AUSTIN, Texas -- Austin’s new $4.2 billion budget fulfills the requests of public safety leaders to add 30 more police officers to the force. While there are still a number of vacancies in the department, police leaders argued the funding is still necessary to put toward other initiatives, like the new staffing changes in the downtown area command that began on August 1.
- $4.2 billion budget allowing for 30 additional police officers
- APD reorganizing to address downtown crime
- Officers allowed to spend more time with community members
“The funding is important, because although we will not fill these positions, during this upcoming fiscal year, the money that supports those positions will be used towards policing initiatives, whether it be the backfill that we need to have the appropriate number of officers on the street at any given time or the initiatives like we’re doing in the downtown entertainment district right now to address the spike in crime,” said Chief Brian Manley before City Council on Tuesday.
Following a string of violence around the downtown entertainment district, Austin Police Department leaders not only maxed out police patrols on every shift, they also reduced the size of the response area.
“Thousands of people every week can come down here and have a good time. A handful of people decide to act out in a violent way, and unfortunately they are people who are victims of that,” said Assistant Police Chief Justin Newsom. “We don’t want to have shootings anywhere, obviously. But when we see a concentration of violent incidents in an area that draws 26 million visitors every year, we have to respond to that.”
Previously, the downtown area command reached as far west as North Lamar Boulevard and east to Chicon Street, as far north as 12th Street, and as far south as East Cesar Chavez Street and Rainey Street. On August 1, police officials changed the command area by limiting response to areas west of I-35.
“We reduced the geography so that the officers who work downtown are responsible for less area, so they can focus more on the increase in people,” Newsom said.
As part of the initiative, department leaders permanently transferred officers from the Highway Response Team and, for the time being, redirected the organized crime, street gang, and narcotics units to the downtown area. Newsom said the staffing changes have cost the department $250,000. They are still monitoring the results of their work, but he believes it has so far been making an impact. He said there have so far been more than 70 felony arrests.
“It’s been fruitful. Last count was that we took 15 guns off the streets and those were 15 guns primarily taken by those officers that don’t normally work downtown,” Newsom said.
Officer Vanessa Jimenez, a six-year veteran of the department, spent Thursday patrolling along Waller Creek to make sure there was no illegal activity. Two weeks ago, there was a deadly shooting in the area around Sabine Street, which Jimenez said is known to have people illegally drinking publicly.
“That also brings people that are dealing drugs and they’re preying on the people that maybe have problems with alcoholism,” she said.
Jimenez said as a result, she often spends time educating people about the rules. She will also check in on the people living in the encampments. On Thursday, a woman in a tent asked Jimenez how she could could get connected to the Homeless Outreach Street Team.
“That’s pretty much what we have, just those causal encounters with people who have nothing to do with the criminal activity. They just sometimes... they don’t know how to get this information,” Jimenez said.
Jimenez, who was assigned to the downtown command area two years ago, said the one of the most prominent changes since the new strategies were put into place was how officers are able to spend more time with the community.
“They see us more. They are able to have contact with us a little bit more, not only when there’s a call,” Jimenez said. “We can concentrate a good amount of officers in this area and we can have those contacts with citizens and we can be able to have more conversations. They get to know us.”