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Austin wants to be a model of modern policing, but the future remains unclear

A year ago, City leaders wanted to make Austin a national model in police reform. What has emerged is a fragmented picture of success.

Tony Plohetski (KVUE/Austin American-Statesman)

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A little more than a year ago, Austin leaders set out on a new mission in the aftermath of unprecedented protests: To make the city a vanguard of modern policing and create a template that could be replicated across America.

In the months following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the local controversial police shooting of Michael Ramos, council members cut or reallocated $140 million – about one-third – from the Austin Police Department's budget by removing operations such as 911 dispatch and the forensics lab from law enforcement oversight.

In what turned out to be among the most far-reaching decisions, officials also nixed three cadet classes, giving the department time to transition the police academy from a military-style boot camp to something that more closely resembles a college classroom. The cancellation meant that as more than 130 officers left in the past year, the department had no new rookies to replace them.

Officials also directed new money to programs to help address what they said were underlying causes of police interactions, including mental health.

All told, Austin at the time was among the biggest cities in the U.S. to remove that high of a percentage of the local police budget and to launch such a dramatic policing overhaul.

But recent interviews by the KVUE Defenders and the Austin American-Statesman with more than 30 City leaders, City Hall staff, activists, politicians and community leaders reveal Austin’s efforts to dramatically reform police have, in many ways, yielded a fragmented picture of success a year later.

Much of the discussion has become acutely political, with new laws passed by the Texas Legislature – primarily aimed directly at Austin – limiting cities from decreasing police budgets without the threat of losing tax dollars.

The discussion of police reform also has been infused with issues such as a rise in homicides and gun violence.

“The conversations in our community are ongoing to make sure that we have a public safety system and police force that makes everyone feel safe, and that’s the conversation we’re involved in,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a recent interview. “There’s a lot of work to do.”

Austin remains in a unique moment for that continued discussion. The City is in the midst of hiring a new police chief. Voters in November will consider a measure pushed by the political action committee Save Austin Now that would mandate a minimum staffing level for the police department at an estimated cost of $119 million a year.

To help promote ongoing and fact-based dialogue, KVUE and the Statesman early in October will jointly host a community forum with panelists from all sides of the issues. The goal: To discuss the future of policing in Austin and the community’s goal of reform.

And, in the end, create a platform of discussion to help ensure that what happens in Austin will reflect policing for all.