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Photo by ATXN, Austin 911 call center

Public Safety Committee examines the use of police time, asks for more data

Thursday, September 24, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

As the city of Austin looks into redefining the duties of its police department, staffers are reaching out to community members to hear feedback about what the next iteration of the Austin Police Department could look like. Simultaneously, city staff are working to clean up 911 call center data to better understand how the police use their time and which functions may be better suited for civilian employees.

On Sept. 21, APD’s Jonathan Kringen, who oversees police data initiatives, came before the Public Safety Committee to present an initial analysis of the police department’s 911 call center data. Based on the data presented, Council Member Greg Casar noted, “The majority of police time goes to responding to 911 calls of which the top three incidences are disturbances; second, burglar alarms; and third, welfare calls.”

Council Member Alison Alter similarly pointed out that nearly all of the officer-initiated calls are Priority 3 calls. Calls are considered Priority 3 when life or property is not at risk and immediate response is not required. According to APD data, 41 percent of police officer time is spent on these calls, which account for 51 percent of the total calls received.

“There may be some way to manage how they’re spending their time if we need to get to priority zero, one and two,” Alter said.

“We don’t have the full understanding of how (a coded call) traces to an outcome,” said the city’s Chief Innovation Officer Kerry O’Connor. She explained that after a call comes in and is coded by a call center operator, it is often updated in the field by an officer who adds further information to the file. “The categorization is a bit of a challenge,” she said.

Other Council members agreed that the city should look more comprehensively into the calls consuming the majority of officers’ time and work to divert them to other personnel and adjacent community organizations. They said critical priority calls should remain under the purview of a sworn officer.

Kringen said diversion initiatives have already begun at the department. Since January, 800 calls have been diverted to community resources rather than funneled through APD, thanks to the introduction of an Integral Care mental health clinician on the 911 call center floor whose job it is to connect callers with the most appropriate resource for their situation. He said he hopes to see that number rise this fiscal year thanks to the additional $1.3 million Council awarded to the Integral Care-EMCOT program. Overall, data show the number of 911 calls has decreased annually since 2017.

While there is not yet a decision on where the freed-up officer time will go, Council is continuing to work with city staff to understand where adjustments need to be made. Community members are offering their feedback through a SpeakUp Austin survey as well as community workshops that are hosted in individual districts.

“There was a lot of work to do to figure out what those solutions are going to be,” explained Council Member Jimmy Flannigan. However, he said that regardless of what changes, “The safety of the public is always going to come first.”

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