. Last year, when Dallas had a startling number of homicides, Abbott also sent in his police force.
Violent crime did drop in the areas of Dallas where they were deployed, but some city officials said they were still doing more harm than good. They said an "overwhelming" number of residents complained that the troopers were over-policing neighborhoods, questioning people about their immigration status and stopping people for soon-to-expire, but still valid, inspection stickers.
Sara Labowitz, policy and advocacy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, noted last week that the proposal follows a pattern of state leaders fighting to seize control from local officials, like mask orders during early months of the pandemic.
"States scream local control at the federal government and then squeeze localities of that same local control," she said. "Local government is the most democratic in a lot of ways, it is the most responsive to people."
Juan Pablo Garnham contributed reporting.
This story was updated Thursday evening.
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After a long, long year without live music, Austin has waited patiently for a return that has finally come. Festivals are planning returns and even venues that adhered strictly to safety protocols during the pandemic are feeling safe enough to gather again in person.
Starting in just a few short days, you can finally enjoy what makes Austin, well, Austin again. Here are a few of the live shows to look forward to.
Stubb's Waller Creek, 801 Red River Street
For the first time since the pandemic shut the iconic venue down forcing canceled and rescheduled shows, Stubb's BBQ is reopening its amphitheater to the public for concerts starting with a series of five sold-out Black Pumas shows, each with different openers, from May 26-30. It may be too late to catch Black Pumas this time around but Stubb's already has a host of other shows scheduled up through December. You can catch Surfaces, a College Station-based jazz-pop-hip-hop and vocals heavy duo known best for their song "Sunday Best," on Stubb's Stage on June 25 while tickets go on sale this Friday.
Next at Stubb's is electronic duo Louis the Child on July 28 and 29 on their "Euphoria Tour," followed by Umphrey's McGee on Sept. 9.
Mohawk Austin, 912 Red River Street
Likewise, Mohawk Austin has remained closed for more than a year since the onset of COVID-19, even tweeting "Thanks bro but we ain't gonna do it till it's safe," in response to Gov. Greg Abbott lifting all safety restrictions back in March. Starting May 27, Mohawk is officially back with Heartless Bastards and opener The Tender Things.
From there, Mohawk has an exciting lineup—Jukebox the Ghost will play on Sept. 10, Bully and opener Lightning Bug on Sept. 17, Big Freedia and Too Many Zooz on Oct. 4 and Beach Bunny on Dec. 14, with several talented artists in-between. Keep checking back though, Mohawk will continue to add shows and is currently planning on operating at 50%.
Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River Street
Though it is making a later comeback than Stubb's or Mohawk, the Frank Erwin Center will make a huge return on Aug. 14 featuring Tame Impala. If you missed their highly popular set at Austin City Limits Festival in 2019 or you want to relive it, this is the chance to do so. Plus, you get the added benefit of being able to see the stage, though you will still be watching with around 16,000 other spectators. Michael Bublé will have you swooning when he comes to perform on Sept. 20 and Chris Stapleton is taking his "All American Road Show" live on Nov. 4.
Nutty Brown Amphitheatre, 12225 US-290
Holding some socially distanced concerts earlier this year, the Nutty Brown Amphitheatre isn't stopping there with rap artist Ginger Billy playing two sets on May 7. Nutty Brown has a star-studded lineup ahead: Austin-based Bob Schneider on May 8 and other Austin favorite Shinyribs will grace the stage May 29. A little further down the line, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts will take over on Aug. 21 followed by Styx on Oct. 23.
Texas Performing Arts Center, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
If you prefer a little bit more visual appeal to go with your music, the Texas Performing Arts Center is reopening in-person after consistent online events. First up is Cody Ko and Noel Miller, a multi-hyphenated YouTuber-podcaster-comedian duo, who will perform their "Tiny Meat Gang – Global Domination," on July 31. Of course you can't miss The Beach Boys, coming to the theater on Oct. 24, or a two-week long production of Hamilton from Dec. 7-19. For all the young ones that have missed going out in-person, "Disney Princess—The Concert" is coming to the Texas Performing Arts Center on Feb. 6, 2022, performing timeless gems like "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast and featuring all their other favorite princesses. Tickets go on sale this Friday.
Remember to jump on those tickets–Austinites have been missing their live music!
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For Marco Silvestrini, gelato takes him back to his childhood when he and neighborhood kids in a small Italian town would end their day at the local gelato shop. It was part of what made some of the best memories for him.
He's since been offering that same experience for the past seven years with his artisanal gelato shop, Dolce Neve, in Austin, alongside his sister and her husband.
Leo Ferrarese, Marco and Franscesa Silvestrini run Dolce Neve. (Dolce Neve)
While gelato always played a big role in Silvestrini's life, it wasn't in his plans to take on a business with his favorite treat. After a few years in New York working as a management consultant, he felt he was missing out on something. "I decided to take a step back and started thinking, what could... I do to make society better and happier, even just for a moment," Silvestrini said.
He thought back to his childhood and the role gelato played in it and wanted to offer the same experience to Americans.
Once he had the product idea down, it came down to location. Growing up among farmers in a small community in Central Italy, Silvestrini knew he wanted a slower pace of living than New York, so he asked around. The answer he got: "Austin." The only thing he knew about what would become his future home was it had a Formula 1 track.
But after visiting once, he felt a great sense of community he didn't feel in The Empire State. "I felt it was not just a good place for a concept like mine, but also a good place to live because at the end of the day, you cannot just think about your business," he said.
"Dolce Neve" translates to "sweet snow." The shops offers 12-18 flavors at a time. (Dolce Neve)
Similarly, his sister Francesca Silvestrini was experiencing the same feelings while studying for her Ph.D. in Ohio before teaming up with Silvestrini. She went back to Italy to be properly trained in making gelato while Silvestrini focused on the business plan. They brought Leo Ferrarese, her husband, onboard and opened their first shop on South First Street in January 2014. The rest is history.
On the menu, you'll find various traditional and innovative flavors that rotate out. Some of the staples include chocolate, 100% vanilla from Madagascar and salted caramel. Other rotating or seasonal flavors include whiskey and pecan, organic cantaloupe sorbet, goat cheese and pecan, almond custard and tiramisu. They've created over 300 flavors together in the span of the business.
So what's next for the shop? Lately, Silvestrini has been thinking a lot about that. With two locations in Austin, one in Houston—he's just not sure if expanding more is the right move. Maintaining a quality product and good service is of utmost importance that he's not willing to sacrifice.
"In order to be happy, it's not about making money, it's about being an integral part of the community," Silvestrini said. "There have been so many cases in which I think what I did today really made a difference in somebody's life."