Some very preliminary results are in from the deployment of DPS (Texas Department of Public Safety) troopers in Austin to help the understaffed Austin Police Department (APD). Data on the first week of the partnership runs contrary to the longtime assertions of police critics who maintain that having more cops does not prevent or reduce crime. It also resurfaces an underlying question: how and why did the City get in the position where DPS was summoned to help a beleaguered police department?
The news comes in an April 13 memo from APD Chief Joseph Chacon. The memo also states explicitly at the top that it went “through” Interim City Manager Jesus Garza and Interim Assistant City Manager Bruce Mills. The memo was released a few days before a Council-requested briefing on the APD-DPS partnership, scheduled for April 18.
According to the memo, “The average number of violent crimes in a week in Austin was 89 last year. Violent crimes include aggravated assault, murder, sexual assault and robbery. In the first week of the APD/DPS partnership, the number of violent crimes was 67 – a 25 percent decrease.”
The memo also reports, “DPS officers are assisting with traffic enforcement, but also deploy daily to areas where the highest number of calls for assistance involving violence originate.” In these areas, “APD recorded a 58 percent reduction in violent crime.”
As noted, these numbers only cover one week and do not disprove the widespread contention in Austin politics that more police do not reduce crime. Nonetheless the data do seem to provide some strong evidence as to what happens when a seriously understaffed police department receives a sudden infusion of additional officers, in this case in the form of DPS troopers. By the way the memo also provides a description of the staffing situation at APD: “APD currently has over 300 vacant officer positions and this unprecedented staffing challenge has led to longer wait times in response to calls for assistance, more traffic injuries and fatalities, and an increase in gun crime. The fact is, we have fewer officers now than we had 15 years ago.”
Police Chief Joseph Chacon, Interim City Manager Jesús Garza and Interim Assistant City Manager Bruce Mills
Not only did the first week of the DPS partnership yield drops in violent crime, it also resulted in decreased calls for “emergency assistance.” This in turn led to decreased response times by police. As the memo puts it:
- “Calls for emergency assistance dropped by 27 percent in these areas [areas with “the highest number of calls for assistance involving violence”] and 15 percent citywide.
- Urgent calls for assistance decreased by 28 percent in these areas and 17 percent citywide.
- Additionally, APD average response times to calls for emergency assistance in these areas, previously as high as 9 minutes and 30 seconds, were reduced by almost 2 minutes in some areas.
- APD average response times to urgent calls for assistance in these areas, previously as high as 19 minutes and 11 seconds, were reduced by over 7 minutes in some areas.
- Citywide APD average response times to calls for emergency assistance were reduced by 23 seconds, and average response times to urgent calls for assistance were reduced by 52 seconds.”
On traffic, the memo reports that DPS troopers “patrol major roadways that traffic analysis has identified as locations where speeding, reckless driving, DWIs, injury crashes and traffic fatalities are most prevalent. These areas include U.S. Hwy. 183, MoPac, and I-35 near downtown.” In an understatement the memo reports, “This is a specific area of policing that has been understaffed,” adding, “and we expect this part of the joint operation will reduce both traffic-related injuries and deaths.” No initial injury and death numbers are given on traffic, but the memo does report, “Since the beginning of the joint operation, DPS has conducted 4,016 traffic stops with a focus on interventions and warnings, writing tickets in only about 25% of these instances.
Questions and Concerns From Council Members and Activists
As noted earlier, the memo comes a few days before a briefing requested by Council on the APD-DPS partnership. That specific request came from Council Member Jose Velasquez and followed a tweet by Council Member Zo Qadri on March 28 that read, “Like many, I still have serious concerns regarding this new plan when it comes to transparency, accountability, timelines, enforcement policies, and more.”
Later, on April 10, Council Member Vanessa Fuentes tweeted, “On April 18th, we’ll be briefed on the ongoing partnership between Texas DPS and APD. This agreement resulted from closed-door negotiations, which excluded members of Austin City Council. I’ve since made my displeasure clear in my conversations with the Mayor and City Manager.”
Fuentes refers to the apparent fact that Mayor Kirk Watson, who negotiated the arrangement with Governor Greg Abbott, apparently only made Council Members aware of the deal shortly before he and Interim City Manager Jesus Garza announced it at a March 27 press conference.
While the Council Members have every right, and a responsibility, to monitor the DPS arrangement, it is also clear that their concerns come in response to opposition to the partnership from anti-police activists who wield a lot of clout with the Council. For instance Chas Moore of the Austin Justice Coalition told CBS Austin, “I think DPS takes out the local context. I think although APD is not perfect by any means, they have taken strides, they have taken steps to understand the moment in time that around conversations we’re having with policing.”
Another activist, Chris Harris, posted a long series of tweets criticizing the DPS partnership and seeking to refute numbers in the memo. The string is too long to cover in detail in this article, but we will cite a couple of examples. For instance Harris claims that the City memo “ cherry-picks numbers to claim that fewer violent crimes have occurred due to DPS. Specifically, the 25% drop compares a single week to the average from all of last year – not the same week of last year + ignores the Chief’s reports showing violent crime already down this year.”
Studying the Chief’s monthly reports, cited by Harris, we could not compare the same single week last year to the same week this year because the data is done in monthly increments, as noted by Harris at other places in his string of tweets. We were able to assess Harris’s claim that “violent crime” is “already down this year.”
According to data in the “Chief’s Monthly Report(s)” on the four violent crimes listed in the memo — Murder, Sexual Assault, Aggravated Assault and Robbery — there were a total of 804 reported instances of those violent crimes in January and February of 2023. That compares to 814 in the same months of 2022. That’s a drop of 1.2%. Harris ignores that the number of violent crimes in those corresponding months went from 577 in 2019 (the year before the Council cut the APD budget and the number of officer positions) to the 814 in 2022; three years after the cuts took place. That’s a rise of 41%. It should be noted that violent crime increased nationwide during this time, but most cities did not cut their police forces the way Austin did. At the very least Harris’s claims call into question who is “cherry picking” numbers; Harris or Chief Chacon and Interim City Manager Garza.
The Chacon memo also at least partially addresses concerns like those of Moore, Harris and others explaining, “It is important to note that in cases of misdemeanor offenses where APD typically issues a citation rather than making an arrest, DPS is following suit. The agency’s operating procedure is to defer to the local district or county attorney’s prosecutorial practices. Also, DPS is following APD’s practice related to marijuana possession. APD does not generally take enforcement action for small amounts of marijuana. Enforcement action is generally only taken if related to a more serious crime. DPS is not focused on immigration issues – only criminal and traffic issues.”
The memo also stated, “The City has requested demographic information about these stops and will provide that information when it is available.”
These are all important considerations to which serious attention should definitely be paid. At the same time Moore’s concern about the “local context” is something he, Harris and other activists failed to consider in the summer of 2020 when they were demanding that Austin cut $100 million or more from its police budget. This is something the Independent mentioned at the time when Abbott was threatening that DPS troopers would be used to fill the breach left by the elimination of APD positions or to possibly take over the Department. I wrote on September 8 2020: “As far as DPS running APD, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that having a police department run by the City of Austin is lots better than having one run by the state. My guess is that a lot of people in Austin will agree with that statement.”
So How Did Austin End Up With Such a Shortage of Cops?
During the ensuing years there has been quite a bit of spin and narrative adjustment as to what actually happened in the Council’s 2020 vote on the police budget. The Independent might provide a deeper review of how that happened in weeks to come. For those wanting to review it in more detail now, we covered it in this story, and the second half of this one, at the time. Also, the Texas Tribune provided a very solid account on the day the Council cut the APD budget.
The bottom line is that during the nationwide protests resulting from the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, hundreds of local activists and protestors descended on City Hall demanding that Council make huge cuts to the APD budget. Some demanded at least $100 million in cuts to the then $434 million APD budget proposal. Others demanded up to $200 million in cuts. This was Austin’s version of the then emerging Defund the Police movement. Ultimately the Council — led by now Congressman Greg Casar and now Travis County Attorney Delia Garza — cut $150 million, a little more than a third, from the proposed APD budget. Only $21 million of that, however, resulted in actual cuts to APD functions. The rest went into two “transition funds” so the Council could study whether these functions could be operated outside the police department. The functions transferred into the “transition funds” included the 911 call center, Forensics, the Office of the Police Monitor and Internal Affairs.
Governor Abbott pounced quickly and vowed to reverse the Council’s action. He also threatened to send in DPS troopers or even have DPS take over APD. Within months, the State legislature responded with legislation that forced the Council to restore the APD budget the next year and to prevent future cuts. There was no DPS takeover.
Although the APD budget was restored to earlier levels, and even increased, the current staffing shortage flows directly from the Council’s actions in 2020 — though it should be noted that APD already had a significant number of vacancies at the time. The Council found the money for the $20 million cut largely by eliminating from the budget 150 officer positions that were vacant at that time, leaving APD with no vacant positions to fill in the new budget year. The Council then zeroed out funding for a years’ worth of cadet classes, meaning APD would not be able to train any new officers for at least a year. In the ensuing months and years many officers left or retired early due to plummeting morale.
That led directly to APD’s staffing crisis and eventually to the DPS partnership, about which the Council will hear more on Tuesday. Stay tuned.
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