Former Austin City Council member Ora Houston: 'Increase the number of officers'

"We have to do reforming of the police, and increase the number of officers that we have and we have to train them differently," said former District 1 Austin City Council Member Ora Houston this week via Zoom.

Houston feels very differently than her former council colleagues when it comes to a number of issues, including the recent cuts to the Austin Police Department's budget.

Houston is part of a recently-formed non-profit called Voices of Austin.  

"This is a time...when a lot of people are not paying attention to what's going on the city council agenda.  They get news clips from you guys but they have other things going on," Houston said.

She says the group is a way to share information with the broader community who may not know how to interact with City Hall: Austinites who feel the policy-makers aren't listening to the community but instead seem to be focusing on special-interest groups.

"There's no advocate for the majority of us that really don't know how to get in touch with City Hall.  There were people that were in my prior district that didn't know where City Hall was.  So you're asking people in the midst of a pandemic to give you information about how they see policing in this city," she said.  

As for those budget cuts...Mayor Adler rejects the idea council voted to cut $150 million from the department and clarified it's only about $21 million in immediate cuts: Eliminating 150 unfilled officer positions, canceling 3 upcoming cadet classes and reducing overtime pay.

"It's about redefining public safety into a conversation that centers on the safety of the most marginalized among us," Mayor Adler said.  "It's about recognizing that public safety is also about healthcare delivery, the delivery of opportunity." 

Houston points out she was in Austin during Jim Crowe and understands the peaceful protestors wanting changes to policing.

In her view, the department should be reformed and retrained but the city council should look for ways to increase the number of officers, not cut them.

"We need professional officers who understand community policing is a lot different than policing that was done perhaps in the military," Houston said.

Many of the Austin residents Houston has spoken with say they understand the issues: systemic racism and bias...but when it comes to removing funds from police...

"They're not really sure how we divvy out funds to other entities...and help keep Austin one of the safest cities," she said.

She says those same community members would have appreciated a more measured approach.

Houston recalls her days as a CPS worker -- sometimes a parent or grandparent would get hostile.

"I would have to back off, and then get an officer to go with me," she said.  "People think that some of these situations that police officers are involved in are safe for a person who is trained to go out and manage.  Those things can turn sour very quickly as we know from what happened in Cedar Park the other day."

As for the City Council's apparent lack of confidence in Chief Brian Manley and some council members calls for him to step down...

"I think we live in a social media-reactive kind of world...which is unfortunate because we're either for or against and we don't want to take the time to sit down and have a broader conversation," she said.

Houston feels the sheer number of people protesting in response to George Floyd overwhelmed the police department and they were trying to make adjustments as they went along.

"I still trust the Chief.  I think he is what people asked for on the council,  they asked for measures and metrics, they want to be a data-driven kind of council.  He tries to give that to them because he believes that as well, how you make decisions based on the data," Houston said.  "But then he provides the data and they kind of go 'oh that's not right, we're going to do this anyway,' and so I think that's why people think council is not listening."

To learn more about Voices of Austin click here.