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As part of a sustained campaign to criticize the Austin City Council’s August decision to cut police funding, Gov. Greg Abbott tweeted on Oct. 1: "Property crime rising in Austin This is the kind of thing that happens when cities defund and deemphasize police. Residents are left to fend for themselves."
The tweet cited a KVUE article that highlighted an advisory from the Austin Police Department warning residents to secure their homes before going on a trip. The article noted 2,983 burglaries had occurred through the first eight months of this year — an 11% increase over the first eight months of last year, according to the Austin Police Department’s August crime report.
But burglary is not the only form of property crime, and Abbott’s assertion that property crime is rising in Austin fails to take that into account.
Property crime generally has been falling in Austin, with the notable recent exceptions of 2018 and 2019. So far this year, property crime has dropped slightly. And Abbott’s attempt to link crime to the City Council’s budget decision misses the mark.
It’s not the first time Abbott has sounded off on Austin crime.
In August, Abbott claimed that crime is on the rise in Austin, citing data that showed a jump in homicides over the first six months of the year. We rated that claim Half True.
Austin’s property crime
Each month, the Austin Police Department posts to its website the Chief’s Monthly Report, which tallies the number and category of crimes officers respond to each month. The 2,983 burglaries cited in the KVUE article comprise 9% of all property crimes recorded through August. Other crimes that fall into this category include shoplifting, credit card fraud, embezzlement and vandalism.
Austin police responded to nearly 34,000 total property crimes through August, which is a 2% drop compared with 2019. According to FBI data, property crime in Austin increased in 2018 by 8.5% and in 2019 by 8.7%.
But taking a longer view, the property crime rate has generally been falling over the last decade. In addition to 2018 and 2019, the only other year since 2010 when the rate did not drop compared to the previous year was in 2012.
In 2010 Austin police responded to nearly 46,000 reports of property crime, or about 5.8 incidents per 100 residents, according to federal data. In 2019, officers responded to 36,588 reports, or about 3.7 incidents per 100 residents. Burglaries specifically also have been dropping, from about 1.1 incidents per 100 residents in 2010 to about 0.4 in 2019.
Abbott is not the only Texas elected official who’s rebuked Austin leaders for cutting the Austin police budget. Several other Republicans have seized on Austin’s police spending as an issue in their reelection campaigns.
The perception of high crime in Austin reflects a popular misconception that crime is always on the rise despite a general downward trend, said Texas State University criminologist Sean Roche. On average, crime in the U.S. has declined since the mid-1990s to historically low and stable levels.
That’s generally true for Austin’s property crime rates as well. Federal data going back to 1985 show a peak of property crime incidents in 1990 followed by a decade of low property crime until a smaller peak in 2009.
"Even though crime went up in the 60s, 70s and 80s and then started declining in the 90s, most of the public did not ever catch wise of this," Roche said. "There’s a significant chunk of people in the U.S. that always think crime is getting worse."
Some researchers have suggested that a false perception of high crime may be attributable to a person’s level of media exposure, especially local TV news. A study published in 2018 by Roche and colleagues note that this misperception may have significant implications for criminal justice policies, which are "particularly sensitive to public opinion" compared to other policy domains.
"Over-concern about crime is likely to mobilize the public to be more punitive, thereby fueling support for increased law enforcement spending and harsh sentencing policies," Roche and his coauthors wrote. "Public punitiveness is one of the strongest predictors of both federal and state incarceration rates."
Crime and police budgets
After asserting that the property crime rate in Austin is rising, Abbott’s tweet goes on to claim that rising crime is "the kind of thing that happens when cities defund and deemphasize police."
It’s unclear what the governor means when he says "deemphasize police" — his office did not respond to multiple requests for comment — but we can be sure what city he’s referring to when talking about defunding. The Austin City Council recently decided to cut $21.5 million from the police budget and shifted another $128 million from the Police Department to other city departments to continue civilian-run functions, such as the 911 call center and forensics.
The cuts came after protests against police brutality in Austin and across the nation demanded police reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody in May.
But how the council’s budgetary decisions will affect the department’s daily operations, especially in regard to property crime, is not yet known.
"In terms of staffing changes, that’s something we’re still working on," said Austin police spokeswoman Tara Long. "We’re still working on those specifics."
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley indicated in August that the department may reduce or eliminate about a dozen police units while reassigning those officers to patrol duties. The cuts also will cancel three upcoming cadet classes and reduce overtime spending.
But does a smaller police force automatically heighten crime? Research would suggest that there is a weak or nonexistent connection between the two. One systematic review by criminologists at the University of Cincinnati concludes that the overall effect of police force size on crime is "statistically not significant," although it is possible that force size might influence some crimes more than others.
"Policy makers who want police to have an impact on crime would be better suited investing resources in new evidence-based strategies than funding surges in police hiring," the 2016 review says.
Rather, crime trends are more influenced by macro-level drivers, like the prevalence of firearms in a community, alcohol consumption, drug use, unemployment and a population’s age structure, Roche said.
"Austin, on average, has historically been a very safe city," he said. "It’s premature to say definitively that a budget decision that was made a couple months ago has already had these very dramatic impacts on crime rates. We just don’t know."
Abbott’s tweet made two factual claims: that property crime in Austin is on the rise and that this increase is causally linked to the city’s police budget cuts.
He based the first on figures presented in a KVUE article that cited an 11% increase in burglaries so far this year. However, property crime on the whole is not rising this year. In fact, it has dropped by 2% compared to last year. Although property crime increased slightly in 2018 and 2019, property crime has dropped significantly over the past decade.
The article Abbott referenced also cited data that showed crime rates as of August, which is before cuts to APD’s budget took effect on Oct. 1.
The second part of his claim, that increased property crime is "the kind of thing that happens when cities defund and deemphasize police," appears to be based on assumption. Researchers have demonstrated how numerous intervening factors confound the relationship between police force size and crime. Rather, strategic crime deterrent strategies are seen as having a more direct impact on crime rates.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
Tweet from Gov. Greg Abbott, Oct. 1, 2020
Austin Police Department, Chief’s Monthly Report: 2020, Aug. 2020
Austin Police Department, Annual Crime and Traffic Reports, 2010 to 2018
PolitiFact Texas, Examining claim about Austin homicides, crimes, Aug. 31, 2020
City of Austin Demographics Data Library, City of Austin Population History and Corporate Area, 1840 to 2019
Journal of Deviant Behavior, Media consumption and crime trend perceptions: a longitudinal analysis, Jan. 16, 2018
Phone interview with Texas State criminologist Sean Roche, Oct. 7
Phone interview with Austin Police Department spokesperson Tara Long, Oct. 5
Austin American-Statesman, Amid budget cuts, police chief proposes slashing units, reassigning officers to patrol, Aug. 28, 2020
Journal of Experimental Criminology, Conclusions from the history of research into the effects of police force size on crime—1968 through 2013: a historical systematic review, Aug. 19, 2016
Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime Data Explorer, Sept. 28, 2020
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