Commentary: Austin is growing. Shouldn’t our police force expand, too?

By Elizabeth Christian and David L. Roche – Special to the American-Statesman

Updated: 5:18 p.m. Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Austin City Council thinks we’re safe enough. Otherwise, how do you explain a reduction in public safety spending as a percentage of the city’s budget next year?

Despite population growth, increases in violent crime, emergency response times and the recommendations of taxpayer-funded studies, there’s not a single new police officer in the proposed spending plan for the fiscal year 2017–18 budget. Even worse: The budget doesn’t even fund the 12 police positions authorized last year.

The latest taxpayer-funded police staffing study recommended hiring more than 100 officers immediately. In a presentation to the Austin City Council last summer, Richard Brady of the Matrix Group said Austin had the lowest available community engagement time of any police department they 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 15 percent over the past several years, while violent crime increased 11 percent last year. Meanwhile, the available time police officers use to build relationships and trust in neighborhoods has fallen from 33 percent in 2009 to 22 percent last year—well below the recommended standard of 35 to 50 percent.

In a recent 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 results were consistent across the city, in every council district. Seventy-five percent of those polled believe increasing the number of officers will improve the Austin Police Department’s response time to emergency calls. Another finding was most residents believe more patrol officers benefit community policing.

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.

Local disaster response following Hurricane Harvey proves once again the need to fund public safety first. It’s not just the Austin Police Department’s community engagement time and force strength that’s suffering; the other public safety agencies are being neglected, too. Austin needs at least six fire stations to handle its geographical demand for service, while Emergency Medical Services needs technology upgrades to receive electronic data on patient care.

If we look back in future years and find ourselves facing the same predicament 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.

So far this year, Austin has had 15 murders, 489 rapes, 565 robberies and 1,531 aggravated assaults. Are we safe enough?

Christian and Roche are directors of the Central Texas Public Safety Commission.