Letter to Austin Police Department’s 143rd cadet class

A few days ago, I attended the graduation of the Austin Police Department’s 143rd cadet class. I’ve asked the Chief to deliver this letter to the members of the class, our newest police officers:

Dear Officers:

Congratulations on graduation and thank you for offering yourself as a member of one of the finest police forces in the country. A few days ago, you took a solemn oath to serve our community and to respect the constitutional rights of all to liberty, equality, and justice. You vowed to maintain courageous calm in the face of danger, scorn, or ridicule; practice self-restraint; and be constantly mindful of the welfare of others. In an unprecedented and challenging time, you took an oath to protect and serve all Austinites — putting your own life on the line, if need be, to save the life of a stranger.  Your mission is to contribute to the public safety in our community – both in fact and in how we each perceive our individualized personal safety.

As thousands of Americans take to the streets to demand an end to racial disparities in law enforcement, you are being challenged to lead policing in this country into a new era — an era in which parents of white, Black, and brown children have equal confidence that police will make them and their families safer. At this difficult time, we are looking to you to lead and protect our community with unprecedented empathy, respect, and understanding.

Make no mistake, the safety of our community depends on our rebuilding trust with communities that have lost faith in government institutions that were not historically built for them, and which have discriminated against them for generations. I learned something of the weight of that challenge when I became mayor of a city that had intentionally segregated Black and white residents in a 1928 Master Plan. As I sat down with East Austin community leaders in hopes of rebuilding trust in city leadership, it was clear that I entered those rooms carrying the full weight of that racist legacy, even as a well-intentioned newcomer to city government.  But I persist in this work because I fundamentally believe that a community’s future is not dictated by its difficult past or even an imperfect present. I believe in Austin’s future – and I believe in you.

I witnessed your anticipation and resolve on the graduation stage.  With loved ones standing beside you, pinning on your new badges, you displayed many different walks of life and backgrounds, racial, bi-racial, and ethnic, as well as gender and LGBTQ diversity.  I saw a cadet class ready and determined to meet this moment. Your class, needed by the community as change agents, is part of the recognition that change happens at the speed of trust.  It is our hope and expectation that you will help deliver both.

For every police story that crosses my desk, where a Black person has died from excessive use of force or experienced unacceptable racism in an interaction with an officer, some originating in our city, there are many more stories about an Austin police officer going above and beyond to serve the homeless, connect with a young person, or prevent sexual assault or murder. I will remember, always, when the serial bomber that terrorized our city was stopped, our officers running towards his vehicle knowing it might (as it did) explode without regard for their own safety. But as every good cop knows, the multitude of heroic police officers in this country does not diminish our unequivocal obligation to combat the unacceptable safety threat posed by officers whose behavior and racial biases – conscious or unconscious- make us all less safe, police included.

To be clear, our challenge with policing is not merely one of removing “bad apples.” That is a legitimate element.  However, reducing the task we face simply to this apologist frame is to minimize and divert attention from the more serious and entrenched difficulties we face. There are historical, cultural, and systemic underpinnings that must be examined and recognized before we can, as we must, reimagine the present form of policing in service of even greater public safety.  This challenge will not be met by merely graduating new cadets into a system with inherent and institutionalized flaws that would subsume them if nothing more happens.  There’s a limit to what you and your class can solve on your own.

Our commitment to you is to maximize all the good that you can bring.  Police require and deserve to be supported and positioned for success by city government – that means robust, high caliber training, public safety investments to prevent crime from occurring in the first place, and more appropriate handling of mental health crises and social services. 

Reimagining public safety requires us all to be open to new ways to maintain Austin’s status as being the safest big city in Texas and one of the safest in the country. This requires taking head-on the controversial conversations and difficult policy decisions associated with not simply relying on the status quo. Your roles as new police officers are critical in this pivotal moment as is your participation in this process.

We are counting on the 143rd Cadet Class to lead the Austin Police Department into the future. Your cadet class represents our best hope for an ever-greater culture of guardianship, transparency, de-escalation, and equity.

You have my promise that the city and I will do our part to support you in this endeavor, as well as our best wishes for your successful career. Welcome to the force, all of you. And to those who are new to Austin – welcome home.

Sincerely,

Steve Adler

Mayor

SAVES resolution (Save Austin’s Vital Economic Sectors)

I was proud to sponsor the SAVES resolution (Save Austin’s Vital Economic Sectors), item 62, with Council Members Flannigan, Pool, and Tovo, along with the entire City Council.

Yesterday, the Austin City Council unanimously approved the resolution directing the City Manager to re-double efforts to identify new sources of funding and support for our most vulnerable local industries. Among them: live-music venues, childcare. etc.

Our city is in danger of permanently losing these key pieces of our civic infrastructure. They are among the hardest hit and most vulnerable businesses in our city. If lost, these are the kinds of businesses that will be difficult to replace. They are key to our culture, brand and our path to best recover from the economic disruption of the virus.

Austin, as with cities across the country, needs the federal government to act in the next few weeks to provide the economic relief at the scale of the challenge we face.  Only the federal government has the capacity to help at that level.  Nonetheless, we cannot only look to Washington, DC. 

We’re doing and have done much locally – but the crisis we face requires us to look again and be more creative and innovative. We’ve been focusing on individuals with support for basics needs like rental and food assistance and those efforts will continue.  We need to also focus on those businesses we might lose and on which so many in our community depend.  The SAVES resolution commits us to doing and expanding this work.

What comes next:

City staff will look at all viable options for funding and relief and quickly report back to the City Council with their recommendations, setting up the Council to take immediate action to support these critical industries.

Our staff will look at more quick and interim ways to stand up an Austin Economic Development Corporation – a new quasi-governmental entity that would be able to more nimbly act and to best leverage the funds available to support these sectors.

What you can do:

  • Call your member of Congress and US Senator. Urge them to pass the HEROES act which will bring cities more relief. There are not enough city resources to help everybody and every business that so desperately needs it right now. We need Congress to act.
  • Support our live-music venues and artists – find and support some internet streaming performances!

STATEMENT FROM MAYOR ADLER REGARDING GOVERNOR ABBOTT PRESS CONFERENCE

“To be clear – Austin City leaders have neither defunded the police department nor support doing so. I’m unaware of any elected official who believes differently. The Governor’s pledge is political theatre intended to scare and distract us from important public safety conversations about opening our children’s schools and saving lives during the pandemic or whether police should be mental health first responders and social workers. Austin is the safest big city in Texas and among the few safest in the country. We’ll continue to make an already safe city even safer and, importantly, safer for everyone. As we get closer to November, expect more distractions that intend to divide rather than unite.”

Did Council cut $150M from the police? No. Did Council do something transformative? Yes.

Here’s what you should know about the budget Council passed this week. It’s immediate action and the first, hopeful step in a sustainable, transformative way forward. This is a budget that addresses “How much safer might we be?”

What the budget action did not do, however, is cut the Police Budget by $150 million.

The FY21 new budget reflects a new way of thinking.

It is not the status quo. It isn’t a gesture. It’s neither threatening nor punitive. It maximizes officer effort and invests in effective, proactive programs and strategies that will make Austin a place where less crime happens in the first place.  New investment focuses new resources on the underlying causes of crime.  This budget embodies our values as a city.

It begins the fundamental work of changing culture, preventing crime, and allowing our police officers to focus on crime with the goal of making Austin — a safe city — even safer.

What did Council change in the proposed budget?

  1. $21.5M.
    • Cuts to the Austin Police Department budget of (a) some unfilled positions, (b) some overtime spending, and (3) the next 3 cadet classes. This does not remove any current officers and will not impact 911 response.
    • Reinvesting that sum into on the ground public safety strategies. Like expanding EMS and mental health response, housing people without homes, and providing safe spaces for victims of domestic violence. This will lighten officer workloads.
  2. $80M.  Largely over the next year, the City will move, but still maintain, some functions from the Police Department to independent and civilian oversight and control to provide independence and transparency.  As discussed for years and reviewed by consultants, it’s time we did this with the Forensics Lab where we’ll never again have a backlog in rape kit tests.  We’ll also integrate 911 and 311 in ways that should make sure calls end up in the correct place, save money, and free-up some officers to work on crime.  Shouldn’t Internal Affairs not be in the same reporting structure it investigates? Support Services don’t need to be handled by sworn officers.  The City Manager has set up a process, with expert and community voices, to determine how these functions will be moved and to identify any unanticipated consequences.
  3. $50M.  The Council Public Safety Committee will start Monday asking whether or not other Police Department functions might be bettered handled independently and differently at some point in the future. Can we free officers from spending so much of their time responding to thousands of false alarms so they can devote more of their time to crimes being committed?  Police officers would still serve as adjunct professors, but do we need our sworn officers also to administer the Academy? Or Recruitment?  Should we have separate Park Rangers or a Lake Patrol as a way to free-up sworn police officers with guns to fight crime?  Shouldn’t somebody else be enforcing noise ordinances downtown?  We need to see if any of these are good ideas appropriate for future action.

Think of it in buckets:

1. Immediate Reductions  $21.5M from cancelling three cadet classes, some unfilled positions and some overtime spending.  This does not remove any current officers and it will not impact 911 response.  And note: 

As concerns the cadet classes, a benefit of reimagining public safety is a decreased need for the number of sworn officers. The cadet classes present a real opportunity to reform police training, create and spread change agents and to improve racial diversity and culture at APD. The Council did not rule out the possibility that one or two of those classes might still yet begin in FY21 depending on factors such as having a revised curriculum successfully completed and an appropriate recruitment program available. Considerations could be given to attrition rates, pension impacts, and other funding that might become available. Future decisions on cadet classes should consider modified force requirements if the reimagining work results in changes in anticipated needs for sworn officers.

As concerns overtime, if circumstances change and overtime is needed to avoid an impact to public safety City, the City Manager will return to Council for any indicated action.

2.  Immediate Reinvestments  $21.5M  for big, on the ground items (in order of spending level):  housing folks w/o homes ($6.5M – this is the operational money needed to operate things like the hotels we’re buying); increase EMS capacity ($5M – since most police and fire calls are medical calls); provide shelter for those fearing domestic violence before they’re hurt ($2M – currently there’s a wait list of those trying to avoid family violence); violence prevention programs ($2M); and mental health responders ($1M).

3.  Decouple $80M with functions that we want to decouple from APD over the next year but are presently not changing anything pending a planning process. The functions will probably continue, but most with independence and civilian leadership.  And note:  Regarding the Decoupled Fund, these elements could and should come out of APD. The staff is to proceed with these elements being decoupled from APD, but if the staff and community identify unintended negative consequences that cannot be reasonably worked around, we expect staff to come back to Council with that finding.  Functions include:  Forensic Lab ($13M); integrating 911 with 311 ($18M); Administrative Services ($33M); Internal Affairs ($5M).

4. Re-Imagine $49M of things that may or may not leave APD at some undefined point in the future, pending a review process.  And note:  The Reimagine functions should receive further review and potentially be separated from or end operations under APD with funding therefor diverted to alternative public safety solutions. Council will need that review to be complete in order to address both whether or not and how such changes would be accomplished.  Functions include:  Mounted Patrol ($2M); Traffic Enforcement ($18M); Training/Academy ($11M); Recruiting ($4M); Park and Lake Patrol ($7M); loud noise monitoring ($.3).