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Police chief says Austin has seen a big drop in violent crime since state troopers started helping out

State troopers are going to start helping out the Austin Police Department, which has been short-staffed.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
State troopers are helping the Austin Police Department, which has been short-staffed.

Austin's police chief says the department has seen a 25% drop in violent crime since the partnership with Department of Public Safety troopers began late last month.

At a news conference Friday, APD Chief Joseph Chacon said the partnership so far hasn't resulted in a spike in arrests by state troopers, but that their increased presence is an effective "deterrent."

"I certainly, as I'm driving around Austin, you see more of a law enforcement presence kind of everywhere you go," he said. "And when you have that, it is a deterrent. ... I think that's why, to some degree, we're seeing some of the downward trend in overall number of crimes — violent crimes, particularly."

APD's chief data officer, Jonathan Kringen, said that while there has been a year-over-year drop in violent crimes, that could change.

"It may be that the 25% reduction is sort of an initial effect. [The rate] could be higher or lower and we have no way to tell," he said. "Over time on a weekly basis we will be working through more data ... but the initial indication is that the drop was significant."

The sudden deal for troopers to help APD was meant to bolster police patrols amid a staffing crisis. The department currently has 298 officer vacancies, according to the latest quarterly staffing update.

Opponents have said the partnership could lead to more arrests for offenses like marijuana possession. APD doesn't arrest people for low-level marijuana possession, but DPS can under state law.

"DPS most often does not make ... arrests for low-level amounts, but rather is issuing a citation," Chacon said Friday.

Chris Harris, policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition, said it's "good to hear" DPS troopers are seemingly following APD's lead as it relates to enforcement, but that could change. The deal between the two departments was worked out without approval from the Austin City Council, he said, and there's no written agreement or clear-cut rules of engagement.

"Not having those sort of details worked out in advance ... opens up [the possibility] that that could change any time," he said. "And that's honestly just assuming that's happening now."

Harris agrees the mere presence of troopers could deter crime, but said the city runs the risk of over-policing low-income, low-resource neighborhoods that could benefit from additional resources – not police patrols.

"I think it's valid that when you have a law enforcement presence that [it] prevents or stops some harmful actions from happening directly in that officer's presence," he said. "I think the question is if you haven't really changed the conditions of a community that are leading to those acts, that they'll just move to where they're not in the presence of those officers."

The department's understaffing has resulted in an increase in response times for 911 calls — nearly 12 minutes for top-priority calls. APD has only half of its 911 operator positions filled, which has led to some officers filling in on call center shifts.

In some DPS-patrolled areas, Kringen said, 911 wait times dropped by an average of two minutes.

Chacon said DPS troopers stopped more than 4,000 vehicles over the past two weeks, and that 25% of those stops resulted in tickets. He added that DPS troopers have arrested 96 people for felonies and 63 people for misdemeanors. Troopers have also served more than 100 warrants for felonies and misdemeanors.

Austin City Council members requested a briefing on the DPS patrols shortly after the plan was rolled out. They're expected to get an update from APD and DPS Tuesday.

In a statement to KUT, District 9 Council Member Zo Qadri said he looked forward to the meeting and that while crime may have dipped, people still have concerns about the partnership.

"Any reduction in crime is good news," he said, "but there are still plenty of serious questions members of our community have about DPS’s operations in our city."

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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 aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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