Austin, Texas is the only large city in Texas that defunded police last year in response to protests from Black Lives Matter activists. Protests were a result of the killing by police of Michael Ramos in Austin, TX, and George Floyd in Minneapolis. The move was also in response to the backlash after Austin police shot rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray into groups of protesters, injuring several, some seriously.
The decrease was primarily an accounting shift, with only 7% of the police budget, or $31 million being shifted into housing and mental health services. The rest of the third of the Austin Police Department budget that was cut was put into transitionary funds. The intent is to use those funds to transfer some police duties to other city offices now, and potentially in the future, to fund recommendations from the city task force, Reimagining Public Safety. The City Council has moved the city’s crime lab out of the police department, and is considering possible changes such as a city run 911 department.
In response, the Texas Legislature, in session through May, 2021, has passed bills in both the House and the Senate to penalize cities with over 250.000 population who defund their police. House Bill 1900 needs the final vote on the House floor, before moving to the Senate. It received preliminary approval by a vote of 91-55.
If passed on the House floor and then by the Senate, the bill allows the state to approprate part of the sales taxes from a city that defunds police. It also restricts the city from increasing other taxes to make up for the sales tax loss. In addition, annexed neighbothoods could vote to deannex from any city that has decreased police funding.
In Austin, Texas, Lost Creek and West Rim neighborhoods have three Senate bills in the legislature asking for the right to deannex without a petition or an Austin City Council vote. HB1900 would allow them to do so based on Austin's defunding of the police.
Senate Bill 23 would require an election to be held before a city can defund the police. In Austin, since it is the most liberal city in Texas, that might be considered the lesser evil. It would put the decicsion in the hands of local voters rather than in either state or local government. That bill passed the Senate and is heading to the House.
To many liberal Texans and Austinites, a vote is preferable to being penalized by a department directly under the Governor of Texas. Probably most citizens of Austin and other cities in Texas believe all such decisions about city budgets should be left to local government.
While policing, police policies, training of police, and the criminalization of citizens are the main concerns of cities choosing to defund police, these bills raise another contentious subject. Who should have actual power to govern a large city, or any city? The elected city government or the state government? In Texas. where individualism is revered, this is a huge part of the issue.
Austin interim Police Chief, Joseph Chacon said in The Texas Tribune, "There are situations where local governments can increase or create funding for other services or initiatives, and that won't always negatively impact police departments."
“These decisions must be made at the local level by our community when and to the degree needed to help build and maintain trust,” Chacon said at the committee hearing for Senate Bill 23.