Austin creates Emergency Communications Department to handle 911 calls, moves other department functions

Tori Duff

The Austin City Council approved a budget amendment April 22 that will move functions and funding from the Austin Police Department to new city departments, including an Emergency Communications Department to handle 911 calls

The change will not affect how people call and receive help from the 911 line. Instead, the new department will solely focus on addressing calls for help and pairing them with an appropriate response, such as mental health authorities, City Manager Spencer Cronk said in a statement. The transition of call functions to the new department could take up to a year to complete, according to the City Council website.

Chas Moore, the executive director and founder of the Austin Justice Coalition, said this measure may give APD the opportunity to refocus its efforts on improving how they address public safety.

“That three-digit number (911) comes with a lot of trauma for folks,” Moore said. “I really think the overall objective and goal of what the city is doing and what we want to do as a task force is to mitigate, as much as we can, duties and responsibility that don’t solely have to belong to police.”

Other changes include the Public Information Office separating from APD, along with the Finance and Human Resources Departments, according to the website

City Council hopes this transfer will help APD focus its efforts on public safety as opposed to administrative functions. By having a dedicated department for emergency requests, the city hopes to improve how calls are dealt with.

“What we see is that APD has a history of really deprioritizing some of these civilian-related positions, positions that often contribute as much or more to safety as uniformed personnel,” said Chris Harris, director of the Criminal Justice Project at Texas Appleseed. “I think by moving these largely civilian offices, that will ensure those departments receive the focus and staffing needed.”

The change comes as part of the city’s re-imagining public safety effort and moves about 300 full-time jobs and $33.3 million away from the APD budget. The city will use the funding reallocation to pay the transferred employees.

City Council member Alison Alter said in the meeting that these changes will not lessen public safety funding, and Joseph Chacon, the APD interim chief of police, expressed his support for the budget amendment during the council meeting.

The funding comes from the August 2020 Council decision to move $150 million of the APD’s budget to rearranging departments and the Reimagine Safety Fund.

Brandon Bradley, president of University Democrats and government senior, said reallocating administrative functions from APD to city departments will allow for more time and focus to be spent on emergency calls.

“Even if the emergency department got the same monetary allocation under the APD budget as it does with a new department, you’re able to have administrative support; you’re able to have a much clearer focus on what the Emergency Communications Department is actually meant to do,” Bradley said.