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City Council says only city-sanctioned officers can control event traffic

Friday, February 12, 2010 by Austin Monitor

City Council voted on Thursday to pass an ordinance that would amend last year’s Street Events Ordinance to allow only city-sanctioned peace officers to control traffic in public rights of way during events. The 5-2 vote came after calls for more stakeholder input. There was also a failed attempt by Council Member Bill Spelman to attach an amendment that would have required permittees to file a traffic control plan with Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo.


Council Member Randi Shade sponsored the ordinance. She said that the existing language that governed which types of off-duty officers could serve as traffic control officials was overly broad. “It suggested that any off-duty peace officer commissioned by the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement could be used for traffic control without any authorization by our city chief of police,” she said.  


She noted that the issue first came to her attention when she heard that the MS 150 ride planned on employing Houston police officers within city limits.


“To me that does not seem like good policy,” she said. “The buck stops with our chief of police, and he’s responsible for our city streets.” 


Shade read a letter sent to the Council by Precinct 5 Constable Bruce Elfant into the record. In it, Elfant signaled his concern that the Council might be poised to write peace officers not affiliated with the APD out of crowd control duty. He also noted that his department charged non-profit organizations “significantly less than other law enforcement agencies.”


“For years deputy constables have worked many events in the downtown Austin area … My officers have always willingly complied with city regulations and have not received any complaints,” wrote Elfant.


Shade said that it was important for promoters to have the flexibility to hire non-APD officers to help with traffic control. She called Assistant Chief Al Eells to testify to the fact that the APD would cooperate with other local agencies.


“Absolutely,” he said. “We have, I believe, (a) very strong relationship with our local law enforcement partners.” He added that when officers come in “from far away,” it presents communications challenges.


Still, Council Member Laura Morrison tried to call for a three-month delay in the proceedings. “It’s become very clear to me that there a number of disconnects about what this proposal would actually do,” she said. She citied problems with the clarity of the resolution’s language, confusion over when the APD chief would allow non-APD officers to participate in events, a question over who would be liable if APD signed off on a plan, and an open question over what would be best for Austin’s citizens.


“I think we need to have a conversation about what our priorities are.”


She suggested that the city postpone the issue until May.


Elfant echoed Morrison’s call for more discussion. “It’s been made real clear to me by my colleagues that they weren’t comfortable,” he said. “I take some of the responsibility for this. I should have asked that we bring all of the stakeholders much earlier.”


He added a call for the city to create a “long term process.” He asked that this include event postmortems so that the city could learn from “each time we do this.”


Morrison’s proposal met with resistance from Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Council Member Sheryl Cole. Each of those officials pointed out the importance of, as Leffingwell put it, a “central point of accountability.” With the passage of the ordinance, Acevedo would be affirmed as that central point.


The Council would eventually deny Morrison’s motion, 5-2. Spelman joined Morrison in asking for a delay.


Spelman then tried to attach an amendment that would require public event permit applicants to run a “security control plan” by Acevedo. The amendment would have given Acevedo the authority to “accept the plan, reject the plan, or require amendments.” If successful, it would have given APD a veto over traffic control plans for any event.


After some debate, Spelman’s suggestion was defeated 5-2, with Morrison joining him. The Council then approved the original ordinance by a 5-2 vote, with Spelman and Morrison voting against the measure. There were instructions attached to it for the Public Safety Commission (PSC) to review the ordinance.


Elfant told In Fact Daily that he’d spoken with event planners and law enforcement officials about Shade’s ordinance. He wouldn’t specify his contacts or talk about their specific complaints. But he did renew his opposition to the Council’s action.


“There’s a right way to go about this and then there’s the way they did it,” he said. Still, he remained optimistic that workable rules would emerge after the PSC review.

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