Two billboards stationed alongside I-35 as drivers enter Austin read: “Austin Police Defunded, Enter At Your Own Risk!”
The billboards, paid for by the Texas Municipal Police Association, were erected after City Council voted in August to cut millions from the police budget.
How many millions depends on whom you ask, but the correct answer is neither brief nor simple: The council immediately cut about $100 million, with most of the money coming from the move of several divisions that do police work – and will continue to do police work – out from under the police department. Over the next year, council will decide what to do with another $50 million that has been set aside, including possibly putting it back into the police department.
In response to all this, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has said Austin will become less safe.
“Some cities in Texas want to defund and dismantle police departments in our state,” he said in a YouTube video earlier this month, urging candidates for office to sign a pledge saying they oppose cutting money from police budgets. “This reckless action invites crime into our communities and threatens the safety of all Texans, including our law enforcement officers and their families.”
What the governor and the I-35 billboards claim is that if you cut police spending, crime will rise.
But experts on crime and policing say there is no causal relationship between money spent on police and crime rates; you cannot say a drop in the former leads to a rise in the latter. In fact, experts argue, there may be no relationship at all.
“There’s no evidence that spending more on police all by itself does any good at all,” said Bill Spelman, a professor at UT’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and a former City Council member.
As spending goes up, violent crime fluctuates
Austin’s police budget has nearly doubled since 2009, increasing by $201 million. On average, funding for the department has gone up $22.4 million each year.
At the same time, the rate of violent crimes, which includes murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, has seesawed.
In 2009, Austin’s violent crime rate was the highest it’s been in the past decade. For every 1,000 residents, there were 4.76 violent crimes; in other words, roughly one violent crime per 200 people living in the city.
(In 2019, APD started reporting crime rates differently and more offenses fell under the umbrella of violent crime. Because of this, KUT cannot compare past crime rates to those APD calculated from 2019 onward.)
If more money is spent on police, politicians assert, the violent crime rate should go down. And in Austin it does – at first. In 2012, three years later and with $50 million added to the budget, the violent crime rate had dropped to 3.63 per 1,000 residents. But three years after that, it went back up.
Experts say there’s no proven relationship between money spent on police and crime rates.
“There’s no research that I’m aware of that has been able to show directional effects in terms of increasing police budgets consistently leading to less crime, or decreasing police budgets consistently leading to more crime,” Jennifer Laurin, a law professor at UT Austin, says.
A jump in residents means a jump in spending
Much of the annual jump in police spending is related to personnel, according to budget summaries the department submits each year. As Austin grows and gets more expensive, the police department hires more officers and increases base salaries and benefits as laid out in a contract with the police union.
Police department spending per Austin resident has also grown. Between 2009 and 2019, the police budget per capita rose by 41%.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, between 2000 and 2017, Austin had the biggest jump in per capita spending on police among large U.S. cities. This surprised Michael Sierra-Arévalo, a professor in UT Austin’s Department of Sociology.
“In some ways you would expect it to go down … [if] crime hasn’t gone up,” he said.
Scott Henson, founder of the nonprofit Just Liberty, had a more cynical take. He said politicians and police consistently have asked for more money for police, regardless of crime rates.
“If crime goes down, [politicians] say, ‘Oh, it’s because police did a great job, give them more money,” he said. “If crime goes up, [it’s] ‘Oh, it’s scary time. We have to give the police more money.’ So, the answer is just always more money.”
It’s about how the money is spent
“It’s not a question of how much money you receive or what your budget is, but what you do with what you have,” Carsten Andresen, an assistant professor of criminal justice at St. Edward’s University, told KUT.
While the eight experts on crime and policing KUT spoke to all agreed there is no relationship between money spent on police and crime rates, they differed when it came to whether the number of police officers has an effect.
“If changes in the police budget leads to changes in the number of police on the street, all else equal … that’s probably going to lead to a change in crime rates,” said Emily Owens, a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine.
Owens said numerous studies have established this relationship, including an analysis of money given to local police departments to hire more officers through the federal Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program.
In a 2018 study he published while at Princeton University, Steven Mello looked at the program under President Barack Obama, from 2009 to 2014. He found that as the number of officers in cities increased by 3.2%, crime rates dropped by 3.5%.
But other experts said they felt other studies proved a weak relationship between the number of officers and crime rates. A 2012 review of research on the effects, if any, of policing and crime found the connection was hard to pin down.
“We find it difficult to reach strong conclusions about the relationship between levels of police and crime,” researchers wrote.
How will the council’s cuts to the budget affect staffing? Let’s look first at how APD has grown its police force over time. From 2009 to 2019, APD increased the number of full-time officers by nearly 21%.
But that upward trend will stop this year. In their vote to cut millions from the police department, the City Council cancelled three cadet training classes, amounting to a roughly $13 million reduction to the budget. That means the department will not be training any new officers for the next year, a move the council decided was necessary as the city audits its police training materials.
According to numbers presented by the city’s budget staff, by next June the police department will begin having fewer officers than it planned on earlier this year; instead of 1,815 officers, the department estimates it’ll have 1,757. That is similar to 2013 staffing levels.
It’s unclear how many police officers are appropriate for Austin. APD has long said it needs two officers for every 1,000 residents, a ratio outside consultants said seemed arbitrary in a 2012 study of police staffing.
An APD spokesperson wrote in an email that the department no longer uses this ratio to determine staffing needs. But according to calculations by KUT it has maintained this level of policing over the past decade.
How else could the money be spent?
Owens said another important part of this conversation is: If we reduce spending on police, where is that money going?
“What I see in the ‘defund the police’ movement and the push to reduce spending on police officers is, to be glib, not to reduce spending on police and then set that money on fire,” she said. “What people are asking for … is to transfer funding from police budgets to spending money on things like job training, on providing services.”
Owens has researched the effects of other social investments on crime rates and found, for example, that new low-income housing is related to a drop in violent crime. In one study, she and her colleague estimated that constructing low-income housing in a neighborhood reduced robberies and assaults by 2%. While a police presence may have had a larger effect on crime, she wrote, low-income housing offers other benefits than crime deterrence: affordable housing, for one.
Of the cuts City Council made to police spending, roughly $20 million is being immediately reinvested in other departments and projects. This includes money for public health, family violence and homelessness initiatives.
Henson, who said he believes council should have cut even more, said if there’s no correlation between spending on police and violent crime rates, why keep spending an increasing amount of money on police?
“This is an example of what normally is a conservative critique of government where we keep throwing money at this problem on the assumption that more money makes us safer,” Henson said. “Are there other ways we could spend this this money? Does it all have to go to the police?”