The cops come for the budget

Yesterday Save Austin Now submitted over 25,000 signatures to put an initiative on the November 2021 ballot to set a minimum staffing requirement for the Austin Police Dept. From the Statesman: The proposal from Save Austin Now requires that the city: Employ at least two sworn officers for every 1,000 residents. Enroll no fewer than three … Continue reading The cops come for the budget

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An unusually murderous year

About two years ago a reader of mine, a native Austinite in his 60’s, told me by email “that Austin is not anywhere close to as safe a city as it used to be.” Once upon a time, he related, people used to regularly go to bed with their doors unlocked and left their cars with the keys in the ignition. “I would not dream of that today,” he added.

While not challenging the wisdom of keeping one’s car keys on one’s person, I pointed out that Austin was by most metrics much safer than it had been at other points in his life. Like most other large U.S. cities, Austin’s overall crime rate was much lower in 2019 than it was 20 and 30 years before. For instance, here’s a chart from APD’s annual crime report in 2008, looking back at the prior 20 years:

And in the 2018 report, you can see that crime dropped further in the 2010’s:

So the crime rate in 2018 was about a third of what it was in 1990. An enormous drop. Violent crime didn’t actually drop much during the 90’s (for a few years it significantly rose) but it dropped significantly in the 2010’s, from around 600 per 100,000 to 400:

Finally, murders dropped dramatically in the late 90’s and early 2000’s…

And then mostly stayed flat, at about 3 to 4 murders per 100,000 residents throughout the 2010’s.

Austin was not at all unique in this regard. Below shows the national murder rate from 1986-2019, based on FBI data.

Anyway, despite all of this good news on crime over the previous 30 years, my reader’s perception that Austin was more dangerous than ever was not surprising. Americans tend to believe crime is rising even when the evidence says the opposite, although they are usually more pessimistic about the nation than their locale.

There are no doubt numerous factors feeding this misperception, but in Austin I would generally point the finger at the constant crime coverage in local media, particularly TV stations. And then in the past two years there has been an intense and largely fact-free campaign by conservatives at the state and local level to portray the city as a crime-infested hellhole in response to the decriminalization of camping and the modest reduction in police spending.

But then there’s 2021…

But in Austin and America overall, murders are way up this year. In the first six months of the year, Austin had 44 homicides, nearly matching 2020’s total of 48. If the second half of the year is as bad as the first, we’d hit a murder rate of between 8.5-9.0, which is what was normal in the bad old days of the late 80’s/early 90’s.

If we look back at the past 12 months, starting on July 19, 2020, there have 63 murders, a rate of about 6.3 per 100,000, the highest rate since 2003.

Now, the good news is that the second half of 2021 is off to a stellar start: there has not been a murder yet this month. So hopefully here and elsewhere around the country, the past year will prove to be an aberration, likely explained by the psychological and economic hardship of the pandemic.

It’s not Austin, it’s America

Even if Austin’s murder rate doubles, it will not come close to Dan Patrick’s claim that it’s one of the “most dangerous cities in America.”

And there definitely won’t be any basis for claiming that Austin’s rising murder rate was due to its “defunding” of the police department. The rise in killings is hardly confined to cities that championed progressive criminal justice policy. Cities like Houston, which boosted police spending last year, are experiencing the same thing.

Now, is a national increase in homicide a justification for investing more in police? That’s an argument that is worth having.

Mack attack ceasefire: Mackenzie & Mackowiak make up … sort of

Last night the war of words between CM Mackenzie Kelly and a couple of her biggest boosters got even weirder. Kelly’s vanquished foe Jimmy Flannigan even got involved, cheering Kelly’s apparent break from her allies: To which Kelly responded with a GIF she made of the alleged grifters themselves: Mackowiak and the co-founder of Save … Continue reading Mack attack ceasefire: Mackenzie & Mackowiak make up … sort of

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An encampment cleared … who gets credit?

I didn’t realize the enormous encampment just a few blocks from where I live had been cleared yesterday afternoon until I saw people on Twitter fighting about who should get credit for it. And then I saw the Statesman: Austin officials closed a second homeless encampment, relocating dozens of people, to a city-owned hotel, and, in … Continue reading An encampment cleared … who gets credit?

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The “refunding” of APD

This is an excerpt from the July 12 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

So on Friday City Manager Spencer Cronk released his proposed FY 2021-22 budget. As expected, he has proposed restoring the police department’s funding to its 2019 level to avoid “catastrophic” (his words) financial penalties from the state.

The ease with which the budget is being restored illustrates how overstated the whole “defunding” thing was last summer, at least in the near-term. There was only $23.3M in immediate cuts to APD’s budget, but roughly half of that came from canceling three police academy classes, a move that was partially reversed when Council restored funding for a new cadet class that kicked off at the beginning of June.

About half ($76M) of the $150M “cut” came from moving hundreds of civilian functions out of the police department: the 911 center, the forensics lab etc. And then there were $47M worth of APD programs that were put into the “regimagine” bucket — a sort of policy purgatory where they continued to exist as before but they were put on notice that they would eventually be “reimagined” in some undefined way. If the state had not intervened so quickly, perhaps those programs would have eventually been “reimagined,’ making it harder for Cronk to put the cat back in the bag.

If you look at the chart below, you’ll see that the number of civilian employees (circled in red) is going up by 315 over last year. That’s where the big change is. And you’ll also see below, in green, that the number of “sworn” APD positions (officers), is exactly the same as last year:

Remember, the number of funded positions ≠ the number of actual cops. Many of the positions are vacant due to retirements and resignations, which, contrary to what the police lobby says over and over again, have not meaningfully accelerated in the past year.

What is true is that the city’s police force is smaller than it has been in many years. According to this fun little KUT quiz that I think everyone should take, there were 1,083 police officers as of October of last year, which was roughly the same number as in 2016. This was partially due to Council’s suspension of the cadet classes but also due to a surge in retirements that began in 2018, two years before George Floyd’s killing.

Police union prez Ken Casaday tells me the association is “cautiously optimistic” about the budget but would like to fund a third cadet class, in addition to the two included in Cronk’s proposal. Casaday also would like to see some money for capital projects, including a new APD headquarters and a new substation in northwest Austin.

This is an excerpt from the July 12 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Cronk “refunds” APD

So on Friday City Manager Spencer Cronk released his proposed FY 2021-22 budget. As expected, he has proposed restoring the police department’s funding to its 2019 level to avoid “catastrophic” (his words) financial penalties from the state. The ease with which the budget is being restored illustrates how overstated the whole “defunding” thing was last summer, … Continue reading Cronk “refunds” APD

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What happened to the new Convention Center housing the homeless?

This is an excerpt from the July 2 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Way back in 2019, City Council unanimously approved a resolution in favor of expanding the Convention Center. But the expansion, which the hotel industry has been pushing for years, was only part of what Council endorsed.

The resolution, authored by CM Kathie Tovo, described the new Convention Center as part of a broader framework –– the Palm District Master Plan –– that would revitalize the southeastern quadrant of downtown and yield a number of community benefits. One of the big selling points: increased funding for homelessness services.

It was the culmination of a two-year campaign by Mayor Steve Adler to frame the Convention Center expansion as the key to “solving the downtown puzzle.”

The idea hinged on the creation of a Tourism Public Improvement District (TPID). The deal was supposed to be that if the city approved a hotel tax increase to fund a new Convention Center, the downtown hotels would voluntarily create a TPID that would levy an additional 1-2% tax on hotel guests. The understanding was that 40% of the revenue from the TPID would be used to fund homelessness services.

The deal that the mayor and the hotel association talked about was a 1% TPID assessment that would initially generate about $4 million a year for homelessness. After five years the plan was to increase the assessment to 2%, generating at least $8 million a year for homelessness.

(PIDs are not unusual. The Downtown Austin Alliance, which pays for downtown cleanup and other services, is funded by a PID that was created by a vote of a majority of downtown property owners)

The opportunity to generate more money for homelessness was one of the key arguments used by supporters of the Convention Center to beat back a referendum in November 2019 that would have capped the percentage of hotel tax dollars that could be used for the CC.

Originally the idea was that the TPID funds would create a dedicated funding stream that would directly support city homelessness services. Except at the same time that the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association was selling that idea to City Council, it was at the Legislature crafting a bill that would prohibit TPIDs from using money on anything except tourism marketing.

It wasn’t until months later, in October, that some City Council members discovered that the law had been changed, even though the city’s legislative staff, which is responsible for keeping Council apprised of state bills that affect the city, had been aware all along.

“As soon as I found out about it, I was extraordinarily unhappy and asked (City Manager Spencer Cronk) why we weren’t notified,” Tovo tells me. “I was told that it had been reviewed by staff and it was determined to have no impact. That was a decision made by the manager.”

When I interviewed Scott Joslove, head of the hotel association, in October of 2019, he told me that the mayor had been aware of the bill as well and had called Joslove to ask whether it would jeopardize the homelessness plan. Joslove said that he assured the mayor it wouldn’t.

The plan all along, Joslove said, was for the TPID to send the money to the Convention Center to cover tourism promotion services that are currently being covered by CC dollars. That would free up money in the CC’s budget to dedicate to homelessness services.

And yet, here we are two years later, the homelessness issue is sucking up more of the city’s money and attention than ever and yet everybody seems to have forgotten about the TPID thing. The city is dedicating $88 million in federal relief funds to homelessness and is putting pressure on the county to make a similar commitment. A recent “Homelessness Summit” organized by city and nonprofit leaders called for $240M a year investment from public and private entities but made no mention of the new Convention Center funding homelessness services.

All of this would be understandable if Council had ditched the idea of expanding the Convention Center. That would certainly seem like the prudent thing to do: the expansion that was initially envisioned won’t work due to the city’s failure to reach an agreement with neighboring property owners. Also, the convention industry was stagnant even before the pandemic and it’s not hard to imagine that some conventions will never return to their pre-pandemic levels.

What’s changed?

Council was scheduled to authorize the TPID in December but at the last minute the hotel association asked that the item be delayed, saying it needed more time to engage with member hotels on the issue. In an email, Joslove leaves the door open:

“Hotels have not petitioned to create an Austin TPID yet. With the COVID pandemic, hotels went into survival mode and are just coming out of it now. Accordingly, there is no collection of TPID funds as of yet. I do not know when efforts to initiate the TPID process will recommence.”

Tovo says it’s still a “possibility” and that there “is still interest from the hotel industry,” but that the change in state law introduced uncertainty about whether it could really be a reliable funding stream for homelessness.

In a statement, the mayor said he believes the TPID plan will go forward.

“The Tourism Public Improvement District remains a part of the City of Austin’s strategy and its dedicated source of revenue is expected to provide much-needed and ongoing funding to address homelessness over time,” he said. “The hotel industry was one of the first sectors to come forward with a proposed solution for funding to address one of our community’s biggest issues. Currently, we are working with a wide range of private businesses who also see great value in supporting the community goal of providing housing for 3,000 people experiencing homelessness over the next three years.”

That’s good to hear. But it’s still curious how conspicuously absent the subject has been from the ongoing conversations about homelessness funding.

In recent years, critics of the Convention Center have dismissed the TPID/homelessness arrangement as a slick ploy by the hotel lobby to win support for an otherwise dubious commitment of public funds. I was repeatedly assured by opponents of the expansion that the hotels and/or Convention Center staff would find a way to get out of the arrangement.

Let’s hope the critics aren’t proven right.

This is an excerpt from the July 2 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Save Austin Now shifts the goal posts

Those who supported Prop B, notably Save Austin Now, the PAC led by GOP operative Matt Mackowiak, stressed that their goal was not to “criminalize” homelessness. The camping that had been allowed to proliferate, they argued, was a threat to the housed and unhoused alike. After Prop B passed, the group was outraged when APD … Continue reading Save Austin Now shifts the goal posts

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APD’s evolving story about the 6th St shooting

This is an excerpt from the June 24 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe. 

Local authorities appear to be having a tough time getting their story straight about the 6th Street shooting. 

District Attorney Jose Garza has said that “at no time was there sufficient evidence to believe” that the two teenagers originally arrested fired any shots. In contrast, yesterday Police Chief Joseph Chacon told me that the two “did commit the criminal act they were charged with,” but today he revised his comments, saying only that there was “probable cause to believe” that they had committed the acts.  

APD Chief Joseph Chacon. Photo from APD’s Twitter account.

What the original APD affidavit says

The facts of this case are confusing, so bear with me. 

The affidavit, filed by an APD officer, cited four people who say they saw 17-year-old Jeremiah Tabb pull out a gun. All four of these people knew Tabb from Killeen and say they were part of the group that got into a verbal altercation with Tabb’s group in front of the Mooseknuckle Bar on 6th Street. Three of the four are siblings. Two of the siblings were wounded in the incident; one of these two was wounded by gunfire only days before in Killeen — he believes by Tabb. 

One of the siblings told police that she saw Tabb fire shots and that a member of her group had drawn a gun and fired shots in response. 

The affidavit said that eight shell casings were found at the site of the shooting and that investigators determined that all eight were “most likely” from the same gun. 

Based on all of this evidence, the affidavit concluded that Tabb was responsible for the injuries of at least 14 people and the death of Douglas Kantor. 

The story changes

Both Chacon and Garza said at a Tuesday press conference that new evidence had led them to determine that the shooter responsible for Kantor’s death was actually De’ondre White, 19, also of Killeen. Garza announced that White would be charged with murder and that he was dismissing charges against Tabb and the unnamed juvenile. 

During the press conference, Garza repeatedly stressed that he was dropping the charges against Tabb and the unnamed juvenile because it was in the best interests of the murder prosescution against De’ondre White, the suspect who both APD and Garza now say is responsible for killing Douglas Kantor and wounding 13 others. He did not rule out bringing different charges against them. 

However, on the same day Garza released a statement saying he was dropping the charges because “there is not sufficient evidence that either gentleman fired a shot, nor is there sufficient evidence to seek an indictment.” 

In the same statement, Garza said, “At no time was there sufficient evidence to believe that either suspect was responsible for the death of Mr. Kantor.” 

What Chacon said on Tuesday

At the press conference with Garza, Chacon said that White was responsible for the death of Kantor and “most if not all” of the injuries to 13 other people. 

And yet, he still said about Tabb and the unnamed 15-year-old: “These two individuals were involved. These were not people who were innocent bystanders or somehow incorrectly identified as being involved in this case.”

What Chacon said on Wednesday

Yesterday I emailed APD to ask the chief to clarify his remark. What did he mean the two were “involved”? Was he asserting that they committed criminal acts? This was his response (emphasis mine): 

Both of the original two individuals arrested were involved, as they were part of the two groups of individuals I described during the incident. I actually explained that, saying that they were each from one of the groups.  And yes, they did commit the criminal act they were charged with, and the DA’s office made the decision not to pursue the charges. The DA would have to answer the question about why the charges have been dismissed.

How can Chacon assert that White was responsible for the death and “most if not all” of the injuries but still insist that Tabb was guilty of aggravated assault? 

What Chacon said on Thursday

I asked the chief what evidence he was basing his assertion on. A department spokesperson told me he would provide a revised statement, which I received this morning. This time, instead of saying the two teens “did commit the criminal act they were charged with,” he said that APD had “probable cause to believe” they had committed the acts. 

Both of the original two individuals arrested were involved, as they were part of the two groups of individuals I described during the incident. I actually explained that, saying that they were each from one of the groups. APD had probable cause to believe that the two individuals had committed the offenses they were charged with. The DA’s office made the decision not to pursue the charges at this time. 

What Garza is saying now

I reached out to the district attorney’s office for a response last night and still have not been provided a statement. I also reached out to Tabb’s attorney, Jon Evans, and have not heard back. 

My questions

The divergence between the DA and the police chief about the initial arrests is troubling. Also troubling is the police department’s reluctance to admit error. Chacon can still believe that Tabb committed a crime during the incident but that is a far cry from the arrest affidavit, which accused Tabb of killing Kantor and wounding 13 others.

This is an excerpt from the June 24 edition of the Austin Politics Newsletter. To get daily breaking news and analysis on city politics, click here to subscribe.

Austin still spends more than other cities on police

There has been some predictable politicking in response to the tragedy on 6th Street. For instance, Adam Loewy, a personal injury attorney rumored to be considering a run for higher office, perhaps mayor, blamed City Council for the challenges EMS had in responding to the shooting. Actually, Council did not slash EMS funding. The budget … Continue reading Austin still spends more than other cities on police

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