Austin has been a lightning rod in the debate over police reform in Texas. The city’s decision to reallocate some police department funds in the wake of racial justice protests last year troubled some state lawmakers enough to pass legislation punishing cities taking similar steps. But behind that back and forth, and the often inflammatory rhetoric associated with it, are complex discussions about the role of law enforcement in a community.
Tony Plohetski has been looking at the issue through an series for the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE-TV. He told Texas Standard that his main finding is that Austin lacks a consensus about what police reform should look like.
“Even within the reform community, there is disagreement,” Plohetski said.
Some are looking for policing to stay largely the same, but with improvements like better training and resources to respond more effectively to mental health emergencies; also, changes to how officers use force, especially against people of color. Other activists, are pushing for more drastic measures, including cutting police funding altogether.
Plohetski says he intended to start a meaningful discussion about what a modern police force should look like. Through it, he’s learned that Austin residents want other changes, too, like faster response times to emergency calls.
It has also been an opportunity to bring clarity to issues that have become mere talking points. Austin’s rising murder rate, for example, looks different when put in the context of the city’s growing population. And while officers have been leaving the city’s police force since debate over funding began, its academy also had about 2,000 applicants for a recent cadet class.
“Often overlooked in that conversation is the fact that the majority of the department has remained, and many of the current officers have used the past year as really a call to action to help lead better policing,” he said.
Listen to the full interview with Plohetski in the audio player above, and read his investigation here.