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Inside One City's Attempt To Defund The Police

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Calls to defund police departments picked up steam last year after a series of controversial police killings. Many wondered if local governments diverted money from police departments and spent it on other services, like housing and mental health, would that be a better way to serve residents in need? Well, that's what leaders in Austin, Texas, decided to do when they reduced the police budget by almost a third, one of the biggest funding cuts in the country. Audrey McGlinchy of member station KUT has been looking into how it's been going.

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AUDREY MCGLINCHY, BYLINE: 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, the 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: Last May, protests erupted across the country after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man. Thousands gathered in the streets of Austin. At city hall, leaders just happened to be voting on a new budget, so calls into their meetings sounded like these.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm calling today to demand that the Austin City Council approve a budget that defunds the police department by $100 million.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We demand you reinvest these funds into health care, EMS, education, housing, mental health and drug addiction resources.

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.

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STEVE 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.

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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. Last month, the city spent part of it to operate a hotel that will help people make the transition out of homelessness. Advocates say this is one example of spending police money on something that could reduce the need for law enforcement. 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.

For NPR News, I'm Audrey McGlinchy in Austin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MAX RICHTER'S "CASCADE NW BY W") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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