Gov. Abbott should stop campaigning against public safety reforms and address the spread of COVID-19

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Texas has become the first state to reach 1,000,000 positive COVID-19 cases but Gov. Greg Abbott’s chief focus is his campaign against public safety reforms. 

For a brief period, it appeared as if Abbott was going to aggressively take on the spread of COVID-19 across the state but the conservative backlash against his executive orders and a series of protests organized by elected officials and leaders within his own party have him prioritizing his political future instead. And for this effort he has attempted to regain the support of his base by attacking a familiar foe — Austin City Council. 

The narrative that Democrats and large cities want to “defund the police” is a false one, but it proved to be a winning talking point for Republicans trying to hold off a blue wave across Texas. In bolstering that narrative the governor announced he was sending 1,000 National Guard “troops” to 5 major cities to “ensure that cities are going to be safe” post-election.

Reality proved that there was no need for National Guard troops in cities because of the election results, but troops were needed and are active in helping morgues in El Paso deal with the rising number of dead from the coronavirus. The spike of cases and hospitalizations has been so bad in El Paso that some patients had to be airlifted to New Mexico. You might expect that with such dire circumstances that the governor might relent and at least allow local officials experiencing such acute spikes to impose stricter measures but you would be wrong. When state officials became aware that El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego ordered a two-week shutdown of nonessential services Texas’ attorney general filed a motion to stop the order from taking place and Governor Abbott called it an illegal act, so much for keeping cities safe.

Local officials continue to plead with the governor to allow flexibility to deal with surging cases in their areas but Abbott instead is threatening to further erode local control on another issue of public safety. He has announced his intention to explore a takeover of policing in Austin on the false pretense that the City Council is “defunding” the department.

In actuality, criminal justice reforms are popular and desperately needed as our current system has proved to be an abject failure in terms of dollars spent and lives lost. The United States has the highest per capita prison population, almost 50 percent higher than that of Russia and Texas ranks among the top ten states with a rate of more than 1,000 incarcerated adults per 100,000 adults. Recognizing this in light of rising tensions between protesters and law enforcement in the wake of a series of high profile deaths involving officers and the reality of limited resources especially given the economic fallout of the pandemic, the City of Austin has shifted some funds from enforcement to address the root causes of crime and poverty. 

Every public safety issue does not require use of force and a compelling case can be made that we overburden police when we send them to deal with incidents that may require special training by mental health professionals. We don’t send police guns blazing into a hostage situation — that’s the last resort for which we do everything to avoid. This concept could be adapted more broadly so that the goal is always deescalation. Let’s also remember that when 75 percent of Texas police chiefs opposed open carry laws because it would complicate their jobs and safety, Abbott ignored them and pledged to go further by not requiring a license. But, perhaps as important as the merits of policy changes are the facts that the GOP isn’t being totally honest when it comes to opposing funding cuts to law enforcement. According to Politifact, “Biden said that Trump proposes cutting half a billion dollars from local police support” which was rated as mostly true, yet any mention of the cuts were missing from Abbott’s statewide “Back the Blue” press tour. Sadly, during COVID-19 shootings and killings are increasing across the nation and the state but it’s also a crime that our governor would exploit this situation for political gain.

Photo: Tom Fox-Pool/Getty Images

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