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Austin and Travis County officials talk sobriety center plans

Friday, September 30, 2016 by Syeda Hasan

People picked up in Austin for public intoxication downtown might no longer be headed straight to jail or the emergency room. Austin and Travis County leaders are moving forward with plans to open a sobriety center.

The downtown facility would serve as a safe space for people to sober up. After years of discussion, both City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court have approved plans for the creation of the sobriety center. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said the proposed location – at the Medical Examiner’s Office near Brackenridge Hospital – is ideal. She spoke alongside other local leaders at a panel hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance yesterday.

“It is central,” Tovo said. “It is close to where those arrests are happening. It allows our officers to bring an individual there and get back out on the streets quickly, which is part of the savings that will accrue to the city and the efficiencies that will accrue to their work.”

Tovo said the building won’t require a lot of renovation to accommodate the new facility. The center is expected to have 27 full-time employees with 30 to 40 beds.

However, the new building doesn’t mean that someone drunk on Sixth Street couldn’t still end up in jail. Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo still wants to ticket inebriated people who are taken to the facility. But officers can’t stop anyone from leaving the sobriety center of their own free will, he said.

“There will always be officers available to respond in the event that somebody gets violent or somebody decides to walk out,” Acevedo said. “So, you know, our officers are paid professionals. They’re highly trained, and we trust them to make the proper assessment and decision in terms of whether (detainees) go to the sobriety center or jail.”

The initiative is being modeled after a sobriety center in Houston, where operators say police are able to drop someone off and get back to patrolling the streets in about eight minutes.

Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said he also supports opening the center, but he counseled against calling it a “drunk tank.”

“This is not a program where you can just, like the chief said, you can just go and get wasted and go to the drunk tank,” Daugherty said. “Please correct people and say, ‘This is a sobriety center.’ I mean, there is a real need for something like this.”

The center is expected to open next year. The city and county plan to divide the cost of operation.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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