Listen: How DPS Could Take Over Austin’s Police Department

A former Travis County sheriff is among those urging that the Texas Legislature step in to overturn $150 million in cuts made to the capital city’s police budget.

By Jill Ament & Shelly BrisbinSeptember 8, 2020 3:27 pm

Note: What follows are highlights of an interview with Terry Keel, an assistant commissioner at the Texas Department of Agriculture. He is a proponent of the Texas Department of Public Safety taking over the Austin Police Department. Texas Standard will continue to bring you more on this evolving story.

Last week, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted that he is considering a proposal that would put the Texas Department of Public Safety in charge of Austin police. The tweet was in response to Austin City Council’s decision to cut $150 million from the police department’s budget, and shift the funds to social services.  

“We can’t let Austin’s defunding & disrespect for law enforcement endanger the public & invite chaos like in Portland and Seattle,” the governor tweeted.  

But the idea didn’t start with Abbott. Assistant commissioner at the Texas Department of Agriculture, Terry Keel, is among those behind the proposal. Keel is also a former Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives, and former Travis County sheriff. He told Texas Standard that everyone in Texas has a stake in public safety in the capital city.

On Austin’s crime rate:

I looked at what was going on in the middle of Austin, where there’s relatively no crime in the 50 square-block area where DPS has control, and then look at the rest of the city where we’ve just had an explosion of homelessness and related crime to that, and a spike in homicides and robberies. And I thought, there’s got to be a better way to do this. (For more context, read the Austin American-Statesman’s reporting on homelessness in Austin)

On how a DPS takeover of Austin police could be accomplished:

The Legislature has the power under the Texas Constitution to determine what cities will and will not do, and has the power to alter their charters. There’s procedural requirements; you’d need to make it a general law and not a special or local bill. But the Legislature could come in and say, We’re going to consolidate the Austin Police Department with the Department of Public Safety, and instead of the chief of the Austin Police Department answering to a city manger, he’ll answer to the director of the Department of Public Safety. And instead of the Austin Police Department’s police budget being set by the Austin City Council, it will be set by the Public Safety Commission of the Department of Public Safety.

On how the Legislature could create such a law, specific to Austin:

By triggering the governor to deploy statewide resources to supplement public safety in the capital city, the Austin City Council actually handed the Legislature the procedural prerequisites to enact the proposal because it’s a statewide issue. 

On the impact of Austin’s police budget cuts: 

I think there’s a lot of momentum for it here in Austin, in particular, because the city of Austin has cut, right up front, $20 million from the Austin Police Department, and now we’ve lost a bunch of specialized units, like the community operations, park police, lake patrol, the organized-crime unit. We’ve lost three cadet classes, including the most diverse cadet class they’ve ever had. Community policing has taken a hit. So, everything the City Council preaches they’re for has been jeopardized by what they’ve done.

On whether social service spending can make up for cuts to law enforcement:

You’re speaking of about $130 million that they put into a what they called a “transitional fund” to determine what would be moved out of APD control, to what they call “reimagine” or “deconstruct” the police department, and move things under civilian control. All of that is a disaster. They’re going to move victims’ services out of the police department? It’s insane, and it’s inefficient and it’s going to hurt operation of police on a daily basis. 

On the current state of Austin police:

The police officers here have very low morale. They were chronically underfunded for several years here recently. And now, the cadet classes have been canceled. It’s jeopardized their pension, and they are having to go into a mode of shifting all of their resources to reactive law enforcement instead of proactive. So all these specialized units that get taken away – they’re shifting these officers to patrol, just to fill the gaps, in order to be able to answer calls.

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