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Council, police chief clash over district representative assignments

Wednesday, October 16, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members continued to do battle amongst themselves and with Police Chief Art Acevedo Tuesday over lingering issues associated with the opening of three segments of city hike and bike trails to 24-hour traffic. It all comes against the backdrop of the continuing dispute over how many officers it takes to serve the City of Austin.


In the process, Acevedo  pitched a compromise that would allow bicycle traffic to use a minimal amount of trail space to navigate around problem traffic spots while city officials step back to take a fuller look at the issues involved.


Council Member Chris Riley has been pushing hard on the immediate issue. Riley argues that the open trails offer bicyclists a route safer than one carved through city streets. Acevedo, meanwhile, has suggested that, in the wake of Council members’ budget-time decision to not fund a dedicated off-hour trail patrol, the department would have to reassign officers from the very popular district representative program to watch the trails.


At Council’s Tuesday work session, after some discussion over whether police officials would have to reassign the district representatives regardless of the status of the trails, Riley questioned Acevedo over an email he received from the Chief Friday. “About four days ago, you sent me an email saying, ‘as we look at our critically low uncommitted time, and degradation of our response times, we are going to move nine positions regardless of the decision on the trails.’”


Riley then cited Acevedo’s assertion that a closure of the trails might delay reassignment of the district representatives. “That seems very different from what you just told Council Member (Laura) Morrison. Has there been some evolution in your position on this?”


Acevedo’s response was blunt. “Well, Council member, I think you know that right after email at 6:30 in the morning, we met that night,” he started. “What we are trying to do is make everybody happy and we just can’t. We don’t have the resources to keep doing, and keep everybody happy. The bottom line is we continue to get beat up on the DR’s with folks – they don’t want (the change).”


Those remarks prompted a back-and-forth with Council Member Mike Martinez. “Just to be clear the email that (Council Member Riley) is referring to was a misstatement? There is no plan to move the DRs?” Martinez wondered.


Acevedo began a response before Martinez cut in again. “I don’t think it’s a misstatement. I think that –“


“So they are going to be moved regardless,” Martinez said. “I’m just trying to get clear Chief – I’m not trying to trap you up.”


“Council member, what we’re trying to do is help people,” said Acevedo.


“I understand,” continued Martinez. “And so am I – I m trying to help you by getting a clear message.”


At that point, Acevedo and Martinez were talking over one and other. “The bottom line is that, quite frankly, if we don’t keep (the trails) open, we’re not going to move (the DRs) at this time,” Acevedo concluded, noting that the department would still examine data, and could decide to move the district representatives at a later date.


Martinez also pressed for a history of occasions where APD officials had moved district representatives to cover other issues in the past.  Deputy City Manager Mike McDonald told Martinez that his answer would “be a very fluid response.”


“They were always supposed to be the ones that would do the problem solving, long term, and help in that area,” McDonald continued. “But they were never regarded as first-responders, even when we had those storefronts. At times, if demand got high, some issue came up, we delayed an Academy class – there were always little issues like that that would occur when we may have to pull a DR back for a month.”


For his part, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell continued to press for a closure of the trails. It is Leffingwell’s item – a call for a return to no trail access at night – that prompted the discussion.


Riley also pushed Acevedo on oft-reported statistics that appear to reflect minimal usage of the trails at night. He asked Acevedo how the department had collected data about users of the trails. After some back-and-forth, Acevedo said that the figures were based on “observations.”


That prompted some frustration from Riley. “So that doesn’t come from the counter, that comes from police observations – which, of course, demonstrates the whole futility of the program, because…the most important use of the trails is when people use it for short segments to get past a difficult stretch of street, and that is very unlikely to result in any kind of a police encounter,” Riley offered. “It is very misleading to say that (there is) any kind of survey that shows that there are 10 users of the trail, because we know that there are many, many more than that who use the trail on a regular basis.”


Council members are set to vote on the matter Thursday. Though Council Member Kathie Tovo serves as a cosponsor for the item, she has previously suggested that her support is for discussion purposes.


Acevedo, meanwhile, also used the occasion to again highlight the findings of a study from the Police Executive Research Forum that suggests the city needs more officers.

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