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Officials reflect on safety at SXSW 2016

Friday, April 1, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

This year’s South by Southwest festival was one of the safest yet, say SXSW and public safety officials, thanks to overtime funding that allowed Austin Police Department officers to fill festival staffing spots internally. Overall, the number of festival-related arrests was lower than in recent years.

“It went really, really well,” Brad Spies, SXSW’s special projects manager, told the Austin Monitor. “This was the best year yet working with the city.”

APD’s Downtown Area Commander Pat Cochran told the Monitor that even with President Barack Obama’s and first lady Michelle Obama’s visits and 100,000 people downtown some nights, “We had very few problems.”

This year, for the first time, the city of Austin allocated $1.5 million to cover overtime for APD officers to work festival shifts during the nine-day event. In previous years, on-duty officers have covered shifts, leaving other parts of town potentially undercovered, and agencies like the Texas Department of Public Safety pitched in for certain duties, such as providing and manning barricades.

This year, APD’s 120-person riot team was activated to handle downtown operations, Cochran said, and another unit handled barricades and traffic. Officers volunteered for overtime during the festival, which they could use while taking vacation time off of their regular assignments, Cochran said.

“Plenty of officers volunteered,” Cochran said. “It helped being able to staff those positions on our own.”

Obama’s visit was extremely well-coordinated, Cochran said, crediting the president’s Secret Service – but things got a little tricky when Obama made a Torchy’s Tacos stop without notifying APD in advance. “That put him on a different route, and we had to change things a little,” Cochran said. “It’s always a mess in the area where he’s at, but usually just momentarily.”

Only one real public safety incident took place during the festival: On the final Saturday night, gunshots rang out on Sixth Street when a man fired into the air.

No one was injured, and with the help of a police watchdog’s video, APD quickly detained a 20-year-old man and his 22-year-old cousin.

“They were about to get into a fight,” Cochran said. “Luckily, we had so many cops down there, someone’s going to see something, and they were found quickly.”

Spies said that officers downtown “did a damn fine job. (South by Southwest) is a dynamic event, and Sixth Street and the downtown entertainment districts are dynamic and vibrant. The city deals with downtown all year long and knows what to expect.”

Although safety aspects of the festival went well, Spies said that there are “some permitting issues pre-event that still need a little attention.”

In December, City Council passed an ordinance to waive $309,310 in event-related fees, while recognizing that SXSW – which has had a five-year economic impact in Austin of more than $1 billion – would pay the city fees totaling $171,905. On the final page of the ordinance granting the waiver, though, is a caveat that Spies hopes will become a reality and keep SXSW from asking Council for the same fee waivers and protections year after year.

The ordinance states that “such agreements should outline the roles and responsibilities of the parties, potentially for multiple years.”

Spies said he’s looking forward to negotiating a multiyear agreement, adding, “It’s time that we figure this thing out and stop doing it just one year at a time.”

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