Roughly a month before Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd, a 42-year-old man named Michael Ramos was killed by police in Austin, Texas.
The blazing Texas heat was beginning to let up on the evening of Friday, April 24, when eight police officers cornered Ramos in an apartment parking complex. The officers were responding to a call about possible drug use, and they arrived on the scene with guns drawn.
Body camera footage later revealed a terrified Ramos trying to comply with every demand, all while telling officers he does not know what he had done wrong. When a policeman hit him with a so-called “less lethal” projectile, Ramos took shelter inside his car. A few seconds later, he tried to drive out of the parking lot. Ramos was shot and killed, and no gun wass found in or around his car.
Throughout the Austin-based protests against police brutality, Michael Ramos’s name became a rallying cry alongside George Floyd’s. On August 13, Austin’s progressive city council voted unanimously to cut the city’s $434 million police budget by one third. That figure includes $20 million in immediate cuts, and a year-long process to transition an additional roughly $130 million out of the police budget. The Republican outcry was swift.
Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general, chalked up the move to another example of “cancel culture.” Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) accused the city council of shirking their duties to uphold public safety. But he didn’t stop there.
Abbott recently unveiled a “Back the Blue” pledge, promising not to defund the police. He urged candidates and voters to sign it. The pledge reads, in part, “Defunding our police departments would invite crime into our communities and put people in danger. That is why I pledge to support any measure that discourages or stops efforts to defund police departments in Texas.”
As the November elections approach, Abbott is one of hundreds of GOP leaders and lawmakers focusing on “law and order.” Echoing President Trump — the self-styled “law and order” president — Republicans are using threats, histrionic pledges and legislation to scare cities considering police reform.
In Austin, City Councilman Greg Casar has not minced words about Abbott’s recent posturing.
“He doesn’t miss a political opportunity to punch down at movements for civil rights,” Casar says. “The governor is trying to hurt the Black Lives Matter movement and attack the civil rights movement for his own political benefit.”
Casar drafted the city council’s three-tiered proposal to reform the Austin Police Department, which calls for a “Reimagine Public Safety” fund that would allocate more money toward mental health initiatives. People with mental illness are 16 times more likely to be killed by police officers. A recent survey by the Police Executive Research Forum discovered that the average police officer spends only eight hours in “Crisis Intervention Training,” a mental health initiative often criticized for being ineffective or improperly implemented. Meanwhile, that same research study found that new police recruits spend 60 hours learning how to use guns.
When it comes to access to mental health care, Texas is the worst state in the nation. It’s also one of the states with the highest incarceration rates, and currently, Texas’ largest cities spend more money on policing than anything else. Yet Abbott has vehemently opposed any budget cuts and has recently threatened Texas cities who are considering police reform.
Shortly after the city council’s vote, Abbott said he plans to introduce legislation that would freeze property tax revenues for any city that cuts police budgets. Abbott has also threatened to employ the Texas Department of Public Safety, a state police force, to help “stand in the gap” and defend Austin residents, even as that department has come under fire for spending hundreds of hours tracking and arresting police brutality protesters. Attorney Jessica Pishko, who has extensively researched policing, says both of the governor’s proposals are, at best, unrealistic.
“The fact is cities are going to have to reduce budgets this year,” Pishko says, citing the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. “But [police] unions exert a lot of power, and chiefs and sheriffs don’t like their budgets cut.”
Indeed, the Austin Police Association has taken to Twitter to repeatedly rail against the city council’s budget proposal. But Pishko says the dialogue about defunding the police is about much more than reform. While some polls show that Americans do not favor eliminating police forces, the majority of them support some level of police reform and the Black Lives Matter movement, two facts that Pishko says scare Republicans.
“The Republican Party as led by Trump has made it quite obvious that their goal is white supremacy and racism, and the idea that there are white people out there who don’t support that is pretty scary to them,” she says. “So, you’re seeing politicians start to posture, and be more aggressive in their rhetoric. They’re essentially taking on a Trumpian tone.”
That “Trumpian tone” is apparent in two new legislative proposals, one from Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida), and one from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri).
On September 22, DeSantis called for a new law that would give felony penalties to protesters who block traffic without a permit, while also prohibiting grant and state funding to any municipality that “slashes” its police budget.
Hawley’s legislation is similar. His bill would authorize $15 billion for the U.S. attorney general to fund more police officer hiring and salary increases for state and local law enforcement. Any city that votes to defund the police would not have access to those funds for new hires or raises.
“[A]s violence and rioting sweeps across American cities big and small, our courageous law enforcement officers are more vital now than ever,” Hawley writes in the proposed legislation. “Democratic politicians are bending to radical activists who want to defund the police. We should do just the opposite. Our officers deserve a raise, not defunding.”
Similar rhetoric can be found in practically every corner of the U.S. A separate pledge, simply entitled “The Police Pledge,” has already received hundreds of signatures from federal, state and local officials. The pledge was initiated by Heritage Action For America, a policy advocacy organization known for funneling millions of dollars into Republican congressional campaigns.
“A lawful society — free from mob rule and violent insurrection — is not possible without Law Enforcement,” the pledge reads. When signers etch their names onto the document’s growing list of devotees, they promise to “stand with America’s Police and pledge to oppose any bill, resolution, or movement to “Defund the Police.” Those devotees include former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and Gov. Brian Kemp (R-Georgia), as well as Senators Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Rick Scott (R-Florida).
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project, believes Governor Abbott’s focus on policing is both a political ploy and an intended distraction. Texas has been ravaged by COVID-19, as have many of the states whose politicians have signed “The Police Pledge.”
“It’s also an opportunity for Republican elected officials to shift the public agenda, or at least attempt to shift the agenda of public discussion, away from the slog of trying to contain the pandemic,” he told local television station KXAN.
Author and former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has accused President Trump of the very same thing.
“Trump muzzled the federal government’s most prominent and trusted immunologist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, while the White House tried to discredit him,” Reich wrote in a recent blog post. “But the Trump campaign ran fictitious ads portraying cities as overrun by violent leftwing mobs, and Trump’s shameless Fox News lackeys have consistently depicted protesters as ‘rioters’ and the ‘armed wing of the Democratic party.’”
While Pishko acknowledges the enduring legacy of “law and order” rhetoric, she claims widespread pledges, threats to freeze funding and bills targeting cities are more “aggressive” than pro-police proposals of the past.
“And I think we have Trump to credit for that,” she says. “People are tying their fates to him.”
While hundreds of Republicans continue to voice their fervent opposition to police reform, Michael Ramos’s mother is grieving her son.
Brenda Ramos has struggled to eat since her son was killed, she said in an interview aired on Austin’s NPR station, and the stress of recent months has taken a physical toll. She’s suffering from intense back pain, and hoping some change can result from Michael’s death. She wants the officer who killed her son to be prosecuted — which the Travis County district attorney has thus far failed to do — and she wants some of the city’s police funds to be re-allocated for after-school programs in Austin. Yet her greatest wish is that police violence ends.
“[The violence] got to be stopped,” she said. “It’s been happening way too long, and we all need to come together and make a change.”