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Don't Call It a Drunk Tank: Austin and Travis County Officials Talk Sobriety Center Plans

Gabriel Cristóver Pérez
Crowds during the seventh day of the SXSW Music Festival in 2014.

People picked up in Austin for public intoxication downtown may no longer be headed straight to jail or the emergency room. Austin and Travis County leaders are moving forward with plans to open a sobriety center.

The downtown facility would serve as a safe space for people to sober up. After years of discussion, both the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court have approved plans for the creation of the sobriety center. Austin Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovosaid the proposed location at the medical examiner’s office near Brackenridge Hospital is ideal. She spoke alongside other local leaders at a panel hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance yesterday.

“It is central,” Tovo said. “It is close to where those arrests are happening. It allows our officers to bring an individual there and get back out on the streets quickly, which is part of the savings that’ll accrue to the city and the efficiencies that’ll accrue to their work.”

Tovo said the building won’t require a lot of renovation to accommodate the new facility. The center is expected to have 27 full-time employees with 30 to 40 beds, but the new building doesn't mean someone drunk on Sixth Street couldn't still end up in jail. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo still wants to ticket drunk people who are taken to the facility, and he said officers can’t stop anyone from leaving the sobriety center of their own free will.

“There will always be officers available to respond in the event that somebody gets violent or somebody decides to walk out,” Acevedo said. “So, you know, our officers are paid professionals. They’re highly trained, and we trust them to make the proper assessment and decision, in terms of whether they go to the sobriety center or jail.”

The initiative is being modeled after a sobriety center in Houston, where operators say police are able to drop someone off and get back to patrolling the streets in about eight minutes.

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty says he also supports opening the center, but advises against calling it a “drunk tank.”

“This is not a program where you can just, like the chief said, you can just go and get wasted and go to the drunk tank,” Daugherty said. “Please correct people and say, 'This is a sobriety center.' I mean, there is a real need for something like this.”

The center is expected to open next year. The city and the county plan to divide the cost of operation.

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