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Public Safety Commission members tackle myriad city issues

Friday, January 21, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The City of Austin’s Public Safety Commission is a tale of two Michaels.


The first, University of Texas Professor Michael Lauderdale, is a well-regarded thinker. In addition to a host of articles and chapters, he’s authored or co-authored six books on leadership and community development. According to his bio, “he works especially with law enforcement entities.” His experience with drugs and crime in Mexico stretches back four decades. He’s polite. He’s patient. He is the commission’s chair.


The second, former Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy, is a well-known political activist and curmudgeon. He’s heavily involved in local issues. He keeps his hands in politics—most recently, as the major backer of the movement against November’s city transportation bonds. More to the point, he works to keep abreast of issues with Austin’s Fire, Police, and EMS departments. He is opinionated. He’s direct. He’s been called a “joke” by angry civil libertarians. He’s the commission’s vice chair.


Together, Lauderdale and Levy set the tone for the commission. There, they and their colleagues vet a portfolio of issues that ranges from a potential switch in the way the city staffs its ambulance crews (Levy) to how the chaotic Mexican drug cartel wars may affect the City of Austin (Lauderdale). This coming year will be of the “make or break” variety for the body: Lauderdale’s chairmanship is up, and though he hasn’t indicated one way or the other whether he’ll stay on for another term (should his colleagues re-elect him), he noted that the commission takes up quite a bit of his time.


“It’s a new commission,” Lauderdale added, “and I think that the City Council will need to look hard at (it) in the coming year and ask, ‘Is this doing what we need it to do?’”


In the meantime, they will continue to scrutinize the ways in which the city’s public safety services work and don’t work. Last year, Lauderdale brought in experts from the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and state law enforcement to discuss to potential effect of Mexico’s drug war on life in Austin.


Lauderdale says that, thanks to its prime location along the main highway that leads from Mexico into the central United States, Austin may have become a key distribution point for drugs. He points, theoretically, to the situation in Mexico across from El Paso.


“I’ve been watching Juarez,” he says. “I used to live there…When my son was a year old, I’d go over, my wife would go over, we’d shop over there. He’d be in my arms sometimes or in a stroller….I was never concerned about my safety over there. I won’t go to Juarez today.”


Lauderdale says that when he lived in the region, it was safer than El Paso. “Something started to come unglued about five years ago” he says. “There is the possibility that increases in violence are not linear.”


He dove into an analogy about ice. “Ice does not occur gradually—a liquid goes to a semi-crystal state like that,” he said. “That’s called a phase change. That may be something we need to think about in terms of a community loosing hold of something and suddenly violence surges up much more than you would predict from a trend.”


He circled back to Austin. “That’s why I’m putting such an emphasis on what I’ve seen (in 2010) in Austin,” he said. “I’m pushing the police hard, I’m looking at various kinds of data, I’m listening to the (Drug Enforcement Agency): Are there any things out there that have changed out of the ordinary?”


Lauderdale cited two such changes. The bad economy was his first. Drugs were next. “In the last three years, we’ve had more serious drug problems than I think I’ve seen in many years here,” he said.


“These are the kinds of things that the Public Safety Commission wants to be watching for,” he said. “Do we see anything on the radar screen that suggests there may be a storm on the horizon? And if there is a storm on the horizon—whether it’s fire, whether it’s EMS, whether it’s police—what do they think they need, . . . what do we think?…What does the community think?”


Levy sees trouble in the recent proposal by Austin’s EMS department to alter staffing from two paramedics per ambulance unit to a paramedic and an emergency medical technician. “It would so compromise the quality of patient care,” he says.


He calls that idea “the canary in the coal mine.” He uses the same metaphor for the fire department’s method of dispatch. “EMS was basically getting to a fire call two minutes quicker,” he says. “They really haven’t fixed it.”


For Levy, problems with the EMS and Fire departments can be laid at the feet of management. And though he offers sometimes blistering critiques of both Fire Chief Rhoda Mae Kerr and EMS chief Ernie Rodriguez, Levy insists that the commission isn’t there to make personnel decisions.


“We would never say hire and fire, it’s not appropriate,” he says. “But we will be raising issues such as…why did they ever bring this paramedic/EMT thing to the commission? It should have been killed in the first place. That’s a flag of—oh my gosh—is there a problem within management that they would actually think this is a good idea?”


Looking forward, Levy sees the commission thinking proactively. “You’ll see a commission that is trying to be proactive five years out…shining our little light on the departments,” he said.


Levy also sees the commission’s role expanding. “I think that over the next two years, the idea of public safety will range beyond police, fire, and EMS to something like code inspection for health, restaurant inspection…how are we doing in those areas?” he says. “You know, public safety is more than police, fire, and EMS—whether we define it that way, or have time to define it that way.”


It’s a full plate. Lucky for Lauderdale and Levy, there are two of them.

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