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In reversal, CapMetro says holding cells aren't required to establish a police force

People wait at a CapMetro bus station on Guadalupe Street at the University of Texas on Nov. 15, 2022
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Capital Metro is setting up a transit police force to replace the off-duty APD officers who currently police the system.

Capital Metro says it was wrong when it claimed holding cells to detain arrested suspects are required by state regulators to establish a police force.

In a memo to the transit agency's board of directors Tuesday, CapMetro's chief of staff, Kerri Butcher, said "after further review" the agency determined having a "temporary holding area" is not a requirement to get police department certification from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE).

"This is a methodical process, and the agency can assure the public that those working tirelessly to create this program are doing so with the goal of establishing a program based on trust and with the safety of the community in mind," Butcher wrote.

The comments mark a reversal from last week, when CapMetro's transit police administrator, Eric Robins, said a temporary police station planned in North Austin would include holding cells for suspects.

"Yes, there will be," Robins said in response to a question from CapMetro board member Eric Stratton. "We actually got it in the buildout plan to have a secure facility and secure location where we can hold our prisoners."

The comments were met with near-instantaneous backlash by critics of the agency's plan to create a transit police force.

"We can play word games and try to dress it up in anyway we'd like, when it comes down to it, we would have a [CapMetro] jail," said João Paulo Connolly, organizing director at the Austin Justice Coalition. "This is really, really, really an awful idea."

Largely in response to public criticism, Robins issued a follow-up memo to the board explaining that the facility would not meet TCOLE's definition of a jail. He said holding cells would be used to detain people for "a few hours, at most" after which they'd be transferred to an "established jail."

The Texas Administrative Code — a compilation of all state agency rules — outlines a specific definition for a "holding cell," including a requirement that inmates can't be held for more than 48 hours.

Such a "holding cell" would still meet the definition of jail in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary: "a place of confinement for persons held in lawful custody."

Either way, Capital Metro didn't indicate one way or the other if the temporary police station would include spaces to detain people.

The Capital Metro board is scheduled to vote Friday on whether to spend $4.67 million over seven-and-a-half years to lease part of an office park at 8200 Cameron Road. The total includes almost $1.5 million to build out and furnish the building, which now sits vacant at the intersection with Rutherford Lane.

Right now, Capital Metro pays off-duty Austin police officers to provide security. Last year, the agency adopted a new public safety plan to establish a transit police force. The plan includes hiring so-called public safety ambassadors and community intervention specialists to handle disruptive riders who are nonviolent.

Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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