Let’s Talk About Police Reform

Let’s Talk About Police Reform

Thousands took to the streets for the Justice for Them All March on June 7.

Photo: Christopher Neely • Community Impact

Dear D6, 

Over the past two weeks, thousands upon thousands of Austinites have taken to the streets to express their anguish and frustration. My email inbox reflects this as well. 

At this week’s City Council Meeting on Thursday, June 11, three colleagues and I have co-sponsored 4 items to start addressing the need for public safety reform in Austin, Texas. This is only beginning. These items are mostly advisory in nature with the harder choices coming in August when the Council adopts the next city budget.  

But I want to talk to all the folks who are confused or who want to better understand the moment we are in. 

When tackling questions about public safety reform, calls for “defunding” are the ones that seem to incite the most anger and misunderstanding. While I understand that people are going to have a reaction to that word, this isn’t the time to get locked in debate over a word. The work is too important. And even if you doubt that there are other ways we can make our communities safer and save money in the process, isn’t it at least worth trying? 

As anyone who has taken a ride-along with a police officer knows, the shift can involve a lot of work that most people – including the police – wouldn’t associate with the duties of a sworn armed officer. 

Why does it take an officer in full gear to transport mental health patients or wait for hours at the jail while a suspect is being processed? Do our officers need to be stuck spending hours architect-ing detailed reports (as opposed to dictating into their body cams for transcription, for example)? We ask officers to be so much more than officers, no wonder it’s a system that has crumbled under its own weight.   

Over the course of my term, I’ve had numerous discussions with Austin Police officers – in District 6 and across the city, and even some working the marches this weekend. Many officers empathize with peaceful marchers out on the streets, but they find themselves in an organizational structure that has made it difficult to express those feelings – or worse, locked out and diminished for trying. The system itself is failing the “good cops” too. 

And there are times in speaking with D6 neighbors and constituents, where folks are very focused on asking for more police. We certainly have our share of property crime in our suburban district, but even the police officers themselves say community education is a huge part of the solution, leading with their Love It Lock It campaign. But are we really asking officers to be media and marketing experts, too? 

Asking for more police to solve a problem is understandable. It’s the only option we’ve ever been given on nearly every issue. And media reports that say the council is considering verbatim the words of advocates confuses things further. One key group of advocates – the very advocates demanding that we “defund” – have set their request at $100 million of APDs budget for restructuring and reallocation. While that may at first sound unthinkable, it is out of a $440 million dollar budget… meaning that nearly 80% of APDs budget would remain untouched. This is not going to be an overnight shift, but the beginning of a hard and important conversation on how we can elevate the role of the very things that support police work – like social workers, clerical support, and public service campaigns – and allow our officers to focus on the tough work for which they are trained. 

This work will not be easy, and while this week’s items are coming soon, they are setting a direction for the hard work to come. 

One thing I know for sure: We cannot accept a status quo where the color of a person’s skin determines whether or not our neighbor feels safe in the presence of police or that their ZIP Code determines their life expectancy. 

The path forward toward more effective, impartial, and fair policing works better in partnership with everyone – not just from one point of view, from one community. And if we are truly willing to take on the big structural changes, we should welcome partnership of officers, of activists, of community leaders, and folks who are simply willing to take this crisis seriously and do that hard work. Now.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan

For more information, please see the:
Austin City Council Members Discuss Proposed Police Reform Resolutions Press Conference

City of Austin Council Message Board thread on Institutional Reform