In response to community concerns and city council direction, the Austin Police Department has overhauled recruiting and training. Restarting cadet classes is the best opportunity to improve police culture and lessen patrol staffing strain and further cuts in specialized units. In addition to 150 police positions and cadet classes cut by the city council last year, the department now has 130 vacancies, with another six anticipated this month.
In late March, the city manager presented a blueprint to restart police training, which outlined objectives to be met before restarting a cadet class in June. The latest comprehensive training review recently completed by an outside consultant concluded that based on completing short-term recommendations, “a state of readiness for the 144th cadet class is achievable by this summer.”
If the Austin City Council approves Item 10, the 144th Cadet Class will start June 7 and last thirty-four weeks. The anticipated cost of $2,173,822 will come from savings in the General Fund Operating Budget.
This past weekend, Austin voters approved Proposition B, which imposes restrictions on camping, sitting or lying, and solicitation downtown and around the UT campus. The reinstated ordinances will take effect when the vote is canvassed (no later than May 12).
How did we get here? In June 2019, the Austin City Council voted to remove public camping and other restrictions downtown. An increase in the number and visibility of homeless encampments followed the ordinance changes. These policy decisions, combined with economic factors, inadequate shelter capacity, lack of permanent supportive housing, and the prevalence of mental health and substance abuse issues, have resulted in the present situation.
What should you expect? Enforcement options are limited. Austin Police Department district representatives will begin by contacting individuals living in encampments affected by the ordinances. Officers will seek voluntary compliance.
In an email to the police department yesterday, Interim Chief Joseph Chacon wrote, “We will start with education and outreach, focusing first on those persons in situations that present higher health and safety risks. Collectively, our outreach efforts will be ongoing as we continue to assess encampment sites and coordinate with our service providers.”
The homeless crisis will persist, and community patience is needed when it comes to enforcement. The Greater Austin Crime Commission supports efforts by the recent Summit to Address Unsheltered Homelessness, a private and public sector initiative to house 3,000 in three years. The Austin Police Department is understaffed, sometimes with no units available to answer less urgent calls. Officers have little time to focus on quality of life crimes like homeless camping. As law enforcement leaders often say, we can’t police our way out of homelessness.
Last night, Governor Greg Abbott delivered the keynote address during the Texas Peace Officers Memorial ceremony. The survivors of forty-four officers who died in the line of duty in 2019 and 2020 were recognized. As part of National Police Week (May 9-15), the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial will host a Virtual Candlelight Vigil on May 13 at 7:00 p.m. on Facebook and YouTube.
P.S. Join the Neighborhood Network and public safety advocates in every council district and across Central Texas. As work begins on the next city budget, the network will focus on preventing further public safety cuts, promoting a new police staffing model, and scaling alternative responses.