The next time the Austin Police Department rearms its more than 1,900 sworn officers, taxpayers can expect to pay as much as half a million dollars more than the last time the department purchased new weapons.
Rather than trade in the Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm handguns, the weapons will be destroyed unless an officer chooses to buy their handgun from the department, according to an ordinance passed with little discussion Thursday by the City Council.
“The concern that drove this resolution was one that we did not want our police department to be contributing guns out into the community, guns that could then … be used on our police and on our community,” the author of the ordinance, Alison Alter, told a reporter for KUT on the Tuesday before the vote.
The council did not ask the department to make a presentation at any time before the vote, nor did the department make a recommendation, according to Commander Mark Spangler, who is in charge of procuring ordinance as head of the APD Training Academy.
“We would not have made a recommendation,” Spangler told The Texas Monitor. “We do not set policy, we take direction from our city officials.”
Spangler said, however, he has concerns at a time of shrinking budgets across the public safety sector, “that it is possible we could be competing for resources” no longer available with the prohibition on trading in weapons.
Until the city’s Public Safety Commission asked Spangler to appear to answer questions at a meeting on May 7, where members voted 8-2 to recommend Alter’s ordinance be passed, there had been almost no public discussion of the impact it would have on the department or the city budget.
Alter said she first learned the Austin Police Department had traded in 1,156 Smith & Wesson .40-caliber sidearms in June of 2016 to a licensed gun dealer, Bailey’s House of Guns in Houston, from a Center for Investigative Reporting story on Dec. 4.
The story reports that APD and 20 other major law enforcement departments in Texas purchase weapons for their officers and trade them in when they rearm them with new weapons. The other departments require their officers to buy and maintain their own sidearms, something officers in Austin once did, Spangler said.
The story presents no evidence that the weapons traded in by APD were ever sold to anyone who used one in a crime and is critical of the laws, beginning in 2003 with the so-called Tiahrt Amendments, that allow federal agencies to destroy or withhold information that would allow the public to trace those traded in firearms.
Until 2013, APD allowed officers to choose from a small and approved list of handguns they could carry while on duty. When then-Chief Art Acevedo wanted to standardize sidearms to simplify training, the City of Austin switched to buying the weapons for all of its officers, Spangler said.
In 2016, improved effectiveness of 9mm ammunition fired by a handgun that was easier to handle prompted the department to ask the City Council to approve the purchase of Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm handguns, Spangler said.
By trading in the old handguns, taxpayers saved $362,328. The department also expected to save $157,152 a year on its practice ammunition and $10,233 per year on its duty ammunition, he said.
The council approved the plan unanimously.
“We only did this once,” Spangler said. “We never sold weapons to the public. There were also considerable savings going to the 9mm ammunition that went into the decision. It made fiscal sense. There was no reason not to go this way.”
Alter was not a member of that 2016 council and had she been she would never have voted to approve the trade-in, she told a reporter for KXAN-TV just before Christmas.
When asked what the department ought to do with the old weapons, Alter told the reporter she was aware of other departments melting theirs down. The City Council would simply have to come up with more funding, “whether that’s providing them more money than they already have or finding the money in other ways.”
“I’m interested in us having proper gun control in our city, in our state and in our country,” Alter said. “And to me, the risk of taking guns that are a high enough caliber that our police officers can use them and putting them back into circulation, at potentially a lower cost, is very troubling.”
Staff did not respond to The Texas Monitor’s request to interview Alter for this story.
Momentum for Alter’s ordinance picked up when state Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, addressed the trade-in during remarks she was supposed to have made March 24 during a March For Our Lives gun control rally on the steps of the Texas Capitol, according to the same reporter who did the Center for Investigative Reporting piece, writing for KUT after the ordinance passed.
“It boggles the mind that here in our own city we allowed our APD to sell its used guns back into the private market,” the reporter quoted Hinojosa saying. “Now that we know. Never again!”
The Texas Monitor could find no accounts of the rally that reference Hinojosa saying that, including the story by the KUT reporter who covered the rally.
No one in the department, including Spangler, had been contacted about the ordinance until the Public Safety Commission meeting, Spangler said. The Commission’s recommendation makes no reference to the taxpayer cost to follow the ordinance.
Council members at the work session prior to the vote rejected an amendment by council member Jimmy Flannigan that would have allowed APD to sell its weapons to other law enforcement agencies.
Taxpayers can expect nothing in return as more than $1 million in sidearms will be destroyed, assuming none of the 1,908 sworn officers buys back his gun. Assuming the same savings as 2016, taxpayers will still be responsible for nearly $670,000 in firearms that will be destroyed.
Alter’s ordinance does not speak to the costs. It is concerned that “existing loopholes in criminal background check laws cannot preclude the possibility that firearms initially sold by a licensed gun dealer may not be ultimately purchased by an individual who would fail existing background check standards.”
“It is important that we make a statement that this is not part of our values and we want to change our community,” Alter told the American-Statesman two days before the vote.
When asked his opinion of the ordinance, Spangler once again deferred to the policy makers who passed it. However, he repeated that it is a priority of the department to be able to find “sufficient resources to do our jobs.”
“Tax dollars matter,” he said.
Mark Lisheron can be reached at [email protected].