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Criminal Justice

Austin voters strongly reject Prop A, which would have required hiring hundreds more police

A sign in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin, TX against Proposition A on Oct. 14, 2021. Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT
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A sign in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Austin, TX against Proposition A on Oct. 14, 2021. Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT

Austin voters have rejected a local ballot measure that would have required the police department to hire hundreds more officers.

More than 67% of people who voted came out against Proposition A, according to preliminary voting results. The measure would have required the Austin Police Department to staff at least 2 officers per every 1,000 residents. Given current employment numbers, Austin would have had to hire anywhere from 300 to 700 officers over the next year, according to city estimates.

Prop A opponents argued that the cost of hiring this many officers could be devastating to the city’s budget. The City of Austin’s Budget Office estimated that Prop A could have cost the city anywhere from $54 million to about $120 million a year, for at least the first five years. (An estimate from the group behind Prop A was much lower, coming in at about $35 million a year.)

While yard signs distributed by the “No Way on Prop A” campaign suggested the city would have to cut funding for parks and libraries to afford more police, it was unclear prior to the election where exactly the money would come from.

But as it became clear Tuesday night that Prop A had no chance of passing, the money was no one's job to worry about. Instead, opponents of Prop A said Austin's rejection of the measure was proof that residents are in favor of recent efforts to make changes within the city's police department.

“Austin answered overwhelmingly tonight. We believe in criminal justice reform. We believe in comprehensive public safety and creating a better city,” Austin City Council Member Greg Casar told KUT. “Tonight’s results show that Austinites have rejected right-wing division and are marching forward to progressive change.”

It’s this “change” that the group behind Prop A, Save Austin Now, built their campaign on. The group argued that recent decisions made by City Council members about how APD staffs, trains and operates its department have made Austin less safe. (While this year the city saw a record rise in the number of homicides, Austin’s violent crime rate fell roughly 40% between 2019 and 2020.)

In 2019, Austin City Council members voted to put a hold on training new police after several former cadets described an academy that employed bullying tactics. The council agreed to restart police courses once training materials had been revamped; that took longer than expected, in part because of the pandemic, and cadet classes did not resume until this summer.

The council also eliminated about 150 vacant police jobs as part of funding cuts they made to the budget last year. This year, a new state law forced the city to refund the department back to historic levels, although the council did not vote to pay for any new police jobs.

APD had struggled to fill open positions before the council made these decisions. The number of officers employed by the city has been falling since 2018, from about 1,850 to just over 1,600 currently.

Save Austin Now, which ran a successful campaign to reinstate laws against camping in public and panhandling earlier this year, seized on these numbers, arguing that a dwindling police force was behind the city’s rise in murders. Representatives for the group collected more than 20,000 petition signatures and got the measure — later called Prop A — on the ballot.

“It’s clear that things are going to have to get worse before they get better as it relates to public safety,” Matt Mackowiak, co-founder of Save Austin Now, said at an election party Tuesday night. “We thought that people in this city were going to demand that we have an adequately staffed police department.”

Mackowiak said that the group's fight for what he called a "safe city" is not over, and he ended his speech by mentioning a potential run by Casar for U.S. Congress, which would leave a City Council seat open.

"We're not going to save Austin now tonight, but we will," Mackowiak said.