Two billboards warning people headed to Austin, Texas, that they’re entering at their own risk and there will be “limited support for the next 20 miles” were posted Wednesday by the Texas Municipal Police Association (TMPA).
The billboards are a reaction to Austin City Council’s unanimous vote in August to “defund” their police agency by budgeting about one-third of the money that usually goes to the Austin Police Department and steer that money toward other priorities, according to Austin City Council member Gregorio Casar.
In an article Casar wrote and published on Medium, he said that this year the council’s priorities are “public safety, civil rights and saving lives.”
Casar reported that 40% of the city’s budget has historically gone to police funding and that amount is more than any other big city spends in Texas “when adjusted for population.”
Specifically, Casar said that the money the council chose to siphon from the police force is being filtered toward “other forms of public safety — like a family violence shelter, mental health emergency responders, and ambulances for COVID-19 response.” The money is also slated to go to programs that aim to reduce gun violence and help those dealing with drug and alcohol addiction.
Casar said, “for decades, we have heavily invested in the Austin Police Department at the expense of other means of preventing violence and harm…We did not lay off any officers, but we did postpone new police cadet classes in order to better train our officers in order to reduce needless police violence.”
The TMPA Called the Partial Defunding ‘Reckless’ & Said the Move Will ‘Endanger the People of Austin’
According to the TMPA, the largest law enforcement association in Texas with 30,000 members from varying Texas law enforcement agencies, they put up the billboards in an effort to help the Austin Police Department, saying in a Facebook post, “As the largest police association in Texas, it is our duty and responsibility to stand up for the brave men and woman of the APD, as well as the other law enforcement agencies with jurisdiction within the city limits which will have less of APDs resources to depend on, and to raise public awareness of the dangers of defunding not just Austin, but any city across the U.S.”
In the Facebook post, the TMPA said, “This reckless act, a political stunt by the city council pandering to the radical left, will do nothing but endanger the people of Austin.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott also opposes any defunding of law enforcement agencies and has started the “Texas Backs the Blue Pledge“, inviting Texans to sign it in support of police agencies. The pledge says in part, “Defunding our police departments would invite crime into our communities and put people in danger.”
On Sept. 3 Abbott said he’s looking into having the state take over Austin’s Police Department, warning that Austin could “endanger the public & invite chaos like in Portland and Seattle.”
This proposal for the state to takeover the Austin Police Department is one strategy I'm looking at.
— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) September 3, 2020
But Casar and Austin Mayor Steve Adler say the focus on policing issues is Abbott’s way of scaring and distracting from other important issues.
In one month, @GovAbbott has rolled out 3 proposals to attack Austin's police reforms. But nothing about protecting #BlackLives. Nothing on extending unemployment benefits. Nothing on keeping school kids and employees safe from #COVID. He has nothing to offer but cowardice.
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) September 10, 2020
Austin’s Mayor, Steve Adler, also pushed back on Abbott’s message about the city’s “defunding” of police, saying that’s not what they’re doing.
In a statement issued by Adler on Sept. 10, he said:
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.
TMPA Says That Defunding Police Isn’t Just ‘Moving Money Around. It’s Destroying the Capacity to Police the City Effectively’
James Bono, the Communications Manager at TMPA told Heavy in an email that they erected the billboards in part to support Austin Police, but also said, “Most importantly we did it to begin a larger dialog about defunding how absolutely unsafe this is for the people of Austin and the many small businesses that keep her going.”
This is not “moving money around,” Bono said. “It’s destroying the capacity to Police the city effectively. Overtime is a way to bridge the gap for not having enough personnel. Internal affairs polices the police. We can’t get rid of ‘bad cops’ if we don’t have that capacity. In short, by all means ‘keep Austin weird’ …but keep her safe.”
Yet according to Casar, who lays out the amounts of money that are being reallocated this year and to what in his Medium article, he says that things like internal affairs are better left to outside agencies.
“Internal affairs will still exist, but moving internal affairs out of APD affords more autonomy and transparency over investigations into complaints against officers from the public. This means no more APD investigating APD,” Casar said.
According to Casar, the council acted as their constituents wanted. He said, “The message from the tens of thousands of Austinites who made their voices heard in this year’s budget process was clear: We must decrease our over-reliance on police to handle all of our complex public safety challenges and instead reinvest in domestic violence shelters, mental health first responders, and more. That’s what our City Council did — and it’s exactly the work we’re committed to continue.”