Texas

How Gov. Greg Abbott Made Austin’s Police Budget Cuts A Top Campaign Issue For Candidates Running In November

The Republican governor isn’t on the November ballot. But he has come out hard against efforts to shift city money away from policing, echoing a national debate on policing and crime during a tumultuous election season.

Protesters clash with police in riot gear in downtown Austin on Aug. 1. Calls to “defund police” during a revived nationwide movement calling for criminal justice reform have sparked an increasingly polarizing political debate. Gov. Greg Abbott has made the matter a campaign issue for 2020 candidates.

Heading into the November election, Gov. Greg Abbott has made clear that he believes policing should be top of mind for all Texas candidates and voters.

The Republican state leader, who isn't on the ballot this cycle, has repeatedly condemned recent efforts to cut police budgets and shift money toward other social services that activists and local Texas officials say could stem systemic racism and crime. He has reacted by proposing drastic legislation to counter any cuts and even asking all those seeking office this year to pledge against any effort to "defund the police."

It's a move that echoes an increasingly polarizing national political debate in which both Republicans and Democrats often stick to their party lines that pit a fear of rising crime in major cities against calls for racial justice and reforms to police behavior.

"It is particularly offensive that some cities are disrespecting and even defunding our law enforcement agencies in communities across the state," Abbott said at a news conference held Thursday at Austin Police Association headquarters, where he announced another legislative proposal related to police funding. "Cities must prioritize public safety."

The term "defund the police" doesn't mean the same thing to everyone calling for police reforms — and not all supporters of police budget cuts want law enforcement agencies to lose all of their money and be disbanded.

Defunding efforts among Texas city officials largely aim to redirect some city money away from police departments and instead put it toward things like housing assistance and mental health services that can combat the root causes of many crimes. Advocates for the movement say shifting funds aims to remedy the racism, segregation and poverty often fueling tense relations between law enforcement and residents of color in the first place.

But the phrase, touted first by activists, has become an alarm bell for Republicans.

"The ‘defunding the police' frame is not a surprising frame for Republicans to embrace, given that the whole phrase was probably an unfortunate political wording from day one and has evolved into something that's more of a meme than a policy in any recognizable way at this point," said Jim Henson with the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin.

For many Democrats, the political response has been to label the highly publicized outrage on police funding from Abbott and other Republicans as a distraction from what they call a failed response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its deadly and economically devastating impacts on the state. After Abbott asked candidates to pledge against cutting police budgets Wednesday, the Texas Democratic Party issued its own pledge Thursday that instead focused on party priorities like health care, pandemic response and education.

Since the virus hit the state earlier this year, the state has seen over 645,000 positive cases and more than 13,600 people have died, though experts suggest the death toll is likely an undercount. And the state, like the rest of the country, has seen suddenly high jobless rates and its economy has entered into a recession.

"Greg Abbott knows Texans are fed up with his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, so he tries a tired old trick to change the subject and manufacture fear," said Manny Garcia, executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. "[Texans] know that we must dismantle systemic racism, and they know peaceful protest against police violence should not be met with more violence, yet that's exactly what Donald Trump has advocated for."

In their arguments against funding cuts, though, Republicans point to polling that shows voters are more likely to oppose cutting police budgets heading into Election Day.

"When [voters] see what they see in terms of violence, people just don't come to the conclusion that yes, we need fewer police," said Craig Murphy, a GOP consultant who represents law enforcement associations and Republican candidates running for office. "For [Democrats] to just blanket state they want to defund the police — it's not where the heads are of the voters."

The catalyst for Abbott's active involvement on the topic was an Austin City Council vote to cut police spending last month.

The death of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly eight minutes in May, revived a nationwide movement calling for reforms to American policing and the criminal justice system, which disproportionately harms people of color.

Part of that movement has included calls from the left to "defund police" — often the largest expense in city budgets. Though the proposal to at least cut and redirect some police funding has become more mainstream, it's still not embraced by all Democrats.

Abbott, asked at the Thursday news conference for his definition of "defunding the police," said it's "exactly what the City of Austin has done, exactly what Dallas City Council voted to do last night."

Abbott has praised Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, previously a Democratic state representative, for his push to swap a city council proposal that would cut $7 million from police overtime by instead cutting salaries from other city employees, focusing on the highest-paid officials. Johnson's amendment failed Wednesday night, keeping the relatively small overtime cut in the budget that council members will vote on later this month. Dallas' current police budget is more than $500 million.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler also said in a statement Thursday that he did not consider Austin’s budget cut “defunding,” which he said city leaders did not support. Other Democrats said "defunding police" doesn't have a swell of support. But they have been unclear on whether they're referring to fully dissolving departments or redirecting any amount from policing toward other services.

After Abbott asked all Texas candidates to pledge opposition to cutting police budgets on Wednesday, state Rep. Chris Turner, the Texas House Democratic Caucus chair from Grand Prairie, and state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, said in a statement that they opposed defunding the police but did not clarify what definition of the term they were using.

Republicans have strongly come out against taking money away from police departments, pointing to violent crime rates recently rising in urban areas and the sometimes violent and destructive protests against police brutality as reasons to keep funding in place. Trump and speakers at the Republican National Convention have portrayed Democrats as opponents of law and order who want to defund police forces across the country.

"The biggest reason that the governor is pounding his first on the table I think is in support of President Trump, for whom this is one of his primary campaign issues," said William Spelman, a public affairs professor at UT-Austin who specializes in urban policy and policing and is a former Austin City Council member.

Austin City Council vote

As it plays out in Texas, much of the political fight on police reform and funding has centered on the state's capital of Austin, which is home to both the conservative governor and a progressive city council.

Paired with the national unrest after Floyd's death, the Austin police shooting of an unarmed Black and Hispanic man, Mike Ramos, in April and instances of police seriously injuring people of color during protests heightened calls to fire the police chief and shift resources away from the police department.

Last month, when the local city council voted to cut police funding following the protests, it prompted Abbott to suggest dramatic — and likely hard to pass — legislative measures to penalize cities that slash police budgets or let the state take over their departments.

Though both Austin officials and state leaders have noted the city’s police funding decrease was $150 million — one-third of the proposed police budget — the immediate cut is only $20 million, or 5%. The rest of the money that was cut went in transitional funds that will allow several traditional police duties to remain funded while city officials determine which functions to move to different city departments.

The action drew a sharp and immediate reaction from Abbott and other state leaders that has continued through this week.

Within days of the council vote, the governor and other state leaders offered up a legislative proposal to freeze property tax revenues for any city that defunded its police force. Last week, Abbott said he was considering legislation that would allow the state to take full control of Austin's police operations and funding — at the city's expense. And on Thursday, the governor proposed lawmakers pass a bill that would permanently cut annexation power from cities that defund their police departments. Any areas and residents that have ever been annexed by that city in the past will be able to vote to again separate them from the city.

The proposals have been slammed by Democrats and advocates who have urged the importance of allowing local governments to make local decisions, while Republicans have said the public safety concern forced Abbott's hand.

Spelman said there has been a political and "willful misunderstanding" of the Austin budget numbers from both parties: city officials trying to appease community members and state leaders trying to argue against changes to policing.

Politically, however, the topic of police budgets has unified more Republicans, according to Henson with the Texas Politics Project.

"It's easy to look at the emphasis that Republicans at both the national and now the state level are putting on this kind of political messaging and see it as opportunistic — it is," Henson said. "In Texas, some Democratic and/or progressive leaders have to some extent played into the hands of the Republican leadership."

In Texas, registered voters are more likely to oppose efforts to shift money away from policing, according to a Dallas Morning News/University of Texas at Tyler poll released this month. Of those polled, 39% said they would support cutting some funding from police departments to increase spending on social services, while 44% said they wouldn't. Use the phrase "defund the police" and opposition rises to 57%.

The debate over police budgets has rippled through a number of races up and down the ballot, including an Austin-area congressional race and the U.S. Senate race between Republican incumbent John Cornyn and his Democratic opponent, MJ Hegar.

In one particular Texas House race, Austin police officer Justin Berry, a Republican, has made his job a major aspect of his campaign to unseat Democratic state Rep. Vikki Goodwin, whose House District 47 includes edges of the city.

The two have differing views on how the district's residents are responding to the police budget cuts. Goodwin told the Tribune earlier this week that constituents she's spoken with are wanting to stay away from "those controversial, divisive conversations." Regarding the Austin budget cut, Goodwin said residents in the community are wanting to give it time to see whether the move is successful.

But Berry said both Democrats and Republicans he has spoken with oppose the council's decision, and it has had a big impact on voters.

Instead of cutting police budgets, the city and state need to work on ways to improve policing "without continuing to demonize it," Berry said. The term "police brutality" is often used in any case where an officer uses force, even if it's justified, he said, and the negative connotation with policing means the profession has much less appeal to potential recruits.

"They've really placed the governor in a bad position here because it should be the local officials that make public safety a priority," Berry said.

The police reform movement has also pushed for changes to police officers' role in society. Advocates for change — and even law enforcement officials — have questioned if police need to be responding to noncriminal calls like welfare checks, which have in some cases notoriously turned deadly.

The Texas Legislative Black Caucus has already proposed a George Floyd Act with a list of policing reforms for state lawmakers to consider when they reconvene in January.

Asked about the George Floyd Act, Berry told the Tribune he hadn't fully reviewed it. Goodwin said Abbott should list it as an emergency item or a high priority.

"Like with any problems you're trying to solve, you have to bring the two sides together to try and figure out what we're trying to fix and how we fix it," she said. "Do we have the state mandate exactly how police budgets are developed? I don't think that's what most people in the district want."

"It doesn't seem like a good use of time"

At the Legislature, Abbott's newly announced proposals are expected to get plenty of play in the Republican-controlled Senate, which is headed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Patrick has already said his chamber will prioritize legislation to freeze property tax revenues for cities that cut police budgets. And, after Abbott tweeted he was considering legislative action for the state to take over Austin's police department, a senior adviser for Patrick said he agreed with the governor that the city "has abysmally failed to make the capital city safe for the public."

"It is time for the state to step up," Sherry Sylvester said in a statement to the Tribune.

What's less clear is what kind of traction the governor's proposals could get in the House, where control of the 150-seat lower chamber is up for grabs in November as Democrats are confident about their chances to win back a majority for the first time in nearly two decades.

On top of that, lawmakers will already be strapped with full agendas next year: A once-in-a-decade redistricting cycle, grappling with billions of dollars in projected shortfalls to the state budget and responding to the coronavirus pandemic that has set off conversations about the governor's emergency powers and weaknesses in the state's health care and education systems.

State Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat who serves as speaker pro tempore, told the Tribune he does not think either proposal by Abbott has a place in the discussion since neither "advance any real policy objective to building a fairer, more just criminal justice system."

"This really becomes a large distraction from the more pressing matter, which is how do we address racial injustice in our criminal justice system," Moody said. "Why we would use up oxygen on whatever regional political fights — to me, it doesn't seem like a good use of time. It does not seem like a good way to bring people together to bring real solutions to very real and pressing problems."

Some Republicans though have argued that public safety is one of the most important functions of government, and that given Austin's budget cut, the Legislature should take action along the lines of what the governor has already suggested.

State Rep. Phil King, a Weatherford Republican and former police officer, suggested Abbott's proposal to freeze property tax revenues may be the only way to get a local government's attention. King also suggested that lawmakers will stick around in Austin to finish the work on their plates, including potential action on policing, for however long it takes.

"It's going to be a tough session, no question — but at the same time, we have a job to do," King said. "Whatever time or effort that takes, it takes."

Disclosure: Steve Adler (who is also a former Texas Tribune board chairman) and the University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of the Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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