What did Austin City Council do to the police dept?

After hours of public testimony Thursday night, City Council took a series of unanimous votes on resolutions calling for a reimagining of public safety in Austin. Among other things, they called for the elimination of certain police tactics and weapons, the shifting of funds from APD to other public safety strategies and changes to police training. 

But as Delia Garza said towards the end of the meeting, “These are easy votes compared to the ones coming.”

It’s far from clear what the outcome of these resolutions will be. Don’t be distracted by the headlines around town claiming that Council voted to “divest” from the police. In terms of funding, the only rock-solid direction to the city manager is that he should not prepare a 2020-21 budget that adds police positions. But considering how awful the fiscal situation is due to COVID, he probably wasn’t going to do this anyway. 

There is another line telling the city not to fill any vacant police positions that can’t be “reasonably” filled in the next year. The department reports it currently has 142 vacancies just in sworn positions (people with badges and guns) but there are also vacancies in civilian roles. If all of those positions are actually taken away from APD, and it’s not clear that they will be, that would be a nice chunk of money. I’d guess the average per-year cost of a cop position (salary + benefits) is near $100,000, so maybe $12-16 million. 

Otherwise, the language leaves a lot of wiggle-room for city staff and Council to leave things largely the way that they are. It tells the city manager to “explore options” for reallocating APD roles to other departments. It’s not hard to imagine this direction being ignored entirely by staff, especially if Council doesn’t continue to apply pressure in the coming weeks as staff begins to craft the budget. 

The problem is, despite the unanimous votes, the message from Council actually isn’t that clear. There is a wide range of appetites of reform on the dais. Casar, Garza, Harper-Madison and Flannigan appear willing to support a dramatic reallocation of funding to other programs. Alison Alter, who has been a critic of APD spending long before this, may even be up for more radical change than one might guess. But for the other Council members, it’s hardly clear what kind of change they’re willing to support. 

What is Cronk thinking?
Last night both Alter and Garza expressed disappointment in City Manager Spencer Cronk for his aloofness over the past two weeks. 

“Your silence has been deafening to me,” said Alter. “You are the leader of 13,000 employees and we do expect you to take initiative for critical issues, especially when the lives of citizens are in jeopardy. We provide you direction but nothing precludes you from taking action.” 

True to form, when pressed by Alter about what changes he has discussed with the chief or what changes will be made, Cronk responded in substance-free bureaucratese.

I also have been frustrated by Cronk’s principled refusal to never answer a question, but some City Hall insiders suggest that the fault for his indecision lies with Council. While a number of CMs have called for Manley to go, a majority have not made a clear statement. The mayor, for instance, has not spoken to the issue. So what is Cronk supposed to do with that? 

Moreover, Cronk’s job is harder than Council’s. If he fires the chief, he needs to find a new one. In the midst of a pandemic that will likely make it much harder to do the typical national search that typically precedes these high-level appointments.

Sure, he could appoint an interim chief, but is that person will likely be another APD veteran cut from the same cloth as Manley. A loyal soldier who will not be an agent of change. This is a problem.

For what it’s worth, I still think that Manley’s position is untenable. It’s simply not respectable to the community to let the repeated errors go unpunished. That’s a terrible message to send. 

Remember who put Manley in the position? 
After Chief Art Acevedo left at the end of 2016, Manley took over as interim chief. He was in the interim position all throughout 2017 and the first months of 2018.

I can’t remember exactly what was taking the city so long to search for a new chief, but I do recall the Public Safety Commission instructing City Council to do a full national search and not to simply elevate Manley to the position. I remember one member of the commission, Preston Tyree, suggesting that that might be a waste of time and money and to just stick with Manley. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said. 

Chris Harris, the criminal justice reform advocate who was not a member of the commission at that point, replied that there were many in the community, particularly black and brown people, who didn’t agree that the status quo wasn’t broken. 

City Council, however, showed very little patience in doing a national search. At least two CMs — Delia Garza and Leslie Pool — called on the city manager to forgo the process, citing his conduct during the Austin bombings. That demand got no pushback from anyone else on the dais. Cronk obliged and Council unanimously approved him as chief. 

Garza, to her credit, acknowledged last night that she was a big supporter of Manley’s at the beginning. She also conceded that her views on public safety policy have evolved over the years. 

Indeed, the fact that Council’s posture on public safety has changed so radically in the last couple weeks is another reason why staff may still feel reluctant to implement dramatic change. It’s hard to know how sincerely committed Council members are to change considering that few of them pushed back on increase to the police budget in recent years. Some of them may have had a genuine change of heart as a result of the protests, but some may just be posturing in the short-term. Time will tell which one it is. 

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