Austin Leads the Way in Cutting Police Funding and Using the Money for Housing

(Truth Out) - Austin City Council voted Thursday to use funds slashed from the police budget to purchase a hotel that will provide permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness and to create an independent forensics lab separate from the police department.

Austin Leads the Way in Cutting Police Funding and Using the Money for Housing

The hotel is the fourth the Texas city has purchased for supportive housing since 2019. Under the measure, the city will spend approximately $9.5 million from its Housing and Planning Department’s general obligation bonds to acquire Candlewood Suites in District 6 and turn it into about 80 units of permanent supportive housing.

Last week, the Council voted to buy the Texas Bungalows Hotel & Suites in District 7 for $6.5 million, which will eventually support about 60 units of permanent housing. The hotels are not expected to reach full occupancy until next year.

The funding for the hotels uses money from a recurring $6.5 million fund taken from the Austin Police Department’s (APD) budget to provide wraparound services for residents. In August, the City Council voted to cut $150 million from the APD’s budget, with the bulk of the $21.5 million the city dedicated to housing and violence prevention programs siphoned from canceling cadet classes, reducing overtime spending and nixing contracts for surveillance tools like license plate readers.

“There were not that many cities that actually responded to the call to transform police budgets, and in those like Austin that did step up to that call in a significant way, we can now start showing the community the results. There are so many improvements to people’s lives that we can make just because we were willing to make moderate adjustments to the police budget,” Austin City Council Member Greg Casar told Truthout. “Throughout the whole campaign cycle, progressive cities were bashed by Trump and his allies for reconsidering their police budgets, I think now in the weeks to come, progressive cities can start showing the actual benefits.”

The city also voted and move about $11.9 million from the APD’s budget into a new Forensic Science Department, creating an independent forensics lab separate from the police department. The move does not eliminate any of the functions in the forensic lab — it simply ensures that the lab is administered independently.

Casar offered an amendment to clarify the language of the ordinance to establish that the lab’s purpose is not only to collaborate with law enforcement when appropriate, but to provide crime lab and evidence management services in an unbiased manner in the pursuit of truth and justice — wherever it leads.

He tells Truthout that the Council plans to buy hotels in every district and will soon move forward with proposals to move its 911 dispatch out of the police department. The Council provided additional funds for mental health first responders with Integral Care’s Expanded Mobile Crisis Outreach Team in 2019 to staff the city’s 911 call center, providing a fourth first-response option beyond EMS, fire and police. (Truthout observed on how that system works first-hand during a ride-along last year.)

The APD’s integrated forensics lab was shut down in 2016 after an audit by the Texas Forensic Science Commission found the lab used scientifically faulty practices. The city has since outsourced its DNA work to the Texas Department of Public Safety. By the time the lab was shuttered in 2016, the city had amassed a backlog of about 4,000 rape kits.

Sexual assault survivor Marina Garrett testified that it took about two years before the results of her kit came back. “I do think this is just one piece of the puzzle,” Garrett told councilors Thursday about the move to decouple the lab. “The amount of trauma I got from my kit being in the backlog was just exponential from what I would have received if my kit had been tested in a timely manner.”

Still, advocates for the city’s nearly 1,600 unsheltered residents were outraged at the passage of the Housing-Focused Homeless Encampment Assistance Link (HEAL) initiative, which many characterized as providing a progressive cover for an attempt to recriminalize homelessness by slowly reimposing a ban on public camping. While the resolution asks the city manager to implement and fund HEAL to connect people experiencing homelessness to housing-focused services and supports, the measure could partially reinstate the ban in four high-traffic areas.

More than 100 people signed up to give public comment on the proposals at Thursday’s meeting. The vast majority spoke out against the HEAL initiative and in favor of providing housing-first solutions for people experiencing homelessness as well as decoupling the forensics lab. The HEAL resolution ultimately passed 8-3, with Casar joining two other council members in opposition.

“While we support any new dollars being brought to bear to help address the issue of homelessness, with sustainable solutions like housing, we’re obviously concerned with anything that reopens the possibility of criminalization and other forms of forced displacement for people experiencing homelessness,” said Chris Harris, director of the criminal justice project at Texas Appleseed and an organizer with Homes Not Handcuffs. “We don’t think [HEAL] is necessary, and is really opening a backdoor to recriminalization on a bigger scale. It’s short-sighted, counterproductive and ultimately harmful.”

A local group supporting the reinstatement of a ban on public camping, “Save Austin Now,” also announced Thursday that the City Clerk’s Office certified that its petition contained enough valid signatures to get a public camping ban onto the May ballot.

This comes as newly elected Council Member Mackenzie Kelly replaced former Council Member and Public Safety Chair Jimmy Flannigan after winning a runoff election in December. Kelly is the president of pro-police group Take Back Austin, and has pledged to bring back a ban on public camping. Kelly was the lone vote against acquiring Candlewood Suites, which is in her district, and pushed to postpone the vote on the purchase last week to spend more time hearing from her constituents.