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Commission, APD explore homelessness and downtown crime

Tuesday, January 8, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin Police Department officials Monday continued to express their concerns about what they suggested is an increase in police contact with the homeless population of downtown Austin.


As part of their presentation, officers affiliated with the department’s mental health unit offered what may be an answer to a question posed by Council Member Laura Morrison in October: whether police statistics accurately reflect the involvement of downtown’s homeless in crime.


The officers’ testimony also provided another perspective about how the frayed social safety net imposed on Texas municipalities by the state legislature continues to cost those cities money. “I’m willing to bet that if we added up the cost of all of these police services, all the court services, all the EMS services, we’d be looking at millions of dollars that is preventable,” said Austin Public Safety Commission Vice Chair Kim Rossmo.


In October, Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo presented members of the Austin City Council’s Public Health and Human Services Committee with police statistics that seemed to show that 38 percent of downtown crime involved “transients.” At the time, Morrison pointed out that those figures were both inaccurate from a strictly statistical standpoint (other data suggested a 21 percent number), and misleading because they did not differentiate between the number of times that a homeless person was a victim or a perpetrator of a crime (see In Fact Daily, Oct. 25, 2012).


On Monday, Assistant Chief Raul Munguia told public safety commissioners that “homeless and transient” individuals were involved in 89 of 254 violent downtown crimes between January 2011 and Nov. 6, 2012 – a 35 percent rate. Of those, 89 violent crimes, 29 featured a “transient” as a suspect, 13 involved a homeless victim, and 47 were “transient against transient.”


Chief of Staff David Carter noted that those figures might not necessarily be all-inclusive. “These relate to the actual calls for service that (Austin Police) became involved with,” said Carter. “It does not mean that these are the only cases involving emotionally disturbed persons.”


Police Lt. Kris Thompson told commissioners that officers do their best to divert the mentally ill toward a treatment track (and away from the criminal justice system). As part of her testimony, Thompson acknowledged that “we could spend hours talking about the fact that the criminal justice system is over-represented by people with mental illness.”


Monday’s discussion also focused on the lack of resources available for the mentally ill population. Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Service chief of staff James Shamard laid out the specifics for commissioners.


“We have a real issue in our community as far as bed-space for psychiatric patients,” said Shamard. “Six or seven years ago… due to some state funding (cuts), we lost a significant number of beds over at the Austin state hospital. But as you can see in the numbers, the need continues to rise. What happens is those patients end up in an emergency room, and that is absolutely not the place that you want to…take care of a psychiatric patient.”


There was also some concern about case management – the ability of authorities to stay in contact with disturbed citizens after run-ins with police. “If we do, in fact, take somebody into protective custody, the back-end resources don’t seem to be … the level of those resources are not available,” said Carter.


Commission Chair Michael Lauderdale asked Thompson for her personal assessment of the state of case management in Austin and Travis County. Thompson called the system fragmented. “Right now, in our community, there doesn’t really seem to be an overseer,” she added.


At the conclusion of testimony, Commissioner Ramey Ko called for an agenda item that would invite a host of area stakeholders – including representatives from Austin-Travis County Integral Care, the legal community, and homeless advocates – before the commission to discuss the issue. That could serve as a prelude to a commission recommendation to City Council.


Lauderdale urged his fellow commissioners to stick to their public safety mandate. Viewed from this perspective, the issue could get a harsh airing: On Monday, Rossmo and Kent Anschutz suggested that Austin draws homeless populations from other cities. Rossmo, who said he was “curious if the problem is getting worse,” pointed to what he cast as a negative parallel.


“The (City of San Francisco’s) welfare policies pulled in homeless people literally from all over the country,” Rossmo said. “So they ended up with a much larger problem than it was locally to them.”

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