'Defund the Police' Experiment Underway in Austin, Texas

While cities like Baltimore and Denver cut police budgets by 3% or 10%, Austin cut its by a third — $150 million.

Video Transcript

- No racist police!

SARAH HUNTER: Over the summer a chants to defund the police rang out across the country, but hardly anyone cut their police budget by as much as Austin, Texas. While cities like Baltimore and Denver cut their budgets by 3% or 10%, Austin cut APD budget by a third, 150 million. And they've already started spending that money on other programs, buying two hotels with plans to convert them into permanent supportive housing for the homeless.

COUNCILMAN GREG CASAR: The Black Lives Matter movement really ascending in our cities, it created an opportunity for us to move the dollars that so often are used to police homelessness, to throw people in jail for a night and then just send them back onto the streets, to take those same dollars and use them to actually operate the hotels.

JAMAL ANDRESS: To operate these hotels it would take about $6.5 million annually, but the backlash to any reallocation of police funds in this very red state has been swift and widespread.

STATE REP BRISCOE CAIN: Crime is up because police funding is down. That's the wrong direction.

GREGG SOFER: We will not stand idly by and watch as violent criminals take over the streets of our communities.

LT GOV DAN PATRICK: The city of Austin is a disaster, if you haven't been there. Now one of the most dangerous cities in America and definitely in Texas.

JAMAL ANDRESS: The Texas governor is threatening to remove Austin police from the city's control, freeze property tax revenues, and bring in federal law enforcement all in the interest of public safety. And while Austin isn't one of the most dangerous cities in the US or even in Texas, it has seen a rise in homicides from 36 in 2019 to 48 in 2020. Other large cities in the state experienced similar rises in homicides including both Houston and Fort Worth, two cities that increased their police budgets this year.

Austin City Councilman Greg Casar, who spearheaded the police defunding effort, says housing for the homeless is exactly the kind of action that will make the city safer.

COUNCILMAN GREG CASAR: Lying about Austin doesn't make anyone safer, but setting up homeless shelters does make people safer. These are real issues that the Governor and Lieutenant Governor don't want to talk about, that policing doesn't solve entirely on its own, and that we are actually bringing dollars forward to help solve the issue.

JAMAL ANDRESS: Austin's housing program is similar to one in Los Angeles that housed about 3,500 chronically homeless people. Like Los Angeles, Austin plans to offer wraparound services, meaning not only housing but a case manager for residents and other social services. Professor Sarah Hunter evaluated the Los Angeles housing program and saw positive impacts.

GREGG SOFER: Study after study shows that permanent supportive housing increasing housing-- increases housing stability.

JAMAL ANDRESS: It also pays for itself. According to Hunter, for every dollar the Los Angeles Health Department spent on this housing program, the county saved $1.20, dramatically reducing expensive trips to the emergency room and long term hospital stays.

SARAH HUNTER: What it suggests is we're already, as a society, paying a lot of money to provide services to people experiencing homelessness. The provision of permanent supportive housing may actually be a more effective use of those funds.

JAMAL ANDRESS: Austin's reforms have extended beyond the police budget. The city adding a mental health option for 9-1-1 calls and proposing an independent office of police oversight.

COUNCILMAN GREG CASAR: I believe lots of other cities can follow Austin's example because unfortunately many cities have over relied on policing and jailing as our primary response to social issues. That's something that doesn't just exist here in Austin it exists all over the country.

JAMAL ANDRESS: Jamal Andress, Newsy.