AUSTIN (KXAN) — Is Austin safe enough? That’s the question the Greater Austin Crime Commission wanted people here to ask as the city’s budget negotiations wound down.
As of this writing Wednesday evening, there was no staffing increase included for the Austin Police Department in the budget despite years of requests to hire dozens or hundreds more officers. “I don’t see a lot right now in the budget for APD,” Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, said.
He wasn’t alone. Cary Roberts, executive director of the crime commission, worried without new money for more staffing, the city would fall even further behind. “We are not growing public safety resources like the city is growing,” Roberts said. “There is not enough money to do everything, but there’s enough money to do the right thing.”
The “right thing” to him would be, first, to fund the 12 new officers city council authorized last year. Second, Roberts wants to see the city provide funding for 100 officers or more to keep up with recommendations from a recent city-financed study.
That report on community policing in the city, compiled by the Matrix Consulting Group, recommended APD work toward the goal of patrol officers having 35 percent of their time free for community engagement, not running from call to call. That would allow the department to be more proactive and play a big role in the community policing Chief Brian Manley wants to reinforce.
Right now, with current staffing levels, APD calculates their engagement time at about 22 percent of an officer’s time — better than it used to be, but still far from ideal.
APD leaders requested hundreds of new officers in the coming years at a budget presentation earlier this summer. Meanwhile, the department says better recruiting and a better application process are at least closing the gap of vacancies. Chief Manley said Wednesday there are 94 openings at APD and 96 cadets currently in two academy classes set to graduate in December.
With normal attrition, Manley said, “Unless something changes or something unexpected occurs, we should be within 20 or so [officers] of being fully staffed” by the end of the year.
City council delayed talks about public safety funding during the budget process, opting to wait until the city finished new contract negotiations for pay and benefits before they decided on staffing levels. Casaday said Wednesday the union might try to tie the two together.
“We have not taken any proposals to the city,” he said, “but we are looking at that option.”
Roberts said he’s hopeful about what will come out of the negotiations, which are expected to wrap up in the next few weeks (at which point council can amend the budget if necessary), but he’s uncertain about what to expect.
“It’s difficult to speculate,” he said, “and it’s a fool’s errand.