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Chacon gives progress report on making Sixth Street safer

Tuesday, October 19, 2021 by Amy Smith

After decades of discussion about the culture and safety of the Sixth Street entertainment district, a team of city staffers from multiple departments is making headway toward carrying out City Council-directed measures to ensure the public’s safety.

Council adopted a series of distinct action items in July for the interdepartmental team to review and implement, if feasible. The Safer Sixth Street initiative – sponsored by Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district includes Sixth Street – came after a mass shooting in June that killed one person and injured more than a dozen others.

An uptick in gun violence this year preceded the mass shooting, reportedly kindled by a fight between two different groups of teens. And as recently as Oct. 9, multiple gunshots were fired after an argument near East Sixth and Sabine streets, resulting in the death of Michael Carothers, 17. An APD officer working the area fired his weapon as he responded to the gun fight, but it’s not yet clear whose weapon fired the bullet that killed Carothers.

In a memo updating Council on plans and progress on the Safer Sixth Street initiative, Police Chief Joseph Chacon outlined several action items underway. Possibly the lowest hanging fruit among the directives is the issue of lighting, and the team has already identified several locations where more illumination is needed.

Historic Sixth Street is graced with decorative street lamps, which had previously been upgraded to LED. Austin Energy has upgraded and performed maintenance on the traditional street lights along side streets and alleys. Chacon noted that the interdepartmental team recommends installing additional lighting designed for pedestrians rather than vehicular traffic.

To better respond to the threat of mass casualties in the future, the three public safety departments – APD, Austin Fire and Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services – will have a dedicated presence and staging area on Sixth Street and will also serve as the command post for a rescue task force, Chacon wrote.

APD and the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission will also be jointly targeting underage drinking and fake identifications. Chacon’s memo did not address the possibility of limiting the presence of teenagers on Sixth Street on weekend nights – language that was included in the resolution.

During Council’s discussion of the resolution in July, the notion of reinstating a curfew, even in one area of downtown, sparked immediate opposition from Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison and Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who pointed out that curfews have greater adverse impact on Black and brown teenagers.

Tovo said she is still open to having a conversation around an underage curfew in relation to Sixth Street and evaluating the pros and cons from all perspectives.

Overall, though, Tovo said she’s pleased that the interdepartmental team is in place and responding to Council’s directives.

“Certainly, there’s more that needs to be done, but I thought the memo was a good representation of the work that has started and (the team) has taken some very good steps,” Tovo said.

The fact that Sixth Street issues are now being addressed comprehensively, by multiple city departments, is especially beneficial, she added. “They’re really tackling all of the issues we asked them to look at.”

According to the memo, the team said it needs more time to examine the prospect of a process and program for entertainment licenses and is soliciting feedback from business owners and reviewing similar programs in other cities. The Sixth Street program could include a preparedness plan and safety training for employees at business establishments, as well as guidelines for communication between businesses and police, Tovo said.

“It’s all really speculative at this point because the staff are still looking at different ideas from different cities that have instituted entertainment licenses of some sort,” Tovo said. The team is expected to deliver an additional update and recommendations to Council at the end of October.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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