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APD to study changes to misdemeanor arrest policy

Friday, September 5, 2008 by Mark Richardson

A new policy endorsed by the city’s Public Safety Task Force could mean some 15,000 fewer people could be arrested each year for misdemeanor crimes in Austin, potentially saving millions of dollars and thousands of hours of time for Austin police officers.


The resolution passed Thursday encourages Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo to instruct his officers to issue citations for Class C and select Class A and B nonviolent misdemeanors rather than make an arrest. Debbie Russell, president of the Central Texas Chapter of the ACLU of Texas, brought the resolution to the task force.


The resolution has no official force. However, through Assistant Chief David Carter, Acevedo relayed his willingness to develop a new policy and implement it within 60 days.


“Police officers have always had the discretion to issue a citation for Class C misdemeanors,” said Russell. “But with the passage of House Bill 2391 passed during that last Legislature, that discretion has been extended to a select number of Class A and B misdemeanors. Many other police departments have adopted policies allowing officers additional discretion. We believe Austin should as well.”


Statistics provided by the ACLU – from information provided by APD — show that 37 percent of the arrests made by Austin police in 2007 were optional under HB 2391, and depending on how you calculate it, cost the department between $5.4 and $80 million. In 2007, Austin Police officers made 9,902 arrests for Class C misdemeanors and 5,910 arrests for Class A and B misdemeanors.


In a publication titled “Citation not Taxation,” the local ACLU charged that that the high volume of misdemeanor arrests was costing taxpayers by keeping officers off the streets while they were filling out paperwork and processing prisoners. It charged that APD measures its success by the number of arrests made, not by the number of convictions. The document also claims that a high arrest rate for discretionary crimes leads to racial profiling, as well as stigmatizing innocent individuals with arrest records, which follow them for years.


Austin Police officials made it clear that they do not necessarily agree with the ACLU’s statistics in the matter.  APD spokeswoman Anna Sabana told In Fact Daily that APD was developing its own statistics regarding misdemeanor arrests.


Assistant Chief Carter said APD agrees in principle to giving officers more leeway for field citations, but with some reservations.


“The City of Austin is now part of three counties,” he said. “We have to develop consistent policies among all the different small towns, sheriffs and court systems. We have engaged our criminal justice partners in the area to work out policies.”


He said APD needs to study the fiscal impact of such a change in policy.


“We want to help make Austin a safer city,” he said. “But we don’t want to endanger the community by rushing into a new policy without considering all of the possible consequences.”


Task force member Mike Levy asked to extend the 60-day timetable called for in the resolution to 120 days to give APD more time study and implement the policy, but got no support.


“We have been discussing this for four months,” Russell said. “This is not a new concept. They don’t really need any more time.”


The task force approved the resolution on an 18-0 vote. APD officials said they would bring a report on their progress back in 60 days.

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