Oct 22, 2021 - Politics

Austin police staffing measure draws national attention

Dueling campaign signs outside a voting precinct in South Austin.

Dueling campaign signs outside a voting precinct in South Austin. Photo: Asher Price/Axios

The big kahuna on the ballot is Proposition A, which would put more cops on the street — at a cost.

Why it matters: If approved by voters, the city would be required to have at least two officers for every 1,000 people — it’s now at about 1.7.

  • City finance officials say the measure could cost as much as $600 million over five years.

The big picture: From a national perspective, Austin’s seemingly small referendum has become an off-year election fight about policing in America.

Money has poured in from across the country on the issue.

  • Financier George Soros’ Open Society Policy Center chipped in $500,000 to the Equity PAC, which is fighting against the proposition.
  • “We expanded our support for local police reform efforts in the wake of the murder of George Floyd with the goal of increasing community-based safety,” Jennifer Shaw, a senior program officer at the Open Society, tells Axios. “We support the No Way on Prop A campaign because Prop A will not provide comprehensive public safety reform and will reduce the essential services that the people of Austin rely upon.”
  • The Fairness Project, another social justice-minded nonprofit, has contributed $200,000.
  • Local donations include $25,000 from philanthropist Anne Glickman as well as thousands of dollars more from unions and would-be mayoral hopefuls.

What they’re saying: Prop A opponents say spending more on law enforcement takes away from other city programs, like libraries.

  • The firefighters union has also opposed the referendum over fears that paying for more police will lead to fire department and EMS cuts.

Of note: The Austin police chief has said he opposes the proposition because he calls the police-to-citizen ratio “arbitrary.”

The other side: Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of the Save Austin Now PAC, which put the issue on the ballot and previously funded a successful anti-homeless-camping referendum, tells Axios the city's uptick in murders is tied to a “staffing crisis” in the thin blue line and a “toxic” atmosphere related to efforts to defund the police.

By the numbers: The Prop A campaign falls against an increase in homicides in the city. At least 69 people have been murdered in Austin so far this year. The previous annual mark was 59, set in 1984, and 2021 has more than two months left.

Yes, but: Even as the murder rate has more than doubled since 2017, it remains roughly half its 1985 rate, as Austin’s population has grown dramatically.

Contributions this year to Save Austin Now, the PAC supporting the propositions include:

  • $100,000 from Charles Maund Toyota
  • $75,000 from Philip Canfield, CEO of Ariet Capital
  • $75,000 from tech billionaire Joe Liemandt
  • $17,000 from investor Richard Topfer
  • $10,000 checks from fracking magnate Bud Brigham and real estate industry executives Gary Farmer and Eric Moreland, among many others.

The bottom line: Expect more cash to roll in during the closing days of the campaigns as each side tries to scratch out a victory.


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