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A federal prosecutor has joined the ongoing political fight over police funding in Texas, pinning a yearlong increase in Austin homicides in part on the state capital’s budget cut that went into effect in October.
The announcement Friday of a new joint law enforcement operation in Austin blamed a rise in homicides and aggravated assaults on the City Council’s decision to cut its police budget by about a third. Almost all of that decrease came from an accounting shift of money that still allows traditional police duties to remain funded, but potentially in different city departments. The council vote prompted outrage from Texas leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, who has since repeatedly proposed blocking the funding cuts and having the state take over policing duties in the city.
The new “Operation Undaunted” will feed federal, state and local police resources into fighting crime in Austin, a city with a relatively low violent crime rate compared with other major cities. The operation will focus on shootings, repeat crimes, robberies and violent crime on military bases in the surrounding area.
“When you defund the police, relax enforcement of existing criminal law, and release repeat offenders and violent criminals into our streets, increased violence is exactly what you can expect,” Gregg Sofer, a newly appointed U.S attorney for the Western District of Texas, said in a statement after a press conference.
Austin police, like those in Fort Worth, recently stopped citing and arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana. The decisions arose from the state Legislature's legalization of hemp in 2019, which made it difficult for law enforcement officers to distinguish between legal and illegal cannabis. Recent decisions by several Texas counties to release more people from jail during the pandemic also brought backlash from the governor.
Last month, Austin Police Lt. Jeff Greenwalt addressed the rise in homicides at a press conference, but he said violent crimes detectives were still in the same shape under the new budget, “if not better.” He said given the city’s safe standing among other cities, he wasn’t yet concerned with the rise in some crimes. It’s hard to predict trends off of a small amount of data.
“We saw a rise in violent crime in the very early months of 2020, before the reimagining and the defunding conversations came up,” Greenwalt said. “I don’t think that we can say that the numbers in 2020 are reflective of that issue.”
Homicides and aggravated assaults in Austin — and other Texas cities that did not cut their police budgets — have been trending up most of the year. Before the in-custody death of George Floyd in Minneapolis revived a movement against police brutality and heightened calls to “defund the police,” Austin homicides and aggravated assaults were already inching upward.
The City Council voted on the budget cut in August, and it didn’t go into effect until October.
From January through May, there were 18 homicides in Austin this year, compared with 11 in 2019, an increase of 64%, according to monthly crime reports. Through November, homicides had increased 55% from the first 11 months of 2019, from 29 to 45. Overall, violent crime has dropped slightly in Austin compared with last year, and property crime has stayed steady.
Fort Worth, a city that Abbott praised this year for its funding priorities on police, surpassed 100 homicides by the beginning of December, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. This year, 103 homicides had been reported in the city, compared with 64 the year before, a 61% increase. A quarterly police report showed that through September, aggravated assaults in the city were also up nearly 40% compared with the year before.
San Antonio, which also gave a small bump to its police budget this year, also faced an increase in homicides and aggravated assaults.
The focus on Austin seemingly centers on politics, a statewide fight that has echoed the national political debate in which both Republicans and Democrats pit a fear of rising crime in major cities against calls to end systemic racism and police brutality. Abbott has loudly and consistently knocked the city for the police budget decision, and he echoed Sofer’s argument in a tweet Friday.
“U.S. Attorney says “defunding the Austin Police Department” is contributing to the dramatic increase in violent crimes in Austin,” he wrote. “The state will fix this.”
In Austin, Floyd’s death was not the only incident prompting calls for police reform and funding cuts. In April, an officer shot and killed Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black and Hispanic man who was driving away from police. And during protests in May spurred by Ramos' and Floyd's deaths, two nonviolent protesters — a Black man and Hispanic boy — were seriously injured after being hit in the head with police bean bag rounds.
In June, the progressive City Council issued a vote of no confidence in police leadership, and two months later, it cut the department’s budget, which went into effect in October. The 2021 budget immediately cut $20 million, or about 5%, from the police department to instead fund things like housing and emergency response. Another $130 million was also put into two transitional funds that will allow several of the department's traditional duties to remain funded while officials work out which responsibilities to keep under law enforcement and which to move out from under police oversight.
Abbott and other state leaders have slammed the City Council for cutting the police budget. The governor has held multiple campaign events asking political candidates to sign a pledge to “back the blue.” He is urging lawmakers in the 2021 legislative session to pass a law “defunding cities that defund police” and is considering a proposal for the state’s law enforcement agency to take over policing control of the downtown area, where the Capitol and governor’s mansion sit.
In response to the federal operation, Austin Council Member Greg Casar noted that the uptick in homicides followed national trends during the pandemic, and that it began early in the year.
“We absolutely must do better to keep everyone safe, especially in low-income areas. That’s exactly what our City Council is committed to doing through our new investments in anti-gun violence programs, family violence shelters, and violence intervention initiatives,” he said in a statement. “If the Trump Administration was truly looking to combat crime, they would prioritize any of the other big cities in Texas which all have much higher homicide rates than us, rather than engage in theatrics.”