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CapMetro police force coming to North Austin office park

An aerial view of the office park on Cameron Road where Capital Metro's first transit police station will be housed.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
Capital Metro is leasing 9,246 square feet of space at 8200 Cameron Road to install the agency's first transit police station. The department will occupy part of the largest building in the Cameron Center office park.

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Capital Metro has secured the location of its first police department headquarters — a nondescript building in a North Austin office park — and is ready to spend millions on rent and renovations to expand the transit agency’s mission into law enforcement.

The move to put more armed officers on buses and trains has drawn criticism from those concerned about excessive enforcement, racial profiling and criminalizing homelessness.

But CapMetro, facing a barrage of complaints about safety from bus drivers and riders, has kept the project on track by promising a friendlier police department with a focus on customer service and de-escalation.

A Capitol Metro bus approaches a group of people as they wait at a CapMetro bus station on Guadalupe Street at the University of Texas on Nov. 15, 2022.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
A CapMetro bus on Guadalupe Street at the University of Texas. The transit agency provides about 80,000 rides on an average weekday.

"I hear those who have been in police captivity and may not have been treated the best. We have no desire to put that sort of blotter stain on this agency," said Gardner Tabon, the CapMetro senior executive overseeing creation of the force.

Right now, the agency relies on off-duty officers from the Austin Police Department to patrol the system. APD's own staffing shortages sometimes leave CapMetro with fewer cops than desired.

The transit agency plans to hire 50 cops over five years.

"We have a very unique opportunity, one that others do not. We get to establish our own culture that is not only customer-friendly, but is respectful to all life," Tabon said.

A ground-level view of 8200A Cameron Road, the building that will house Capital Metro's first transit police department.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
Capital Metro will spend $3.2 million to lease part of 8200A Cameron Road for up to 7.5 years. The agency will invest almost $1.5 million to convert the office space into a police department.

But skeptics wonder how this police force would be different than any other police department in Central Texas.

"What magic, secret sauce does CapMetro have that no other transit agency in the country has that will make what they're doing different?" said João Paulo Connolly, organizing director with the Austin Justice Coalition. "I haven't seen anything in CapMetro's plan that gives me hope that what they're doing is going to be significantly better, kinder or more progressive."

The latest milestone in the agency's effort to stand up a police force came Friday when Capital Metro's board of directors voted to lease 9,246 square feet of space at 8200 Cameron Road. The full cost of the 7.5-year lease is $3.2 million. CapMetro will spend another $1.48 million to furnish the space and build it out into a police station.

The building in the Cameron Center office park will serve as a temporary police station until CapMetro finds a permanent space.

In June, CapMetro hired former Sugar Land Police Chief Eric Robins to lead the department. Robins moved to Austin from the Houston suburb after retiring from a law enforcement career spanning more than three decades.

"Creating a police department from the ground up, it's not something that's done every day," Robins told KUT. "Listen to us, come to our meetings, get involved, and then give us an opportunity to make sure we get this right."

CapMetro Executive Vice President Gardner Tabon and the agency's soon-to-be police chief, Eric Robins, sit for a portrait inside a conference room. Both are in suits facing the camera. Behind them are window blinds through which you can make out some of Austin's downtown skyscrapers.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
CapMetro Executive Vice president Gardner Tabon (left) is overseeing creation of a transit police department that will be helmed by former Sugar Land Police Chief Eric Robins (right).

Capital Metro now faces a litany of decisions that will shape the character and culture of the transit police department. The agency has to adopt policies on everything from use of force to training standards to whether the new police station should have holding cells to detain arrested suspects before they're booked into a Travis County jail.

The controversy over holding cells was the latest issue to rankle critics of a transit police force. Capital Metro added to the confusion by first saying the holding cells were required by state regulators, only to backtrack upon realizing they weren't.

"Holding facilities amount to nothing more than jails and only serve to perpetuate an already-unequal system," said Meme Styles, co-founder of the nonprofit group Measure and a member of CapMetro's public safety advisory panel.

"Holding facilities amount to nothing more than jails and only serve to perpetuate an already-unequal system."
Meme Styles, co-founder of the nonprofit group Measure

On Friday, CapMetro's interim CEO, Dottie Watkins, told the board the police station wouldn't have a holding facility, but would include space to detain unruly suspects.

"A safe place where we can protect their safety and the safety of our staff and public. But we will not be having a holding facility," Watkins said. "If we have an individual that needs to be in longer-term custody of law enforcement, we will partner with a local entity to provide those services and transport that individual there."

Alex Karner, a UT associate professor whose research includes equity in transit systems, said CapMetro should devote law enforcement resources to improving the reliability of service instead.

"Issues related to reliability and on-time performance are critical for riders, and they just don't feel that they're getting adequate service in that area right now," Karner said.

The transit agency has struggled for months to keep buses running on time. A driver shortage that has largely been resolved for now has been replaced by a nationwide parts shortage that leaves 7% of vehicles out of service on any given day.

Karner said interviews of riders conducted by his grad students and compiled in a report found CapMetro users sometimes felt the most unsafe waiting at bus stops without adequate shelter or lighting.

"It might be in the dark. You don't know when a transit vehicle is coming, and so you're in a very vulnerable position," Karner said. "It does seem that there's kind of a misallocation of resources and kind of poorly ordered priorities at CapMetro right now."

A bus stop on Burleson Road without a bench, shelter or lighting.
Gabriel C Pérez
/
KUT
Some Capital Metro bus stops are little more than a pole with a sign on them, which can make riders feel unsafe at night. CapMetro has devoted $14.5 million this year to building new bus stops and enhancing existing ones, but it's still not enough to add lighting and shelter to every bus stop in the system.

Karner and other critics of the transit police force support the agency's other public safety initiatives, like the deployment of 17 so-called public safety ambassadors — uniformed, unarmed employees who patrol the system and respond to nonviolent incidents with an emphasis on de-escalation.

CapMetro also has two social workers — dubbed crisis intervention specialists — who can help people living on the streets find shelter. They strive to connect people who have mental health or substance abuse issues with treatment.

But for many bus drivers and riders, unarmed safety ambassadors and social workers are not enough.

A public safety ambassador in the official uniform of white shirt and navy blue pants stands inside a Capital Metro bus, holding the support bars for stability while the vehicle moves.
Capital Metro
CapMetro Public Safety Ambassador Koko Snowden patrols buses, helps people find their way through the transit system and attempts to de-escalate nonviolent confrontations.

"I would want anybody who's saying it's too much police force to just understand we're out there 24/7, and when we want help, we want to be able to get it as soon as possible," said Brent Payne, president of ATU Local 1091 and a bus driver for 35 years.

Dispatch reports obtained by KUT News for the month of November show a bus driver asks for help almost every day to deal with verbal or physical assaults. Examples include threats, racist slurs, people spitting on or screaming at other passengers and fist fights. In one instance last month, a bus driver reported someone pulling a gun on them because they asked the rider to turn down their music.

Brent Payne, of the Amalgamated Transit Union, speaks at a podium in 2020 outside the Delco Activity Center. Payne is wearing a face mask that says, "Union members are essential workers. AFL-CIO."
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Union leader Brent Payne, pictured here at a 2020 news conference, says bus drivers are constantly dealing with threats and harassment.

"[The transit police] are not out there giving speeding tickets. They're not out there because they're thinking you're carrying drug paraphernalia. They're out there to protect the riding public and the operators who operate these buses," Payne said.

While waiting at a downtown bus stop, Lexus Witt said she liked the idea of police on buses.

"Just based off of my experience riding this bus every day, or multiple buses every day for work, I would support that just because I run into a lot of confrontations, or witness a lot of confrontations on these buses, like almost two-three times a week," Witt said.

Other riders were less enthusiastic about the idea.

"There's going to be people that are vulnerable that use the bus, and those tend to be communities that tend to get harassed by the police, so I worry about that a lot," Alexis Cork said. "I also don't think there's that big of a safety issue on the bus."

Cork said she was more concerned about safety at bus stops after being harassed recently by someone she suspected was on drugs.

Capital Metro couldn't provide an estimate of how much it would cost to run the police department once it's established. This year's operating expenses would be drawn from the agency's $8.3 million public safety and emergency management fund, which has almost doubled since fiscal year 2021.

The agency has also budgeted $4.37 million this fiscal year to public safety capital projects.

CapMetro hopes to have the transit police force certified by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement by next fall.

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect Capital Metro is renting part of the building at 8200A Cameron Road, not the entire building.

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Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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