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Acevedo says downtown crime initiative not targeting homeless

Thursday, October 25, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo on Tuesday defended a new department initiative targeting crime downtown before Austin City Council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee, but he will need to provide more data to convince some committee members that the initiative isn’t unfairly targeting the homeless population.

Acevedo told the committee that APD launched the Public Order Initiative on Sept. 20 as a zero-tolerance strategy to combat an increase in crime downtown. According to data, there was a 16 percent increase in violent crime in the area between September 2011 and September 2012, including an uptick in murders. That spike, Acevedo said, is driving a citywide increase in violent crime.

“We started to see higher-profile incidents downtown,” Acevedo said, and a “growing chorus of complaints (from) residents and businesspeople and visitors about lack of public order downtown.”

As of Oct. 17, about a month after starting the initiative, the department had made 34 felony arrests and 1,289 misdemeanor arrests, including public intoxication and assaults. Despite about 50 percent of those cited or released in relation to those incidents have been homeless (or “transients,” as Acevedo referred to them), the chief insisted, contrary to the opinions of some in the community, that “this is not an anti-homeless initiative.”

“We don’t target people based on socio-economic standing,” Acevedo said.

There is concern among some in the community that APD is targeting the homeless population downtown, a concern that is at least partially Acevedo’s doing. On Sept. 20, the day the initiative launched, the chief said in response to a question about the rising downtown crime rate that all homeless services in the area, including the Salvation Army and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, should be moved out.

Acevedo pointed out a possible danger to putting those services so near the city’s entertainment district. “Let’s put Caritas, let’s put the ARCH, let’s put the Salvation Army right adjacent to this huge district,” Acevedo said at the time. “It has beer readily available and booze readily available; it’s probably not a good mixture.” As for the downtown residents who have moved into the neighborhood’s high-end condominiums and apartments in the last few years, Acevedo continued, They have an expectation: If I’m going to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a condo, I want to be able to go to that corner restaurant or to that cafe” without being harassed.

 

At that time reports surfaced stating that 38 percent of all crimes downtown involved “transients.” On Tuesday, Council Member Laura Morrison took issue with that number. She said not only that the base figure was wrong (new data puts the percentage of crimes involving the homeless at 21 percent) but that the statistics didn’t differentiate between crimes in which homeless people were victims and those in which they were perpetrators. Of those 21 percent, Morrison said, only 17 percent had homeless suspects.

“If we’re talking about significantly different data I don’t how we can figure out what we’re doing,” Morrison said.

Acevedo, who put the number of homeless-involved crimes at 34 percent, said he is not convinced the department’s current data is accurate and that they need more time to collect data to truly understand the situation.

“Those numbers were given to me, and my assumption was that they were good. But when you start asking questions, I’m not comfortable with the number yet,” Acevedo said.

Regardless of the specific numbers, Morrison argued, the fact that the department is not distinguishing between crimes in which homeless people are the perpetrators and those in which they’re the victims is only fueling suspicion that the initiative is designed to target the homeless population.

“If we don’t say specifically, ‘That means they’re suspects or victims,’ it just doesn’t help a civil civic dialogue,” Morrison said. “It can be perceived as inflammatory rhetoric.”

In addition to asking for data that draws the line between victims and perpetrators, Morrison asked that Acevedo’s data from here on also break down the citations by violation, the better to understand how the homeless could possibly make up nearly 50 percent of criminals downtown.

Setting aside violations of the city’s No Sit/No Lie ordinance, Morrison said, “Frankly it’s stunning to me that half of the people that are creating violations … are transients.”

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