Author Jacqulyn Powell
This post originally appeared on KXAN Austin
AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Thursday, Austin City Council members will vote on an ordinance that would create an Emergency Communications Department to handle 911 calls, separate from the Austin Police Department.
This is the latest item up for a vote in the city’s efforts to reimagine public safety.
If approved, 222 civilian positions within APD’s current call center would be transferred out of the police department. The move would decrease funding for APD by more than $ 16 million.
Right now, any emergency call in the city goes through APD’s center, then is routed back out if firefighters, paramedics or a mental health professional is needed.
“A vast majority of our 911 calls have no violence component,” said Austin City Council member Greg Casar.
Casar and others on the council like Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison want to create an independent, city-run Emergency Communications Department.
“I do think taking dispatch out of the PD really helps our department zero in, get really granular with its focus on its fundamental role, and that’s to protect the people and property of Austin,” Harper-Madison said. “Just imagine them managing this call center with hundreds of operators, you know? That’s one of those bureaucratic administrative things that they don’t even need to be worried about.”
The Austin Police Association told KXAN it’s supportive of the change, as long as professional standards are met. Austin-Travis County EMS told KXAN it doesn’t expect any impact from an operational perspective.
Council members said they expect passing the ordinance could bring more efficiency.
“With the police department running 911, sometimes you might end up getting a police officer when you should have had, for example, a mental health response,” Casar explained.
As council prepares for Thursday’s vote, ensuring mental health calls get the right response is a topic the city’s Reimagining Public Safety Task Force is asking the city to take even a step further.
Reading one of the task force’s working group’s recommendations, Rodney Saenz said, “A determination of appropriateness of police intervention should be made by the community member requesting assistance in conjunction with the mental health first responder, not by the dispatcher.”
The ordinance council will vote on Thursday would also free up police from having to respond to home alarm systems. A lot of times, Harper-Madison said, those are false alarms, that could be better handled by someone else.