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Seeking increased safety, Downtown Commission asks city to fully staff APD

Monday, February 24, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

The Downtown Commission has asked City Council to increase staffing levels for the Austin Police Department in the next budget year, while adding more public video cameras and lighting to busy pedestrian areas.

The unanimously approved resolution came at last week’s commission meeting amidst debate over the state of public safety in downtown Austin.

Much of the discussion has centered on the role of the city’s homeless population, but in a presentation on downtown safety, Commander Jason Bryant said that the homeless make up a small minority of offenders downtown. Bryant, who heads the department’s downtown active command, said there is a new campaign that puts more officers on foot and bicycles in the area, leading to more interactions with civilians and increased visibility.

Overall, Bryant said assaults in January were down slightly compared to one year ago, with robberies down 44 percent and burglaries down 18 percent. Bryant said police confiscated 11 weapons this year versus four in 2019, which he said is due in large part to a greater presence and increased interactions with the public.

“When people hear about incidents they relate it back to themselves and think, that could be me, and it makes them afraid, which is understandable,” he said.

“Through flooding the area with more officers we can bring a reduction in incidents so people aren’t hearing about violent attacks that take place or gunplay that takes place or seeing drug activity take place, so they then feel safer. It doesn’t resonate to someone who feels unsafe to tell them that, statistically, we’re doing a good job. They want to see police officers.”

Bryant said full staffing levels would have 120 officers total assigned to the downtown command, including some staffing from the state and the University of Texas’ public safety departments, but the city’s hiring cutbacks have reduced its numbers by 16 percent.

Asked what other resources would be helpful to crime prevention besides full staffing, Bryant said more stationary cameras on busy stretches of Fifth, Sixth and Seventh streets and along Waller Creek would help police monitor activity and solve more crimes. He also said more lighting in those areas would increase the effectiveness of the cameras.

Commissioners said they were pleased with the move to increase police presence in the area between Lamar and Interstate 35, and 12th Street and Lady Bird Lake, though Commissioner Melissa Henao-Robledo said action needs to be taken to reverse the perception that the area is unsafe.

“If people won’t bother to go downtown because they already have the fear of a crime, that’s where I’m wondering if there’s an initiative via social media or some way to put out to the public to reduce that fear and apprehension to go downtown,” she said. “Almost like a positive PR campaign.”

Commissioner Rich DePalma said the city should make the increased downtown presence a permanent strategy, which could be more effective if the department were fully staffed.

“As we go through this budget cycle, I’d like to get to our 2016 and 2017 levels of crime, of course less, but have it lower than we had last year … so if I have a client in town, or one of my neighbors leaving their offices downtown, so they do feel safe,” he said.

“When we talk about neighborhood policing, looking at the downtown makes sense to address issues as they arise. I’d like to find out where the delta is so we’d be able to advocate for future FTE funding under this budget cycle.”

Photo by genlocair made available through a Creative Commons license.

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