Austin is growing. Its police force should too.

Despite an increase in violent crime, slower emergency response times, population growth and the recommendations of taxpayer-funded studies, the Austin City Council hasn’t added a police officer in more than two years. The Austin Police Department is more than 300 officers short of the minimum needed for effective community policing.

The latest taxpayer-funded police staffing study recommended hiring more than 100 officers immediately. In a presentation to the Austin City Council, Richard Brady of the Matrix Group said Austin had the lowest available community engagement time of any police department the research firm had ever analyzed. In other words, the consultant had never seen a police department whose officers were stretched so thin. Since the Matrix report, business, community and neighborhood groups have endorsed the goal of achieving a minimum of 35 percent community engagement time.

For a city that values community policing, we’re setting up our officers to fail by ignoring the warning signs in the Matrix report and police data. Police emergency response times are up over the past several years, while violent crime increased for the second consecutive year. Meanwhile, the available time police officers use to build relationships and trust in neighborhoods has fallen from 33 percent in 2009 to 24 percent last year—well below the recommended standard of 35 to 50 percent.

In a survey of likely Austin voters, more than eight in 10 people supported adding more police officers immediately or over the next three or four years—and they acknowledged the cost involved.

The Austin City Council unanimously approved a resolution in March 2018 directing the city manager to develop a five-year staffing plan for the police department. That plan recommended hiring 333 more officers between 2019 and 2023 to reduce crime and strengthen community policing. Yet an early city budget proposal adds only 15 police officers in 2019. 

Everyone wants the same thing: good law enforcement and a safe city. Hiring more officers and addressing police department operations and policies aren’t mutually exclusive. Community advocates and neighborhood groups are working with the police department on important public safety issues. Though these are legitimate and necessary discussions about community policing, we’re putting Austin residents, visitors and police officers at risk when the patrol workforce is inadequate.

If we look back in future years and find ourselves facing the same problems with public safety that we have with affordability and mobility—which is too far behind to catch up—we’ll remember this as the moment we could have done more and didn’t.

There’s not enough money to do everything, but there is enough to do the right thing. This is a question of priorities, not a lack a revenue.