More Abbott: I'll sign a bill blocking any city attempting to defund the police

If nothing else, Texas seems determined to make itself the most interesting state in politics — maybe competing with Florida and New York for medals. Yesterday, Gov. Greg Abbott renewed his call for legislation that would force cities to maintain law enforcement funding at current levels. Abbott pledged to sign a “Back the Blue Act” that would require any proposed reductions to wait until after an election, and used an incident in Austin as one reason why it’s necessary:

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott vowed Monday to sign a bill that will thwart efforts by cities to reduce or reallocate police budgets, the latest of a string of actions he has taken to restrain local authorities. …

On Monday, Abbott reiterated his promise to sign the bill that requires a municipality or county to hold an election before a local government can make any reduction or reallocation of law enforcement funds as a percentage of its total budget, reducing the number of officer positions or the budget for recruitment and training of new officers.

The bill, known as the “Back the Blue Act,” also states that if the Texas comptroller’s office determines that a local government cut funding without an election, the municipality could not raise property taxes for the next fiscal year. It was passed by the state’s Republican-controlled Senate but was postponed by the House on Monday.

“We always #BacktheBlue. Which is why I made legislation preventing cities from defunding the police an emergency item this session,” Abbott wrote on Twitter.

The catalyst for this renewed call was the Austin PD’s 16-minute response time to a shooting, in which the victim was shot in the head. Thanks to budget cutbacks and reassignments, the city’s police chief reported that no units were available to respond for twelve minutes after the call:

A 12-minute response time is relatively poor for a burglary or domestic disturbance. It’s all but useless in an armed robbery or carjacking. And needless to say, it’s entirely worthless when you’re shot in the head. The question arises, of course, just why the city didn’t have units available. Did they lay off officers as a result of Austin’s #DefundthePolice actions? The first proposal aimed at shaving off $150 million from the police budget, but the city council’s eventual changes came up considerably shorter than that — or so Forbes argued at the time:

Only a little over $20 million has actually been cut from the police department, which takes away funding for unfilled positions, overtime and three cadet classes, with that money primarily being reapportioned to fighting homelessness.

The city is looking to move another $80 million away from the police department budget in the coming year that funds 911 service, the forensic lab and internal affairs, among other services.

But none of those services will be cut, Adler said—they are being moved to other city agencies.

Another $49 million in operations is under “further review,” according to the council, like traffic enforcement, police training and park patrols.

You can’t measure public safety in police dollars alone, Mayor Steve Adler said at the time. “How much you invest in public safety is a broader question.” True, but one can measure the latter in average police response time to emergencies. If that 16-minute response time to an active shooting incident is at all representative, then it calls into question the city’s decision to cut those cadet classes, overtime, and unfilled positions.

Heck, even if the 16-minute response to an active shooting isn’t broadly representative, it still demonstrates a public-safety issue. What would have happened if the shooting continued? How many people would have been dead before the first unit arrived? Public safety isn’t a good application for just-in-time delivery models, after all. It requires supply for peaks, not averages.

As for the idea that only $20 million was removed from policing, that’s not the way it appears from the Austin city budget for FY2020-21, page 356:

The overall police budget didn’t get cut by $150 million, but it came close at -$141 million and some change. Austin zeroed out nearly $35 million for professional standards (!) and support services, and $50 million from operations support as well. Another $50 million got taken away from “neighborhood-based policing,” which is one of the best-practices strategies designed to make policing less intrusive and more effective. Even investigations got a $5 million haircut. If looking at the investment by strategic outcome, Austin took $138 million away from the strategic “safety” outcome.

Even if significant amounts of these cuts went to funding other agencies, it’s an astounding funding transfer away from “safety.” The note on this chart points out that the money mostly went to efforts called the “Reimagine Safety Fund” ($45M) and something called the “Decouple Fund” ($76M). If reimagining public safety means accepting 16-minute response times to shootings, then Austin has become decoupled from reality.

This is the context for Abbott’s “Back the Blue Act.” It’s too late for Abbott to do anything about Austin, but he can at least disincentivize other Texas cities from following in their footsteps.