State police will be patrolling the streets of Austin. What does that mean?
In a few days, you may start seeing more state police patrolling the streets of Austin.
Mayor Kirk Watson on Monday announced a plan with the Texas Department of Public Safety for state troopers to assist the Austin Police Department amid a staffing shortage. Deployment plans aren't yet final, but Watson, DPS' Executive Director Steve McCraw and APD Chief Joseph Chacon all said people can expect to see more uniformed and non-uniformed troopers "around town."
Watson said the move is supplemental (and indefinite), and it's meant to address the perception that Austinites may not feel safe.
"The people of Austin deserve to be safe and feel safe," he said.
But is Austin safe?
Earlier this month, Watson said Austin was.
"If you look at the numbers, Austin is a safe city. It's a safe city by comparison," he said. "But let me be clear: If people don't feel safe, we need to take action. Just because the statistics show we're a safe city in a lot of ways, there's room for improvement."
Watson was speaking at a news conference announcing the city would extend employee pay and overtime to police officers when the city's contract with the union expires at the end of the month. Those labor discussions were scuttled after the city didn't agree to a longterm deal with the Austin Police Association. More on that later.
Austin has seen an increase in violent crime and homicides over the last few years. It's not alone. Cities across the U.S. saw increases (particularly in gun violence) since the start of the pandemic, and experts fear that may be part of a "new normal."
Austin saw a record-high number of murders in 2021, 89. That number dropped to 71 last year. Still, Austin's murder rate per capita is lower than it was in the 1980s, and it's comparatively lower than that of other large cities.
Year-over-year, the city is in a better spot than it was last year, according to Chacon's monthly update on crime statistics. Violent crimes have dropped 6%. Property crime has also dipped. There have been slightly more arrests for drug-related offenses and weapons charges, however.
And there have been more murders so far this year compared to 2022: 15 compared to 12.
Why does APD need help?
Perception aside, the Austin Police Department faces a staffing crisis — one that stems from previous City Council decisions and recent labor squabbles.
"There's little question ... that we're understaffed in our police department," Watson said Monday.
Part of that stems from the city's pause of police cadet classes in 2021. The suspension came after allegations of an aggressive "warrior" mindset within the curriculum and racism in the department's command as far back as 2018.
APD has struggled to catch up to previous staffing levels, and the recent fight over the labor contract hasn't helped. Then-City Manager Spencer Cronk negotiated a four-year deal with the police union earlier this year, but the council opted instead for a temporary extension of the existing contract. The union balked, and now the contract is set to expire at the end of this month.
At least 57 officers have left the force so far this year, according to an update from Chacon earlier this month.
The department has also struggled to staff its 911 call center. As many as 50 officers get temporarily reassigned each month to take calls.
DPS troopers typically focus on traffic enforcement, according to Bill Kelly, a criminology professor at UT Austin. He said police are less specialized and while the cadet class pause hampered staffing, they're still being asked to do too much.
"It's like, 'We have a problem. Who's going to take care of it?' Well, but let's have the police do it," he said. "And many of those things like mental health [calls], traffic [enforcement], welfare checks, things like that ... are really not things that police are are trained to do and should be doing."
Asked if he thinks DPS is effectively trained to address those areas of policing, Kelly said no.
"In fact, I think they're less well trained to do those things, with the exception of traffic enforcement," he said.
What's DPS going to do?
Chacon said he expects APD officers to respond to the "vast majority" of 911 calls, but that DPS could take a "supportive role" in addressing violent crime and traffic violations.
It's worth noting DPS already patrols Austin. State law allows state police to patrol much of the area surrounding the state Capitol. The so-called Capitol Complex encompasses 46 square blocks in the downtown area.
DPS troopers can enforce state law, including traffic violations, misdemeanors and felonies. It’s not clear how they would enforce local ordinances, like the one Austin voters passed to effectively decriminalize small amounts of weed.
Two council members have expressed reservations about DPS' role in enforcement. Council members José "Chito" Vela and José Velasquez released a joint statement Wednesday that said they were awaiting details on "rules and safeguards" DPS would operate under.
"If the State of Texas and the City of Austin can reach an agreement which preserves municipal protections for Austin residents," the statement read, "we hope it will set the stage for future mutually-beneficial arrangements on issues requiring intergovernmental cooperation.”
Austin defense attorney George Lobb questioned how that cooperation will impact his job. He said DPS doesn't often have the same level of accountability that APD does. Part of that's baked in: It's a massive statewide agency that also issues driver's licenses. He argued that leads to gaps in responsiveness.
A good example, he said, is how troopers handle DWI stops versus police. Lobb said APD will turn over arrest reports and body cam footage pretty quickly because officers could get written up if they don't. A trooper, he said, doesn't have that immediate scrutiny.
"Out of every single law enforcement agency that I've ever dealt with in the state of Texas — and I've practiced in half the counties in the state — the least transparent one is DPS," he said.