Defunding disaster: Austin Police no longer responding to 'non-life threatening' 911 calls

Department suffering from acute staffing shortages after Austin City Council defunded police budget by $150 million.

Updated: October 2, 2021 - 5:18pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

The Austin Police Department is warning it won’t be responding to non-life threatening 911 calls.

Starting Friday, Austin’s sworn police officers will no longer be responding in person to non-emergency calls because of severe staffing shortages, APD announced.

The announcement comes after the Harris County Sheriff's Deputies Organization in Houston warned residents that if they were “robbed, raped or shot” to “hold their breath and pray” because they might not have the personnel to respond.

The Austin no-response announcement includes vehicle collisions with no injuries and burglaries no longer in progress or where the suspect has fled the scene. Instead of calling 911, residents are being told to call 311 to file a non-emergency police report.

An APD spokesperson told Fox News that while a sworn police officer might not respond in person, a civilian officer, like a crime scene technician, might.

The department "regularly reviews response policies and procedures to ensure APD prioritizes calls with an immediate threat to life or property over non-emergency calls for service," she said.

The staffing shortages and inability to respond to non-life threatening 911 calls is a direct result of the Austin City Council’s defunding of the APD last year, cutting $150 million of its budget, and other changes that were implemented affecting how the department operates.

"As a result of a recent review of APD’s patrol COVID mitigation protocols initiated in May 2020, recent staffing challenges and aligning with the Reimagining Public Safety Task Force patrol response recommendations, APD will change call routing and response for non-emergency calls for service effective October 1, 2021," she said.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday told Fox News that APD hasn’t been able to hire new officers because it hasn’t been able to have a police academy for nearly two years. As a result, there aren’t enough patrol officers to respond to non-emergency calls.

"Probably about 95% of the time our shifts don’t meet minimum staffing … and that is the reason they’ve started cutting back on what types of calls are answered," Casaday said. "It’s not optimal. It’s not providing a quality service to the community. But the community also needs to understand that we’re under a dire staffing crisis."

After the City Council cut funding last year, by July, response times to 911 calls were 20-30 minutes longer on average, and the homicide rate is at a level that “we’ve never really seen here before,” interim chief Joseph Chacon said at the time. Cutting APD funds by $150 million resulted in canceling multiple cadet classes and disbanding multiple units responsible for responding to DWIs, domestic violence calls, stalking, and criminal interdiction.

The APD has been losing 15 to 20 officers a month, with many quitting and retiring and not enough new recruits to replace them. The department has projected 235 vacancies by May 2022, and 340 vacancies by May 2023.

While the APD has recently begun to resume cadet classes, it will take a while to get new officers on the streets. The city is paying more than $10,000 per day, with a maximum of $580,000 per year, to Joyce James Consulting to provide an “anti-racism” Critical Race Theory-based curriculum for a “reimagining public safety campaign.”

While the Houston sheriff’s organization sued Harris County over a lack of funding and noncompliance with regulations, a bipartisan activist group, Save Austin Now, took another approach. It initiated its second successful ballot initiative this year to allow voters to restore police funding.

“Austin doesn’t feel as safe recently. Because it isn’t,” the group argued as part of its campaign. “We’ve seen a series of city policy decisions over the last two years that have led to a surge in both violent crime and property crime against Austinites. A 300% increase in murders this year. A double-digit increase in property crimes such as burglaries and car jackings.”

“As Austin’s crime rate has soared, the federal government has taken note of it and sent in resources to help stabilize the chaos,” it adds. “But we cannot rely on the federal government’s Operation Undaunted to provide us with the local resources we’ll need to fight this trend: We’ll have to do it ourselves.”

Their petition received the required number of votes and its proposed public safety law will be on the November ballot. Among other things, it includes adding officers to APD according to the nationally recognized “Safe City Standard,” which stipulates two police officers hired for every 1,000 citizens.

In addition to the proposed law on the ballot in Austin this November, the state legislature earlier this year passed a law to prevent cities from defunding their police departments. The law, which went into effect Sept. 1, blocks state funds from going to local governments that defund their police departments.

Just the News Spotlight