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Police say shifting beats, personnel will not endanger downtown safety

Thursday, January 6, 2011 by Kimberly Reeves

Downtown will lose some police officers in a shift of sectors and coverage under the Austin Police Department’s reorganization plan, but APD’s downtown commanders say the changes will address Austin’s current central city crime scene.

 

The recent reorganization of APD will shift coverage from three regions to four districts. Coverage is shifted, with downtown picking up some of the near east side neighborhoods and dropping other areas closer to MoPac. Staffing is down from 208 officers to 190 officers under the new configuration plan.

 

Commander John Romoser and Lt. Marcelino Gonzales, at a community meeting Tuesday night, insisted the changes would not be a detriment to downtown. The change, instead, would provide an opportunity to address the hot spot for drug dealing around the intersection of Sixth and Chicon streets.

 

The problem for APD, Gonzales said, is that intervention efforts tended to push crime to the east, into East Austin neighborhoods and another APD sector. Then that sector would intervene, and crime would be pushed back into downtown. Reconfiguring the sector would give APD officers on the beat better cohesion in addressing the issue, Gonzales told the small crowd.

 

Lori Renteria, who attended the Tuesday night forum, was a bit uneasy with the news. While she welcomed more cohesive crime-fighting efforts, the same APD district representative had worked her neighborhood for nine years. Renteria said she was more than happy to go on an APD ride along and point out the crime hot spots in the neighborhood for officers.

 

“We need and appreciate the feedback from you,” Romoser said. “If you see drugs picking up around the (homeless resource center) again, we need to hear that. Give us feedback. We need to know what y’all are seeing out there, too.”

 

The new downtown camera program, recently approved by Council, also would give APD extra eyes on the streets downtown, Gonzales noted.

 

Another attendee asked officers whether the sector would be properly staffed for bar closures on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights downtown.

 

“I do believe we are,” Romoser said. “This is a new process. We feel like we’ve focused on our numbers, that we have the right number of lieutenants and sergeants, given the calls that we are receiving in the 300, 400, 500 blocks of Sixth Street. If we find out something different, we’re going to look at that.”

 

While the number of officers is down for the downtown, or George, sector, the sector also has given up neighborhoods closer to MoPac. Officials said that made more sense both from the crime perspective and the fact that downtown bicycle patrol officers had a difficult time getting past Lamar out to neighborhoods closer to MoPac.

 

The new configuration is divided into three beat patrols: George, Ida and Baker. George is downtown. Baker is the University of Texas area. Ida is just to the north of that. The “new” George means downtown officers will pick up a couple of extra schools and some additional parkland at Festival Beach.

 

Romoser said, despite downtown’s reputation, that crime is low downtown. In fact, it’s the lowest in any of the city’s eight sectors, both in terms of violent crime and in terms of property crime. Violent crime alone is down 25 percent in the last year in the downtown neighborhood. Property crime, mostly confined to the theft of wallets and car break-ins, also is down for downtown.

 

“We get a bad rap, specifically, that downtown isn’t very safe,” Gonzales said. “Downtown is actually the safest part of the city.”

 

Renteria said the east side was organizing its own Rangers program, like the one used by the downtown improvement district, and expected to have it in place by the time South by Southwest arrived in March. The city’s code compliance department would train those people, Renteria said.

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