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Gov. Abbott again takes aim at Austin over police funding, public camping issues

Gov. Abbott again takes aim at Austin over police funding, public camping issues

by Ryan Autullo | Austin American-Statesman  |  Published on January 22, 2021

Gov. Greg Abbott continued his ongoing fight with Austin on Thursday, taking aim at changes the city has made to police funding and public camping that the governor described as reckless.

Speaking during a news conference in Austin to unveil his priorities for the state legislative session, Abbott said he will support a bill that denies tax revenue to cities that cut their police budgets, as well as another bill that implements a statewide camping ban for people experiencing homelessness.

Although the changes would affect the entire state, Abbott’s comments seemed clearly directed at Austin. In 2019, Austin City Council members voted to repeal a 23-year-old ordinance that made it illegal to sleep in public areas, prompting an increase in tent encampments in the downtown area. On Wednesday, Mayor Steve Adler acknowledged for the first time that the repeal of the ban “is not working.”

Last year, the City Council voted to cut $21 million from the Austin Police Department and cancel three scheduled cadet classes that police officials say are desperately needed to fill vacancies on the force.

Several studies have concluded the curriculum at the Austin Police Department’s academy promotes aggressive tactics by officers and reinforces racial stereotypes. The council members have largely agreed that the training academy should not reopen until the curriculum improves.

“Cities that defund the police make it physically impossible for citizens to live safely,” Abbott said Thursday. “That’s why we must make it fiscally impossible for cities to defund the police.”

Abbott did not provide specifics on his plan to cut tax revenue to cities, but this is not the first time he’s made such a threat. He previously recommended freezing property tax increases for cities that cut police funding and, separately, instructing the Texas comptroller not to release their local sales tax funds to such cities.

Some violent crimes are on the rise throughout the state, leading to a belief by criminal justice reform activists that a robust police department budget does not lead to lower crime levels. Austin police responded to 48 homicides in 2020 — the most in the city’s history.

Other big cities in Texas have increased their police budgets only to see an increase in certain violent crimes.

As for the camping ban, Abbott said he’d lay out the specifics at another time. His comments came a day after he sent out a tweet telling Austin voters to reinstate the city’s camping ban or the state would do it for them. Austin’s May 1 election is expected to include ballot language that could reinstate the ban, should voters approve it.

Abbott said the proposed statewide camping ban was part of a larger plan to address homelessness.

Ahead of Abbott’s news conference, Austin City Council Member Greg Casar issued a statement telling Abbott to stay out of Austin’s affairs.

“In the wake of unjustifiable shootings and violence by police, our community has pushed the city to make much needed change,” Casar said. “Now, Gov. Abbott is supporting proposals to protect departments that do the wrong thing. He wants to punish Austin for establishing a civil rights office, family violence shelters, an independent forensic lab, and substance use programs in our latest budget. It’s yet another chapter of his political theater, and it’s clear he doesn’t know the first thing about saving lives.”

“If Gov. Abbott is so interested in the local budget process, he should file to run for Austin City Council. The election in his district is next year. I don’t expect he’d do very well.”

In another measure he said will uphold public safety, Abbott said he also wants to pass a bill that will make it more difficult for people charged with violent crimes to be released before trial. He said potential policy changes could include expanding the criteria a magistrate judge must consider when setting bail, increasing the qualifications of those judges and introducing a “uniform court management system” with information on a defendant’s criminal history to guide judges’ decisions.

Abbott said the bill is to be named after Texas Department of Public Safety trooper Damon Allen, who was killed in 2017 in Freestone County after he was shot by a man who was out on bail for allegedly crashing his car into a police vehicle.

Absent from Abbott’s remarks was more discussion about a plan he previously endorsed to put the Austin Police Department under state control. Asked if he still supported that proposal, Abbott spoke about introducing a “safe zone” in Austin, but he did not directly address the possibility of a full takeover.

The safe zone Abbott referenced appears to be an area in Central Austin that he has previously suggested could be policed by the state. The area runs from Lady Bird Lake north to 32nd Street and from Interstate 35 west to Lamar Boulevard or MoPac Boulevard (Loop 1). The zone includes Austin’s downtown and the area near the University of Texas campus.

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