Defunding Police Isn’t Working The Way it Was Meant to Work
Most of the money defunded from Austin, Texas police is sitting in bank accounts, not being used
$150 million was cut from the police budget for 2021 in Austin, Texas. The defunding was intended to free up money to pay more social workers and mental health practitioners, to supply permanent supportive housing, and to train police in diversity and de-escalation. Defunding hasn’t worked out quite like that.
I spoke with an Austin, Texas homocide detective in February. He was at my apartment complex investigating a death, and I had been unofficially comforting the grieving husband. I’m a therapist, but this was in my role as a neighbor. Two social workers had been there earlier when he first discovered his wife’s body, but they’d been called away to another crime scene, so he had been left alone while police investigated further. I sat with him until the social workers returned.
They returned to accompany him to view the body before the coroner took her away. I wasn’t allowed ot go with him, but as soon as the body was loaded, the social workers were glad to leave him to my care.
While my neighbor was inside, the detective and I spoke. He agreed to be referred to anonymously. I asked about the social workers, and he said they had another scene to go to, their third that morning. He said they were understaffed with mental health workers, and that in fact, they had to let some go after defunding. His own department was also short of officers due to retirements, early retirements, and transfers and no new hiring. He was on his way to another crime scene that morning.
When I expressed that defunding was supposed to actually be used to hire more mental health workers, he stated the opposite seems to have happened.
The reason this is so important to the Black Lives Matter movement and the efforts to defund the police, is that one-fourth of the 2000 people killed by police from the first of 2015 to the end of 2016 suffered from mental illness. This past year, Anthony Hill, a Black Afghanistan war veteran, was killed outside of Atlanta while nude and in mental distress. A 66 year old Black women with a history of mental illness was also naked and shot in her own home by a New York police officer. In Baytown, Texas, Pamela Turner, a 44 year old Black woman having a mental health crisis was shot by a police officer who lived in her complex.
When defunding doesn’t meet this obvious need for reform in the way police treat minority people with histories of mental illness, then defunding isn’t working.
Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, addressed the issue with me. “Everybody wanted a response to George Floyd and the history of police issues. Police chiefs, and I, agreed. We asked for 12 months to come up with solutions, fixes and a budget. Instead we were simply defunded. The money is in different bank accounts and hasn’t been allocated, except to pay overtime for officers and EMT during the February freeze in Austin,” he explained. “The committee, Reimagining the Police, established to come up with solutions, fixes and ways to use the defunded money, hasn’t come up with any yet.” At least not any that are feasible or currently actionable.
Suggestions to the City Council so far have included eliminating the Mounted Patrol, which would save approximately $2 million a year. The City Council hasn’t yet disbanded the group. Activists themselves acknowledge that the mounted police have more often than not brought a sense of calm to protests from both sides.
Another idea raised was to have the mental health professionals from the Victims’ Assistance program be first responders to domestic and school calls. The members themselves objected to this, saying they don’t feel qualified to be a first responder to scenes that could easily escalate and require officer intervention. These suggestions haven’t been submitted to the State Legislature by activists or the Reimagine the Police committee, and the deadline for that has passed. The Texas Legislature meets every two years, so there’s time for come up with solutions by the next session. However, the defunded money is still mostly languishing in bank accounts, and not allocated toward solutions since none have been finalized.
Instead, the police association filed a bill with the Texas Legislature on the last day bills could be submitted. The bill contains their recommendations for ways to use the $150 million to improve police training, functionality and better ways to handle domestic violence and school calls, alongside mental health services.
Defunding had called for Victims’ Assistance social workers and mental health counselors to be first responders on those types of call. The Victims’ Assistance professionals state that they don’t feel qualified to be first responders to any police call by themselves, in case the situations escalate. So far nothing has been proposed by activists or the committee of what the protocol should be for first responders to domestic and school calls.
What has happened in Austin is that all police officers are now receiving 80 hours of training in mental health responding. In the past there have been officers trained specifically as mental health officers, which included the 80 hours training, but also involved a selection and screening process to make sure they were the best fit. The pros of training every officer is that they all learn ways to assess, manage and preferably de-escalate mental health situations. The cons of training every officer is that some are fresh out of basic training with no street experience, and none are appropriately selected and screened.
As a therapist, I can attest that more screening and training is necessary. As are solutions that can be funded with money currently being held.