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The Texas Legislature must step in and forbid cities from cutting their police budgets, Gov. Greg Abbott insisted Thursday, but he remained silent on calls for myriad changes to policing tactics or accountability that gained national momentum last year during protests against police brutality and racial injustice.
After hosting a roundtable discussion on public safety that included mostly law enforcement officials, Abbott laid out some of his public safety priorities for this year's legislative session at a press conference, saying that “Texas is a law-and-order state, and we are going to ensure that we keep it that way.”
He focused on asking lawmakers to withhold tax revenue from cities that cut police budgets and changing a bail system that he said “allows dangerous criminals to go free,” renewing a failed proposal from 2019.
The Republican governor’s continuing ire over police funding is largely focused on the state’s capital city of Austin. Starting in October, the city’s police budget was cut by nearly a third, though most of that decrease came from an accounting shift. Traditional police duties, like traffic enforcement and answering 911 calls, are still funded through transitional funds while the city evaluates if they should be moved to different city departments. But about $31 million, or 7%, was cut immediately.
Those cuts were largely made by eliminating vacant positions, cutting some overtime funds and delaying new cadet classes, which were already on hold while the city awaited audits that have since reported “significant racial and gender disparities” in Austin police training. The money instead went toward things like housing services, mental health responses, emergency services and a family violence shelter, according to the budget.
The cuts were approved by the city’s progressive city council after community demands for changes in policing following the deaths of Mike Ramos and George Floyd last year. Ramos, a Black and Hispanic man, was unarmed and driving away from Austin police when he was shot and killed by officers last year. Floyd, also Black, died in Minneapolis after an officer knelt on his neck for several minutes.
But Austin’s funding cut drew sharp backlash from state officials. Abbott has since spent much of his time proposing several legislative measures to force the city to reverse its funding decision. They include the property tax freeze he mentioned Thursday as well as a state takeover of local police.
“Defunding the police is reckless, it endangers the lives of people and communities across the entire state,” he said Thursday.
The governor has routinely pointed to Austin's crime to argue against police budget cuts. In 2020, there were 1% fewer reported crimes against people in the city than the year before. Property crimes were even with 2019 levels, according to Austin police statistics released this month. Some violent crime did increase, which Abbott and other state officials cite to bolster their argument that the city is becoming increasingly dangerous. Homicides, though still relatively low compared to other cities, increased from 33 in 2019 to 47 in 2020. And reported aggravated assaults rose 22%.
But the increases in homicides and aggravated assaults started early in the year, and an Austin police lieutenant told reporters in November that the data did not match up with any budget discussions or cuts and could be a statistical anomaly. Other Texas cities that did increase police budgets this year, like Fort Worth, also saw a rise in homicides and aggravated assaults.
Though the governor has spent much time focusing on police budgets, he has said little recently about addressing the police actions that sparked the calls for drastic changes to policing.
At the state Capitol, the Texas Legislative Black Caucus is pushing the George Floyd Act, sweeping bills that would, in part, limit use of force, implement disciplinary guidelines for officers and stop police from arresting people accused of only non jailable offenses, like traffic violations.
Last year, Abbott said he was committed to working with Floyd’s family on legislation, and even floated the possibility of a George Floyd Act at the Legislature. On Thursday, when asked about police reforms, Abbott specified he was interested in “training reforms” and more money for police training. Police unions have also proposed more training for officers after Floyd’s death, a measure that social justice advocates have claimed will not fix the problem.