Austin's Deep Police Budget Cut Turns Up Pressure for San Antonio Council to Enact Reforms

click to enlarge Protesters move through the streets of Downtown San Antonio during a Black Lives Matter march. - JAMES DOBBINS
James Dobbins
Protesters move through the streets of Downtown San Antonio during a Black Lives Matter march.
This week, Austin enacted drastic cuts to its police budget, ratcheting up pressure for San Antonio's city council to take activists seriously as it ponders a proposed SAPD budget increase.

Austin's council voted Thursday to slash that city's police budget by $150 million, or roughly a third. Over time, that money would be reallocated to violence prevention and food access programs, civilian police functions and to rethinking how officers interface with the community.

The move comes the same week as San Antonio council members discussed a new budget with a proposed $8 million increase in spending for SAPD. Local police-reform activists have blasted the suggested hike, saying it's a slap in the face after months of Black Lives Matter protests nationwide.

Experts say Austin's move highlights the need for San Antonio and other big Texas cities to take activists' demands seriously and not put off a serious debate on police funding.

"I don't think other cities will go as far as Austin did in terms of allocating the budget to non-policing functions, but I do expect them to to engage in a similar exercise," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University.

Following the death of George Floyd, "Defund the police" has become a rallying cry for activists who want municipalities to move money into violence prevention programs and shift responsibility for dealing with homelessness and mental health away from the police.  

Jillson warned that if San Antonio increases its police budget during the current climate, it would display "willful ignorance" to public concerns about police brutality and misconduct.

"It's a thumb in the eye to the people who have been calling for this conversation," he added.

The debate comes as Mayor Ron Nirenberg promised to enact police reforms and as the city gears up for a contentious collective bargaining with the city's police union on a new contract. While activists say reining in the union is an important step, they also want to see council rethink SAPD's funding.

In addition to Austin, roughly a dozen U.S. metros have taken a scalpel to police budgets since the nationwide protests, said Sarah Beth Kaufman, a Trinity University sociology professor who follows crime and punishment. Most of those cities have large progressive voting blocks or sizable Black populations.

While Nirenberg and others on council will feel pressure to reallocate police funding, Kaufman said she's doubtful they'll make as drastic a move as Austin — or that they'll take short-term action at all.

"This is a different council and a different city than it used be, but our voting public may not be as progressive as our leadership," she said.

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