How 'Defunding Police' Is Playing Out In Austin, Texas : Consider This from NPR Last summer, the city of Austin, Texas, slashed the budget for its police department. More recently, the city council voted on a new way to spend some of that money. KUT reporter Audrey McGlinchy explains what other changes have taken place in Austin.

A powerful new player is joining calls for reparations for Black Americans: the American Civil Liberties Union. Civil rights attorney Deborah Archer — the ACLU's newly elected board president and the first Black person to assume that role — explains the organization's new stance.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment that will help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

Email us at considerthis@npr.org.
NPR logo

Update On A Movement: How 'Defunding Police' Is Playing Out In Austin, Texas

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/970107572/970298430" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Update On A Movement: How 'Defunding Police' Is Playing Out In Austin, Texas

Update On A Movement: How 'Defunding Police' Is Playing Out In Austin, Texas

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/970107572/970298430" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

In Austin, Texas, a few weeks back, the city council approved some proposals that seemed like they would have a ton of support...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Being in favor of urgently passing items 31 and 32...

CORNISH: ...At least if the constituents calling in to the virtual meeting were any indication.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Here to speak in favor of items 31 and 32.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Please vote in favor of 31 and 32.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Urging the city council to vote in favor of items 31 and 32. And let's go ahead and...

CORNISH: Items 31 and 32 were big-ticket projects. Each represented the purchase of a hotel that the city would convert into housing for people experiencing homelessness in Austin - not a shelter - permanent long-term housing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: No one should be homeless in a just society.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I'm obviously in favor of using these hotels as housing.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Voting in favor of both of these items today confirms your commitment to humanely and sustainably ending the homelessness crisis we face.

CORNISH: The council vote to approve one hotel was unanimous.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Unanimous on the dais. Those five items passed.

CORNISH: They approved a second one a week later.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Austin City Council adding another hotel to house the homeless in Austin.

CORNISH: But this initiative in Austin was about more than the buildings. People who live in them will have access to city services aimed at those experiencing chronic homelessness. Those services will be paid for, in part, by funding diverted from the city's police department. It's one of the most specific examples we have of a major American city rethinking the money it spends on law enforcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE ADLER: Austin pays more per capita for its police than any other major city in the state does, and we do that because we recognize the importance of police.

CORNISH: Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a recent interview, the city, which voted last summer to cut its police budget, still spends a lot of money on that department.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADLER: But public safety involves more than just police, and we have to figure out in our community what works to make us even safer than we are now. That has to be our constant push to keep an already safe city even safer.

CORNISH: CONSIDER THIS - last summer, protests over the death of George Floyd opened a floodgate of activism in support of racial justice, but the work of following through on the demands of that moment has really only just begun. From NPR, I'm Audie Cornish. It's Monday, February 22.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. As a candidate for president, Joe Biden was clear.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: No, I don't support defunding the police.

CORNISH: Biden did, however, say he supported making federal aid to police departments conditional.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness and, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community.

CORNISH: So far, as president, Biden hasn't taken any action on new standards for federal aid to police. The action Biden has taken came during his first week in office when he signed four executive actions that his administration said were aimed at advancing racial equity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I ran for president because I believe we're in a battle for the soul of this nation, and the simple truth is our soul will be troubled as long as systemic racism is allowed to persist. We can't...

CORNISH: A couple of his executive actions were about respecting tribal sovereignty and fighting a rise in the anti-Asian discrimination and violence we've seen in the last year. Another stopped the Justice Department from renewing contracts with private prisons. And the fourth - well, it directed HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to enforce and advance laws against housing discrimination.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANDRE PERRY: Well, first, it's a start. We haven't heard or seen equity mentioned as much as any president as Biden in just the first month of being in office.

CORNISH: Andre Perry is a senior fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Biden's executive actions got positive reviews from civil rights leaders and activists, but pretty much everyone involved agrees they are just first steps. For instance, take housing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PERRY: This is a welcome action on the part of Biden to say, hey, we at least have to enforce the rules on the books. But there's another issue.

CORNISH: Equity in housing, Perry says, is about way more than the policies of a single federal agency.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PERRY: Housing devaluation has a lot to do with real estate agent behavior, has a lot to do with appraisals, has a lot to do with lending, none of which HUD really has a good hold on. And so I do think this is a start.

CORNISH: After those initial actions were signed last month, a Biden administration official told reporters, quote, "This is not the end of our work on racial equity. We'll have a lot more work to do in the coming weeks and months."

(SOUNDBITE OF MELLO C'S "MISS MOON")

CORNISH: Meaningful action often takes more than a few weeks or months. That's something people in Austin, Texas, have learned firsthand.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: I'm calling to demand that the Austin City Council approve a budget that defunds the police department.

CORNISH: This is what it sounded like last summer when people started calling city hall just as the Austin City Council was voting on a new budget.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: We demand you reinvest these funds into health care, EMS, education, housing, mental health and drug addiction resources.

CORNISH: There were also calls to shrink police budgets in Seattle and Portland and, of course, Minneapolis. That's where George Floyd was killed by police at the beginning of last summer. But Austin was among those cities to actually follow through, reducing the police budget by almost a third, one of the biggest funding cuts in the country. As for how it's going, well, those hotels aimed at housing people experiencing homelessness are just one small part of it. Here's Audrey McGlinchy from member station KUT in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AUDREY MCGLINCHY: Last October, 42 police officers graduated from the city's police academy.

VANESSA SWESNIK: My name is Vanessa Swesnik, and today is my first day as an officer with the Austin Police Department.

MCGLINCHY: And while this was Swesnik's first day, it was also the last police graduation for a while. Two months earlier, the city council voted on a new budget for the department, one that eliminated $13 million for a year's worth of the hiring and training of new officers. Swesnik, a former teacher in her 30s, noted some of the controversy around this decision.

SWESNIK: I know that the city council wants what's best for the city and so do we. So I'm hopeful that even if people disagree on how to get there, I'm hopeful that we can keep that in mind - that we all want what's best for the city.

MCGLINCHY: Ultimately, the city reduced the police budget by about $150 million. But that number's not all it seems to be. About a tenth of that money comes from canceling police training classes and reducing overtime spending. That money went to other departments, like the public health agency. But more than half of the cuts were just a reshuffling. For example, the city moved its forensics lab away from the police - same department, different oversight. The next day, Austin Mayor Steve Adler called the vote transformative. He said the city could better focus on funding services to prevent crime rather than respond to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADLER: This is a budget that really asks the question, how much safer can we be?

MCGLINCHY: Police Chief Brian Manley was not entirely sold. He worried with fewer new officers, police would be slower to respond to 911 calls. So to keep this from happening, he moved officers off special assignments and onto patrol. While he was critical, Manley welcomed the chance to reconsider the role of police, especially when it comes to things like mental health.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRIAN MANLEY: Oftentimes, police officers are sent to situations for which we're not always the best trained or the best equipped. We're just simply the only ones available.

MCGLINCHY: Reallocating some of this police money will take time, but it's unclear if Austin's decision to cut its police budget could ever happen again. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has promised to sign a bill making it almost impossible for cities to reduce their police department budgets.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Audrey McGlinchy with member station KUT in Austin.

Backlash to even the idea of police budget cuts - that's happening in more places than just Texas. In Georgia, there's a bill working its way through the Statehouse that would protect police departments against cuts of 5% or more. In Florida, there's a bill that would defund the cities and towns that try to defund law enforcement and make it easier to sue them if they fail to protect citizens. And in Minneapolis, the place where this started, well, about a week ago, the city council approved an extra $6.5 million to recruit more police because of a rise in violent crime and slower response times.

Now, a single city's police budget is a narrow target for progressive activists. A much broader target is the idea of reparations for Black Americans. This month, a powerful new player got engaged on that issue. The 101-year-old American Civil Liberties Union announced an aggressive new racial justice agenda that includes support for the study of reparations in Congress. And it's a big deal for an organization whose primary focus has been on issues of free speech. Civil rights attorney Deborah Archer is the ACLU's newly elected board president and the first Black person to assume that role. She spoke to NPR's Ailsa Chang about the ACLU's new focus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DEBORAH ARCHER: First, I'd like to say we are absolutely focused on deepening our work on racial justice, but it doesn't mean that we're turning away from any of the issues that we worked on in the past, including First Amendment. But I do think that if we look at the time that we're in now and what has happened over the past year, advancing racial justice really has to be at the forefront of our work.

AILSA CHANG: Well, let's talk about a few elements of the ACLU's new racial justice agenda. I want to start with the organization's support for a reparations bill. What exactly do you want to see from lawmakers and the Biden administration on that front?

ARCHER: The ACLU thinks that reparations is an important part of reconciling with the past, which we think is necessary to advancing systemic equality and fighting for racial justice. Reconciliation and reparations are not about taking from one to give to the other, but rather, it is a means of using our nation's resources, much of which have been accumulated through the exploitation of Black communities, to provide those same communities with access to the economic ladder that they've been denied for hundreds of years. And so the ACLU believes the issue of reparations should be seriously considered by all Americans.

CHANG: Well, you're going to be urging the Biden administration to get behind policies that support the economic well-being of all Americans - things like fair, affordable housing, canceling student debt, providing basic banking services at post offices. And I know that what I'm about to ask is a big question with a big answer. But can you just explain how getting at some of these very basic economic ideas furthers racial justice?

ARCHER: At a very fundamental level, economic inequality inhibits our ability to enjoy our full array of fundamental and constitutional rights. For example, today 1 in 4 Americans are unbanked or underbanked. And predictably, for Black people, financial marginalization is much worse. We are thinking about ways to increase access in Black communities to some of these essential financial services.

CHANG: Well, if President Biden does not get behind the policies that you want to see him get behind, what is the ACLU strategy? I mean, it's worth noting that the ACLU sued the Trump administration more than 400 times. Do you see litigation as a tool that you are absolutely willing to resort to during this new administration?

ARCHER: I think the ACLU is ready to use every tool that we have and to rise to this moment, just as we rose to the moment following the election of Donald Trump. We spent most of the past four years on the defensive, trying to stop efforts to roll back fundamental civil rights and civil liberties and challenging laws that targeted vulnerable and marginalized communities. But now the ACLU has an opportunity and I would say responsibility to hold the Biden administration accountable for doing everything that they can, again, to roll back the toxic legacy and to expand civil rights and civil liberties.

CORNISH: Deborah Archer is the new board president at the American Civil Liberties Union.

You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Audie Cornish.

Copyright © 2021 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.