There's a lot to unpack in the plan by the Reimagining Public Safety Committee.
This is the first in a series of stories about defunding and restructuring the Austin Police Department.
Austin City Council heard the report from the Reimagining Public Safety committee in April 2021, nearly 8 months after their committee formed. The recommendations range from the sublime to the ridiculous, depending on many factors and how they are viewed and implemented. Here are two of the more controversial.
The committee recommends taking traffic stops off the job list of the police. That would decouple traffic stops from the police and having traffic safety handled by an outside group. The concept is to turn stops for minor traffic violations into just that and that only.
The goal is to have fewer armed encounters that escalate into violence during a simple traffic stop. The committee recommending the change want to end the escalation of traffic stops into interrogations and unnecessary arrests. Currently, police can search a car or the inhabitants if they smell marijuana or alcohol, even if the stop was for somethig simple like a burned out tail light, or failure to signal a turn.
it's unclear what arrangements would be made and with what organization to manage traffic stops.
Currently, since February 2020, callers to 911 are asked whether they want police, fire, EMS or mental health services. The committee recommendations would take that further, and divert half of 911 calls away from Austin Police Department. They propose a community run response team to exist outside of the 911 system for people afraid of making 911 calls for fear of it escalating to arrests and deaths of people with mental health issues.
While this is a worthy goal, and it's true we must find ways to intervene with and deescalate those encounters, the mental health responders currently tasked with this state they are uncomfortable with being the sole first responders in these situations. When or if they go alone to these calls, without the police, they're concerned they could be injured. They have no recourse to detain if the situation gets out of control.
On the other hand, it's unfair and outside their skills to expect police officers to deal with those with mental health issues alone. While in Austin, all police are currently trained in handling individuals suffering from mental illness, the training is inadequate. They, like the mental healthj workers, prefer to respond as a team to these situatons.