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Police get their budgets back

Cities are boosting police funding to counter a crime wave, but that may not be enough to solve the problem

Austin, Texas, police keep watch as demonstrators gather downtown on June 4, 2020, to protest the death of George Floyd. Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay, file

Police get their budgets back

Bertha Rendon Delgado is president of the East Town Lake Citizens Neighborhood Association, representing her historic minority neighborhood in Austin, Texas. Delgado worried when the Austin City Council voted last summer to cut a significant portion of the police budget. Since then, the average police response time for serious 911 calls has risen to nine minutes, and canceled cadet classes and attrition have left fewer patrol officers on the streets.

Delgado told the Austin American-Statesman that her neighbors are discussing getting weapons and installing cameras. “We’re suffering out here,” she said. “We don’t have the police here doing what they need to do to keep us safe.”

Austin is one of several major cities that reduced police funding in 2020 in response to protests over police brutality, especially against minorities. Activists demanded cities defund the police and reinvest the money into programs that support minority communities. But this year, facing spikes in violent crime and police resignations and retirements, many cities have reversed course, restoring and even exceeding former funding levels for law enforcement. While the boost to funding is meant to get more officers in the field, reversing the rise in crime may be a complicated endeavor at a time when police and community relations remain strained.

In 2020, Austin’s City Council seemed determined to make a statement. Council members announced they were cutting $150 million from the $434 million police budget. They did so by separating programs such as the forensics lab from the department, canceling upcoming cadet classes, and moving some funds to community programs.

Homicides in the city increased substantially: In September, Austin logged its 60th homicide this year, setting a new record. The trend in Austin is reflected nationwide, with violent crime increasing across major U.S. cities. On Sept. 27, the FBI released data showing murders in the United States increased by nearly 30 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year, the largest single-year jump ever.

When it passed the 2021-2022 budget in August, the City Council restored funding to police. According to the Statesman, the police department budget is now $442 million, the highest it’s ever been. Meanwhile, police Chief Joseph Chacon said in August only 1,650 of the department’s 1,809 positions were filled, and the department was losing an average of 15 officers per month.

The Austin Police Department has asked citizens to call 311 for “nonemergency” crimes, including theft and burglary. “The new response protocols will provide some relief to APD’s current staffing challenges,” the department said in a statement. Officers could then focus on “immediate threats to life or property in a timely manner.”

Other cities, facing similar problems, have also reversed budget cuts. The Los Angeles City Council voted in July 2020 to cut $150 million from the police budget, but homicides increased by almost 30 percent in the first few months of 2021. In March, LA County’s public transportation agency voted to support police with $36 million, and the next month Mayor Eric Garcetti increased the police budget by 3 percent. In June, the New York City Council voted to give the police department a $200 million boost after crime jumped by 22 percent. Atlanta’s City Council voted 8-7 against reducing police funding last year despite many constituents demanding the change. This summer, the council unanimously passed a 7 percent budget increase for police as rising crime threatened to sway voters in this fall’s mayoral election.

Restoring police funding might not be sufficient to combat the rising crime, however. Retired FBI agent Jon Moeller teaches criminal justice at Dordt University. He told me that part of the trouble between cities and their police forces came because “law enforcement stopped listening to the public” and lost relationships in the community. Moeller believes the uptick in crime came because police began responding to crime instead of actively preventing it. Their work became “politicized to the point of not being able to do anything without fear of reprisal,” he said. “As a result, their hands are tied.” Moeller believes the solution is restoring damaged relationships between officers and the public.

Rafael Mangual from the Manhattan Institute told WORLD’s Sarah Schweinsberg that rebuilding trust won’t be easy. “I think police officers across the country, certainly the ones that I’ve spoken to, are feeling genuinely afraid of what might happen, should they make a good-faith mistake in the field,” he said.

Officers need to feel confident enough to proactively take the steps needed to control crime, Mangual added: “It’s not clear to me that just simply putting money back into their budgets is going to be enough to get things under control.”

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.


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