City Says No More DPS, Abbott Sends in More Troopers

Gov. Greg Abbott won’t let Austin rid itself of DPS (Photo by John Anderson)

The city of Austin abruptly ended its controversial partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety Wednesday, but a day later, Gov. Greg Abbott moved to undermine the will of Austin’s leaders by announcing he would assign more state police to patrol the city.

City leaders cited “recent events” that were not, as Interim City Manager Jesús Garza put it, “in sync with Austin’s values,” as the primary reasons for ending the partnership. This likely references incidents of police violence, threatened or realized, by state police. Since May, troopers have shot two people, one fatally; but the incident more likely to have ended the partnership is a traffic stop in which troopers drew guns as a 10-year-old tried to exit a car and then pointed their guns at that vehicle with the child inside.

Following the city’s decision to end the Austin Police Department/DPS partnership, Gov. Greg Abbott announced in a Thursday afternoon tweet that he would deploy 30 additional troopers to “protect and serve the city of Austin.” The infusion of state police would bring the total number of “special assignment” troopers patrolling Austin to 130, but it is unclear if APD will continue to have a say in where those troopers are deployed. (APD declined to comment.)

Abbott’s announcement comes on the heels of conservative uproar over Mayor Kirk Watson and Garza pulling the plug on the partnership prematurely, for what they see as an appropriately handled traffic stop. Austin Police Association President Thomas Villareal huffed-and-puffed over the announcement, writing in a statement that ending the partnership was “absolutely unconscionable.” Especially, Villareal continued, because the decision seems to have been based mostly on a “poorly researched news story … purely intended to get clicks.”

Villareal’s reference is to the Fox 7 story which aired allegations from a father and son pulled over by DPS troopers Sunday night, July 9. In that story, Carlos Meza claims that during a traffic stop initiated by state troopers, the troopers aimed a gun at his 10-year-old son, Angel. But video footage of the stop shows that’s not exactly what happened.

Video shows Angel attempt to exit the passenger side of the vehicle and a trooper approaching – with his gun drawn, though aimed downward – while shouting commands for Angel and Carlos. Both troopers briefly point their guns at the vehicle, though they are approaching from the driver’s side and it is unclear if Angel, the 10-year-old in the passenger seat, would have seen the firearms pointing at them. About 20 minutes into the stop, one of the troopers tells Angel he can go inside. After the initial confrontation, both troopers holster their firearms and do not draw them again.

This may be an acceptable way to conduct a traffic stop for the Austin Police Association (APA) or Council Member Mackenzie Kelly, who issued a memo to Garza requesting a briefing at Council’s Aug. 7 Public Safety Committee meeting on how and why the decision to end the partnership was made. But others in Austin will look at video of the stop and see an example of how law enforcement should not interact with people. Austinites have protested, worked, and voted to build a system of civilian oversight to prevent unnecessary violence by APD, but state troopers are not at all beholden to those same standards.

Five Austin City Council members issued a joint statement emphasizing this problem with the partnership, which had been pitched from the start as a stopgap measure to address the officer shortage at the Austin Police Department. “Austin needs more AUSTIN police officers,” the statement reads. “In the absence of the APA’s willingness to get more APD officers on the street,” the statement continues, the DPS partnership was struck. But it has proved to be “out of step with what Austinities deserve from their police.”

APD Chief Joseph Chacon responded to suspension of the partnership in a statement, issued July 13, which indicates he was merely notified that the partnership would end and not consulted. “While I am disappointed by the suspension of the partnership,” the chief wrote, “it is important that we as a community all work together to provide a city that is safe for all residents and officers.”

Much of the APD/DPS saga, and especially what has unfolded over the past 36 hours, could be described as performative politics – and the reference in the council member statement to APA’s “willingness” to staff APD explains why. Behind the scenes, the partnership has partly been about the labor contract between the city of Austin and the APA, which expired March 31. Since then, the two sides have not resumed negotiations over a new four year contract. Some at City Hall speculate that Watson struck the DPS deal to pressure the APA to come back to the bargaining table (the idea being, in part, that increased DPS patrols would eat into the overtime that city cops depend on to boost their salaries). Some think the partnership was meant to fend off some privately communicated threat that the state would assume a bigger role in local public safety. Perhaps there is some truth to both theories.

Regardless, the idea that assigning more troopers to patrol the streets of Austin will make the city safer is dubious at best. Despite claims by APD and the city that the presence of more state police improved safety, they have provided incomplete data that fails to support that claim. Meanwhile, the harm done to Austin’s Black and Latino communities is clear: In the first phase of the DPS deployment, 90% of people arrested were people of color and virtually all of the arrests occurred in East Austin. People living under the targeted deployment have compared the situation to living in a police state.

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