The Austin Police Department is managing budget cuts and an increase in homicides. Austin Chief Brian Manley spoke with PERF Executive Director Chuck Wexler about these issues.

Chuck Wexler:  Here’s a question I’ve been asking chiefs, because sometimes I get the most interesting answers.  Did you always want to be a police officer?

Chief Manley: I grew up in Austin and have lived here my entire life. I took a course in high school called “Street Law,” which was a study of law enforcement at the local, state, and federal level. Part of that course required a ride-along with an Austin police officer. I did that ride-along, and I was intrigued by what I saw that weekend night in East Austin. It was exciting, and I saw the opportunities police officers had out in the community.

We ended up on the scene of a homicide that night. I saw how the officers processed and investigated that scene, which is something most people only get to see dramatized through TV or media. It was extremely interesting to be there and see it unfolding in front of me. And I talked to the officer I rode with throughout the shift about her career and what it offered her. Part of it was the excitement, and part of it was the opportunity to help out in the community.

So I really set my sights on it in high school. I’m actually the first one in my family to go into law enforcement. I went to college and got an undergraduate degree in finance at the University of Texas at Austin. I chose finance  in case I ever got injured on the job or changed my mind about policing. But I never gave up my love for the job along the way. And all through college, I continued doing ride-alongs with Austin police officers, just to keep in touch with them and the job.

I was hired by the Austin Police Department when I was about 16 hours short of graduating with my finance degree, so I dropped out of college and went to the police academy. You can imagine how thrilled my parents were when I did that!

But later I continued my education, and went to St. Edwards University in Austin for a master’s degree in organizational leadership and ethics.

Wexler: What budget cuts were made to the Austin Police Department this year? How did those come about?

Chief Manley: The manner in which cuts are being carried out in Austin poses some difficulties. I think police across the country are all reexamining how we operate. We’re working with our communities in some places, and in other places communities are taking the lead in making changes in policing. I would imagine most police executives would be willing to engage in those conversations, and this isn’t the first time we’ve engaged in them.

In Austin, I think we are always seen as one of those progressive cities and progressive departments where we do address social justice issues and the harmful impacts that can result from policing outcomes. As we enter into this discussion, I think some of that’s been lost, and all the good work we’ve done was not accounted for in the public discourse.

That being said, there are difficulties in the way this took place here in Austin. The biggest impact with the budget was the immediate reduction of $21 million. On top of that, the city council eliminated 150 positions from my department. At the time, I had 190 vacancies, so it didn’t result in layoffs. That was a good thing, but I don’t think the decision-makers realized that while those positions were vacant, we were backfilling them regularly with overtime officers, because the positions were still needed out on patrol. So I think the decision-makers felt like taking 150 positions from a department that had 190 vacancies wasn’t going to have the impact that it had. But when they also cut the overtime budget, they impacted my ability to use officers on overtime to fill those positions.

At the same time, they took away our ability to have cadet classes for the upcoming year, although they did say there’s an opportunity for cadet classes if we meet certain thresholds on changes to our police academy training.

So I was faced with the loss of 150 positions, the loss of the ability to backfill them through overtime, and the uncertainty of when we may add officers in the future. We had to make long-term plans, and that resulted in us looking across the organization to identify positions that, although important to the community and the department, were not in that front-line patrol capacity.  Patrol is the backbone of the department, and we have to keep that staffed. The result was a plan to permanently transfer 95 officers out of their assignments back to patrol, effective January 17. It required us to close down some units and cut the strength of other units.

For example, we have a parks division within the police department. These officers are permanently assigned to work the parks around Austin. I will shut that unit down in January, and all those officers will go to patrol. The district officers will be responsible for anything that occurs in a park in their area.

We have officers assigned to provide protection to our municipal court system. We’re looking to remove those officers in January and have the courts use private security for that function.

We’re cutting our district representative program in half. Those are our community policing officers who spend most of their days following up with community members and attending events. Half of those officers will go back to patrol.

We’re taking officers from our organized crime division and putting them back on patrol as well.

The number of retirements has also increased. Our average attrition rate has been roughly 7 officers per month. In the past several months we’ve seen that jump to 15 officers per month.

Wexler: Why do you think those cuts were made?

Chief Manley: The George Floyd incident was a watershed moment for our society and our profession, and I think it generated a lot of conversation and activism across the country. Here in Austin, the chants from our protest crowds were, “Defund the police! Defund the police!” Then they started chanting numbers: “Defund $100 million! Defund $150 million!”

Ultimately the city passed a budget that immediately removed $21 million from our budget and placed over $1oo million move in a “reimagination” budget. This money was tied to units and functions within the department that were to be reviewed and potentially moved to other areas outside the police department, or taken on by the private sector.

This was all done without the work ahead of time to look at what is possible, legal, and best for the community. We were already looking at whether our forensics lab should remain within the police department or be moved outside the police department. We’re also looking at whether our 9-1-1 communications center remains within APD. Other units are included in the discussion for potentially moving away from the department; however there was little discussion regarding this process prior to the budget passing. The city has put together a task force to evaluate potential changes but currently the police department is not a member of this group.

Wexler: Will it be hard to change the department’s culture without bringing in new officers?

Chief Manley: Absolutely. It’s hard to change a culture without bringing in new people who reflect the type of culture you’re seeking. In Austin, we were already under some resolutions from our city council to look at our training academy based on some concerns that had been raised. Our council wanted audits and reviews of the police curricula, and they wanted us to meet certain metrics before they would allow us to have a cadet class. Then that morphed into the cancellation of the classes.

There was also a discussion about moving all the cadet instructors back to patrol, since they wouldn’t have classes to teach, but I cannot successfully change the culture and performance of my police academy without my staff there to be part of the change.

Wexler:  It appears that homicides are increasing in Austin, as they are in other cities. What do you think is happening in your city?

Chief Manley: I think there are a few different factors. First of all, we have to recognize the stress everyone is under with COVID, both the disease itself and the economic implications. A lot of people are out of work, and they’re stressed. For family violence-related homicides, I think we have a lot of households that were already experiencing stress and possibly family violence, and those escalate. With schools closed for so long, you have juveniles who are out on the streets with time on their hands. So I think we’ve had more time for people to be engaged in crime.

Wexler: How have the demonstrations been in Austin?

Chief Manley: The first two weeks of demonstrations, in late May and early June, we experienced a lot of the violent protests and rioting that other cities around the country experienced. As the state capital, we’re accustomed to marches, rallies, and free speech events. These were very different. We saw things that we have not seen before. We saw officers pelted with rocks and bottles. We saw Molotov cocktails.

We got through those first couple weekends. After that we still had protests on a weekly basis, but they were not as violent as those first two weekends.

Like other departments around the country, our officers were really burning the candle at both ends. They had to work their regular assignments, then we had to hold them over or call them in on days off to work crowd control assignments. It was a significant drain on the organization to have these officers out there, day in and day out, facing some real provocation from the crowds. There was yelling, screaming, profanities, and verbal abuse. It really took a toll.

Wexler: Have these been the most difficult nine months of your career?

Chief Manley: I’ve been chief for four years, and the last nine months have been unique and unsettling. It’s difficult to watch a profession you’ve served in and loved for three decades be maligned the way it is, especially when I think that most police leaders would agree that change is needed. But the way it’s happening is, I think, counterproductive at times. It’s hard to watch what the officers on the front line are having to work with. It’s also hard to see a community lose trust in its police department.

Here in Austin, the activist community has refused to engage in this “reimagination” process and meetings if I am present. So the police department is not represented in a lot of the meetings. I think that will be difficult in the long run. I don’t know how you build community trust if you don’t have everybody at the table.

Wexler: Austin’s city government is designed to have a strong city manager. How has your relationship been with him?

Chief Manley: I am very fortunate that I have a city manager who has been very open to listening to both the community and the police department and has taken those extra steps to understand. Even in the face of some difficult decisions and criticisms, he has supported me throughout the past nine months. It’s a tough position for a city manager to put himself in, but he has not shied away from that.


The PERF Critical Issues Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting this work.