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Public Safety Commissioners voice concerns over SXSW security

Tuesday, April 8, 2014 by Gene Davis

In their first meeting since the South by Southwest drunken driving tragedy that killed four people, Public Safety Commissioners voiced their concerns Monday that aspects of the festival are growing out of control.


Commission Chair Kim Rossmo said the festival’s growth and transition into more of a party atmosphere creates issues for the city’s limited resources. He suggested that a statement of purpose clearly defining the festival could save the event in the future.


“The concern is that it starts to devolve with events offering free alcohol, everything clustered to the downtown area as opposed to being spread out,” he said. “In other words, it starts to take on a life of its own, grows in directions that are not compatible with what the city’s citizens would like it to be, and ends up, like many other large special events in other cities and other countries, becoming a huge problem that ultimately ends up being cancelled.”


The Public Safety Commission meeting came less than two weeks after Council approved a resolution for a full-scale review of SXSW. Rossmo said the commission has the ability to make suggestions to City Council about the scope of the review.


Rossmo asked the emergency services representatives at the meeting to figure out what percentage of their funding to cover an event such as SXSW comes indirectly from taxpayers or the event organizers.


“What I don’t understand is why shouldn’t those who are making money from an event like SXSW be paying for policing at overtime rates to provide the support they need,” he said.


Commissioner Michael Levy said his concern is that the emergency services needed to cover downtown for a major event such as SXSW comes at the expense of the rest of the city. APD Assistant Chief Brian Manley validated Levy’s concern.


“It is correct to say we reassign personnel from across the city to this event, thereby leaving fewer resources that would have been in that part of the city,” Manley said. “In addition, we pull detectives away from their regular assignments, their caseloads, to work on these events as well.”


Meanwhile, Austin Fire Department Assistant Chief Harry Evans said it would be fair to assume that events such as SXSW create longer response times for the entire city.


“All we know is on a non-quantitative basis, neighborhoods (and) citizens outside of the downtown area do pay a degree of the price of the event because they don’t have the same (emergency services) they would otherwise would have,” Levy said.

Levy said that the conversation around safety and funding should focus on large events in general, and not just SXSW. Manley said while the post-event evaluation focuses on SXSW, any actions that result from the report would likely be applied to all major events in Austin.


Brad Spies of SXSW, declined to comment Monday on statements made in the Public Safety Commission meeting regarding SXSW. He said he planned to review a video of the meeting and would comment later. (An earlier version of this story indicated that Spies said they might comment later. The word might was an editing error.)


The post-event evaluation report is due to City Council by the end of June.

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