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Transportation

As APD cuts back on traffic enforcement, Austin looks to county to stop surge in deaths

An Austin police officer scanning U.S. 183 for speeding drivers
Miguel Gutierrez Jr.
/
KUT
An Austin police officer scans U.S. 183 for speeding drivers in 2015. This type of enforcement activity has become increasingly rare, because Austin's police department has reassigned traffic officers to patrol duties in response to a staffing shortage.

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Despite a surge in deadly crashes, Austin police have scaled back traffic enforcement because of a staffing shortage. Now, the city is considering paying Travis County law enforcement officers to help catch dangerous drivers overnight.

Austin City Council members are being briefed this week on a possible partnership that would pay sheriff's and constable's deputies to volunteer for 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. shifts going after drunk drivers and people speeding on highways and major roads.

The Travis County Sheriff's Office declined to comment for this story, saying it would be premature before receiving a proposal from the city.

But the TCSO is already facing staffing problems of its own. An internal study found the sheriff's office was short 16 law enforcement officers, according to the county's budget for this year. The TCSO had "high rates of turnover of experienced staff members who are replaced with entry level personnel," the budget document said.

A memorial on a telephone poll for someone killed by a drunk driver.
Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
/
KUT
Memorials like this one to 20-year-old Javier Emanuel Niño Esparza – killed by a drunk driver in 2019 – are a reminder of what's at stake as APD dials back traffic enforcement.

Traffic deaths in Austin hit an all-time high last year. At least 117 people were killed in crashes, according to the latest data compiled by the Texas Department of Transportation.

Meanwhile, speeding citations issued by Austin police continued a five-year plunge in 2021. Officers issued on average 10 speeding tickets a day compared to 100 a day in 2017 — a decline of 90%.

Both the Austin Police Department and the Austin Transportation Department blame the sharp decline in speeding citations on a shortage of police officers. Some traffic enforcement units have been dismantled to shift more officers to patrol duties. About 12% of APD's 1,809 sworn positions are vacant.

"Where there's no fear of consequences — even if it's just to be pulled over or seeing that cop where he sits everyday — when there's not that fear, I think we can see the [dangerous] driving behaviors," said William White, a lieutenant with APD's Highway Enforcement Command.

"Now with staffing being what it is," White said, "you don't have that pro-active traffic enforcement from us, nor do you see it from the patrol officers in general."

Travis County would help with such traffic enforcement as a "short-term" strategy, according to ATD's internal briefing documents for City Council members. In the long run, the city wants to create a dedicated traffic enforcement unit within the transportation department, "similar to the current ABIA structure with sworn APD officers," the briefing papers said.

ATD has money to pay Austin police officers overtime for traffic enforcement, but most of it is not being spent. Only a third of the $1 million budgeted for traffic enforcement in 2020 was used for that purpose, according to an investigation by the Office of the City Auditor.

Last year, the amount budgeted for overtime traffic enforcement shrank to less than a quarter what it was in 2020. Most of that went unspent, too.

A bar chart showing how ATD spending on traffic enforcement has declined since fiscal year 2019
Office of the City Auditor
A bar graph in an internal audit by the city shows how ATD spending on police overtime for traffic enforcement has declined in recent years.

Austin's Transportation Department declined to be interviewed for this story, saying that could happen only after the City Council considers an agreement with Travis County. The agreement is still in the proposal stage.

"We've got a critical need, particularly in the overnight period on the weekends, related to speeding and impairment on the roadways," Austin's Transportation Safety Officer Lewis Leff told a panel of council members this week.

"We're trying to find a way to address that lack of proactive traffic enforcement," he said.

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