With the approval Thursday of an Austin Police Department budget of about $390 million, body cameras will become a full-fledged part of its operations. As many as 500 officers could be outfitted by year’s end in what is now widely considered an imperative part of modern policing.
The department emerged with both wins and losses from lengthy budget negotiations: It has the money to start equipping officers with body cameras, but Police Chief Art Acevedo’s ambitious goal to increase interaction between police and community members, through a significant increase in patrol officers, was dealt a blow.
As part of a five-year plan to increase officers’ “uncommitted time” to roughly 30 percent of their shift, the department asked for 82 more officers. It got 47.
While adding $3 million to the police budget for body cameras, the City Council cut $4.9 million from the department’s proposed budget by rejecting some of its staffing requests.
Body cameras gained political support early in budget negotiations, but so did limiting the number of new hires.
Austin police initially didn’t ask for body cameras in the city’s early version of the budget. The department told council members to wait a year for the technology improve. But both Council Member Ora Houston from District 1 in East Austin and Mayor Steve Adler declared their support for buying the cameras as budget negotiations began.
“The people elected a council that made it a priority,” Acevedo said. “We share in that priority, and we think it is huge.”
This budget is just the start. Council members voiced support to add funding for at least 500 more body cameras in the next budget and to have all uniformed patrol officers equipped with them within three years.
Acevedo added that he still has some concerns over privacy for crime victims, but he said he believes in transparency in how officers conduct their business.
“We believe that, in the vast majority of the time, police are doing the right things for the right reasons, and this will document that,” Acevedo said.
Although body cameras found broad support on the City Council, several council members resisted what they considered to be the amorphous concept of community policing, which Austin police touted as the reason to add more than 400 officers over the coming years.
The broad initiative was designed to increase the amount of free time officers have to work with the community by decreasing the amount of time officers spend running from call to call.
“There was a recognition about the importance of community policing, but (council members had) questions about what that looks like,” said Council Member Ann Kitchen, whose District 5 stretches across South Austin from Slaughter Lane to Lady Bird Lake.
Council Member Ellen Troxclair of Southwest Austin’s District 8 joined Kitchen to propose reducing the number of new sworn officers.
“Specificity is important when we’re committing to invest such significant new resources,” Troxclair said.
Police Department leaders were unable to provide comparisons to others cities’ forces or how they would measure success in community policing. Several council members also wanted the department to be able to account for what its officers would be doing during “uncommitted time.”
But in lowering the number of new officers, the council didn’t abandon community policing. The budget includes $200,000 for research into creating a more defined model of how the department would conduct community policing.
“The data is there, they just want a little bit more information,” Acevedo said. “Believe me, when we are done, they are going to have plenty of information” before next year’s budget cycle.
Some council members saw solving property crimes as a bigger priority. To that end, the police budget includes money to add three supervisor positions for a property crimes task force that will work in the Burglary Unit.
The council also rejected a police proposal to hire 19 civilian positions requested for the 911 call center. Instead, the council approved 14 for the center and three other civilian positions to handle open records requests.