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Public Safety Commissioner criticizes APD’s sting operations

Monday, April 14, 2014 by Gene Davis

A member of the city’s Public Safety Commission is criticizing the Austin Police Department’s tactics in two recent sting operations in the downtown area. Commissioner Kent Anschutz last week accused police of clogging the jails and courts with people accused of petty drug crimes snared by undercover officers instead of pursuing violent felonies.

 

Anschutz’s criticism came during an APD presentation on downtown policing efforts, as he questioned several of the “success stories” touted by the Austin Police.

 

In particular, Anschutz had tough words for the two high-profile sting operations, termed Operation Safe Assistance, which resulted in drug-related charges against 82 people in 2013. Anschutz, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, said the “reality beyond the press release” is that the overwhelming majority of those arrested in the stings had small amounts of drugs – 85 percent had 2 grams or less – and only offered to sell drugs after being solicited by an undercover police officer.

 

“The judges and the prosecutors hate these cases because they are a drain on resources,” he said. “They are down there trying to prosecute violent felonies, and those cases are clogging the dockets. They are costing all of us a bunch of money to house these low level dealers and users, and I think we should be more intelligent with how we are using our resources in the future.”

 

In his presentation on the sting operation, APD Assistant Chief Steve Deaton said the 50 people charged from the first sting operation collectively had 3,200 previous encounters with the police. Some of the encounters were for violent offenses, he said.

 

“When we work a drug operation like this, the target is not just to arrest people who sell and consume narcotics – which is illegal – but we know they are involved in other criminal behavior tied with the narcotics trade,” he said.

 

Still, Anschutz suggested that APD avoid “expensive street-cleaning operations” and consider implementing something like the Drug Market Intervention, a program that helped rid the 12th and Chicon intersection of its reputation for illegal drugs in the downtown area.

 

“We appreciate your opinions, and we are always looking for better and new innovative ways to deal with this problem,” Deaton told Anschutz. “And I would like to add that we did these initiatives in response to a community that was asking for them.”

 

In discussing downtown policing, Deaton laid out the issues facing APD. The growing number of downtown residents, visitors and homeless – as well as the Sixth Street entertainment district which is expanding to include East Sixth Street and Rainey Street – present myriad challenges, he said. In 2013, residential burglaries downtown increased by 30 percent.

 

Meanwhile, violent crime downtown dropped by 20 percent in 2013. Deaton credited the decrease largely to the Public Order Initiative launched in September 2012 that targets public ordinance violations.

 

However, Commissioner Ramey Ko said he heard criticisms that the Public Order Initiative is focused on arresting the homeless and transients, who make up a majority of the violent crime perpetrators and victims. He said he became suspicious of the initiative when, as working as criminal magistrate at the jail, he saw nearly 100 homeless and transient people brought in during one night.

 

“So some of the drop in statistics might not actually be reflective of an improvement in public safety of the residents or visitors downtown, but in fact is a reflection of the fact that when lots of homeless and transients folks were taken off the street and locked up, they simply were not out there being victimized any more,” Ko said.

 

Deaton said the initiative does not target the homeless, and that officers know to target behavior and not people. APD Assistant Chief Brian Manley added that the initiative shows APD is dedicated to keeping the homeless from being victimized.

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