Austin City Council unanimously backs policies limiting police officers’ use of force and asks for cuts to department budget

Protesters demonstrating against police brutality raise their arms and chant, “Don’t shoot!” after Austin officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd on May 30. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

The Austin City Council on Thursday unanimously approved a set of measures meant to limit police officers’ use of force, which include restrictions on use of deadly force and a ban on using “less lethal” munitions during protests. The council also directed the city manager to propose reductions to the department’s budget next year.

The moves come in the wake of nationwide protests over police brutality against people of color, including in Austin. Many of those national and local demonstrations have included calls for reforms on police tactics and the “defunding” of law enforcement in favor of redistributing funds to social services and alternative public safety programs.

"I hope that we don’t miss this moment. Our community is at a boiling point," said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza. "We cannot move past this without change, we cannot. I will do my best to remain hopeful."

Decreasing police funding has also gained momentum in Dallas. Houston leaders increased that city’s police budget by almost $20 million for the upcoming fiscal year, though officials attributed that move to fixed costs like pension obligations and pay raises.

All 11 members of the Austin City Council co-sponsored the resolutions passed Wednesday. They were penned in response to nationwide protests against police brutality sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The Austin Police Association, a police union that represents more than 1,800 officers, opposed the measures. But association president Ken Casaday limited his comments to the roughly $20 million budget reduction – as estimated by the Austin Chronicle – and pointed to the effects of the 2018 police department budget cuts.

“The money was reallocated to projects across the city, and in the meantime the homeless issues continued to grow and not get better,” Casaday said, adding that Austin police officers are recruited from diverse backgrounds and exhibit high levels of cultural competency.

In Austin, the recent police brutality protests spurred new attention on the killing of Michael Ramos, an unarmed black and Hispanic man, by Austin police in April. Ramos was pulling out of a parking lot when police officers shot and killed him.

One of the new policies, written by council member Greg Casar, limits when police can use deadly force. Among other things, it says that someone fleeing officers must pose an imminent threat before officers can shoot.

The Austin Police Department has also come under fire for its use of “less lethal” munitions, like rubber bullets and bean bag rounds, during the recent protests. Officers using such items injured Justin Howell, a 20-year-old black man, 16-year-old Brad Levi Ayala and at least 29 others enough to hospitalize them.

Casar’s resolution also prohibits “less lethal” weapons like rubber bullets, bean bag rounds, tear gas and pepper spray during protests.

Police Chief Brian Manley conceded the use of tear gas “is very controversial” but said deploying the chemical agent is a key tactic in SWAT situations.

“We’re able to get them to come out and surrender to us [with tear gas],” he said. “I am greatly concerned that if there is an all-out prohibition that that will make our officers jobs much more difficult in that circumstance.”

Thursday’s meeting comes after four city council members have said they’ve lost confidence in Manley. Some have called on him to resign. One of the resolutions unanimously passed Thursday also said the council has no confidence that police officials intend to implement changes that would end violence disproportionately used against people of color and low-income residents.

During the meeting Thursday, caller after caller showed support for the resolutions to lower the police budget and implement reforms. And many echoed council members’ calls for Manley to resign.

One supporter of the resolutions, Jacqueline Horn, said she attended the first weekend of protests in Austin with a friend and saw civilians being tear gassed by police outside Austin City Hall. She tended to one of them with a homemade first-aid kit she had brought with her.

“I found a girl who wasn’t even 18 years old, debilitated, screaming that her face burned,” Horn said. “I fanned her. I tended to her wounds with my homemade tear gas solution.”

Garza’s resolution sets goals for eliminating racial discrimination in policing.

The resolution to reduce the Austin Police Department’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year was authored by Natasha Harper-Madison, the sole black member of the council, who said her office has received more than 10,000 emails this week.

“In my year and a half on this council, I’ve never seen a public response to any issue before like what we’re seeing right now,” Harper-Madison said. “This time around has been completely different. It’s been overwhelming in several senses of the word.”

Harper-Madison’s resolution directs the city manager to eliminate vacant positions in the department that are unlikely to be filled within a year and reallocate funding for those positions to social services, including mental health and housing stability programs.

"This resolution simply sets our expectations for the upcoming budget talks later this summer," Harper-Madison said. "It is just the first step in what we know will be a long journey."

Monica Guzman, policy director for Go Austin/Vamos Austin (GAVA), a community health coalition, expressed support for reallocating funding from police as a more cost-effective solution to promoting community safety than investing in law enforcement.

“The police department budget is more than one-third of the city’s budget: larger than the Austin Public Library, Austin Public Health, Parks and Recreation, and EMS, combined,” she said. “We are urging you to reallocate funding from APD in order to invest in social determinant upstream programming and services.”

Another caller, Christina Aguilar, pointed to racial and socioeconomic inequalities in Austin as a reason for redistributing police funds. She described a lack of affordable housing, job opportunities, education, and mental health services available to communities of color.

“Looking from the outside, one might see that Austin, Texas, is a city of progress, right?” she said. “But those who are African American, Mexican, and other minorities experience a different type of Austin, Texas. That is why it’s more important for us to use some of the funds that the Austin Police Department is privileged to and spread them out to the other emergency services that will actually help empower the minority community.”

Joell McNew, the president of Safehorns, a coalition of parents and community stakeholders that seeks to promote safety at the University of Texas at Austin, cited the shortage of first responders and 911 dispatchers during the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason against lowering the police budget.

“How are you going to handle 911 calls defunding public safety?” she said.

Mayor Steve Adler pushed back on criticism that reallocating police funds is equivalent to defunding the police, addressing police officers directly to tell them their work is necessary to keep Austin communities safe.

“Know that this council and I want to do everything that we can do to make sure that you are supported and that you are safe,” Adler said. “But no one should believe APA leaders when they suggest that the council is going to defund police or that this council is calling all police officers racist. No one has said those things and it is not true. We will not compromise the safety of this community. Period.”

Julián Aguilar contributed to this report.