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Officials in Austin cut police budgets last year, then refunded them this year

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

In Austin, Texas, as in other parts of the country, the community is having a serious conversation about policing and police staffing. Elected officials cut millions from the police budget last year and then refunded the department this year. Now residents in the city are being asked to decide if they want to hire more police. Audrey McGlinchy with member station KUT has this story.

AUDREY MCGLINCHY, BYLINE: At a block party in North Austin, neighbors served hot dogs and soda. The event was part of National Night Out, an effort to introduce officers to the communities they police. Kids ricocheted from one corner of a bouncy castle to another. Police officers wandered through. There, I met Erick Villa. At 25 years old, he lives with his family and works for Dell.

ERICK VILLA: Whenever we moved here, crime around the high school was kind of ongoing for a little while, but it definitely has gotten better. I mean, there's a lot of things that still need a lot of work, but I think it's definitely gotten better.

MCGLINCHY: The numbers back Villa up, at least when it comes to violent crime. Between 2019 and 2020, for example, Austin's aggravated assault rate fell nearly 40%. Despite this, Villa says he'd like to see more police.

VILLA: I feel like there's neighborhoods that I barely see any kind of police just kind of surveying. I definitely think it would be a pro. Do we have the budget for that? I mean, I don't know. That's probably above my paygrade.

MCGLINCHY: It may not be, though. Austin residents like Villa are now being asked if they want more police and if it's worth the cost.

MATT MACKOWIAK: The staffing crisis is dire in our city. It's getting worse every single day.

MCGLINCHY: Matt Mackowiak is the co-founder of Save Austin Now, a political action committee behind what's called Proposition A. One stat the group latched onto is the number of murders. This past year, there was a record jump - still lower than the murder rate was in the '80s and '90s but enough to launch a petition for more police. If passed in November, Prop A would tie the number of police to the city's population. The result would be hiring hundreds more officers.

MACKOWIAK: We're shooting to have a police department that is as large as it needs to be to keep our city safe at a time when our city is going through skyrocketing population increases.

MCGLINCHY: The current conversation about policing started last summer, during nationwide protests over police brutality and racial bias. In response to calls to defund the police, council members last year cut about a third of the police department's budget. But very little of that money got to be used on other things. A new state law forced the city to refund the department or face significant financial penalties. Now voters are being asked to decide how much they want to spend on police. There's a cost to that. Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo says it could be expensive, resulting in some potentially painful cuts.

KATHIE TOVO: Anyone who is thinking about voting for this measure should really take a look at the city budget, understand well the impact and make sure that they understand that if this measure passes, we would have to cut city services across most city departments.

MCGLINCHY: Prop A has drawn national attention. Both sides of the campaign have raised nearly a million dollars, and some of that is from big donors outside the state. If Prop A passes, hiring more police may not be easy. Departments across the country have been scrambling to find police. Since 2018, the number of Austin officers has been falling. When I talk to people who recruit for the department, they say there are several factors, including low pay relative to the cost of living and a negative perception of policing. But if this proposition passes on November 2, the city will be legally obligated to hire more. For NPR News, I'm Audrey McGlinchy in Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.