The city experienced a record number of murders this year
Once known as a laid-back college town with more than its fair share of eccentric inhabitants, Austin has been radically transformed over the past decade. Not only is it emerging as a major tech hub, but in the last 18 months the city has also acquired such high-profile residents/evangelists as Joe Rogan and Elon Musk.
But the city has changed in other ways, too — and not for the better. Dramatic population growth has brought with it skyrocketing house prices and an increase in homelessness. And then there is the homicide rate. 88 people have been murdered in the city so far this year, beating the previous record of 59 in 1984 — and almost double last year’s total of 48 (which was in itself a 28% increase on 2019).
This jump in homicides follows last August’s vote by Austin city council to defund the police, reallocating 30% of the budget — some $150 million in all — to areas such as food access and something called “violence prevention”.
Since this is all rather inconvenient for the narrative, Austin’s murder boom has led to a fair bit of chin scratching in the media. For instance, in this interview with Austin police chief Joseph Chacon, the writer states twice that murder is on the increase in all major American cities, giving the impression that something strange and inexplicable is going on. Mysterious “crime experts” are mentioned who posit that people may be murdering each other from pandemic stress and economic uncertainty, although given that overall crime is down since 2010, “pandemic stress” must be quite selective in how it causes people to break the law.
Although it is true that many American cities have seen an increase in murder this year, even the slightest digging shows that not all homicide jumps are equal, especially in Texas. No other city has come close to seeing the murder rate almost double in 2021, and only Austin defunded the police. Dallas, in fact, has seen a decline in homicides, so it’s not as if we are looking at an immutable law of nature.
In the above interview, Chacon makes an obvious point: the fewer police you have, the longer it takes to respond to respond to a shooting. Currently, the 1600 strong police force is short 200 officers and it takes nine minutes to arrive at the scene of a shooting or an assault. Chacon wants to reduce that to six and a half minutes; it doesn’t look as though he will be able to do that any time soon, as a recent ballot designed to force the city to hire hundreds of new police officers failed at the polls.
Even so, change may be in the air. When noted political loser Beto O’Rourke ran against Ted Cruz in 2018 he was not shy about staking out extremely progressive political positions; but as he prepares to run for the governorship he has been distancing himself from the defund the police movement which he had once feted. Could this be a sign that, confronted by some rather ugly numbers, the enlightened ones are finally preparing to adopt a new narrative? We will see.