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Flood of 911 calls during street takeovers overwhelmed operators, underscoring staffing shortage

Cars speed in circles in the intersection of South Lamar Boulevard and Barton Springs Road Saturday night.
Courtesy of Aaron Crews
Cars speed in circles in the intersection of South Lamar Boulevard and Barton Springs Road Saturday night.

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Austin police fielded 390 calls to 911 on Saturday night during a street takeover incident that shut down the intersection of South Lamar Boulevard and Barton Springs Road for nearly an hour. Three more takeovers occurred at other intersections later that night.

At a news conference Tuesday, Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon said police arrested two people Saturday night and four others the next day. Four firearms were seized during the arrests.

The Travis County District Attorney's Office told KUT in a statement that it had also been referred a case related to the incidents by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Chacon said a dozen or fewer call operators handled 390 calls between 9 and 10 p.m. Saturday, with 266 calls coming in during that first half-hour. Comparatively, the call center received 65 in that timeframe the week prior.

“This elevated number resulted in very long hold times, the longest being just over 27 minutes," he said. "This is obviously unacceptable."

Chacon said he’s hoping more operators will be hired and trained soon.

“We've made strides and are getting more applicants there than at any time in recent history," he said. "But it takes time to hire them and to train them. And as you can see, we still have shortages.”

The staffing shortage has led to 911 calls being abandoned altogether.

APD’s last quarterly report shows there are 70 vacancies in the call center, in addition to 250 vacancies in sworn positions within the department.

Chacon said Tuesday the department had received a tip from the San Antonio Police Department last Friday about a potential street takeover, but that it was “weak intelligence” that wasn’t necessarily actionable.

All told, 41 police cars responded to the "sideshow" at Barton Springs and Lamar. Chacon said the incident is still under investigation.

The incidents came as the city and its police union navigate a dispute over APD’s labor contract. The city’s police union pointed to the incident over the weekend as proof the department is understaffed, placing the blame on the scuttled negotiations with City Council.

Mayor Kirk Watson said Monday the union tweeted “false comments” and that “Twitter is not an appropriate forum for contract negotiations."

APD is also preparing for SXSW. Chacon said he expected the department would be “fully staffed” for the festival.

“I assure you that that is what will happen moving forward. Our officers will be there, will be ready,” he said. “The plans are in place to disrupt this type of activity.”

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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