At the Travis County Commissioners Court’s last meeting of 2023, commissioners approved a request for $80,000 from the Justices of the Peace of Precincts 1, 2, 4, and 5, to address their increased workload in processing citations from the Department of Public Safety partnership earlier this year.
Each office will receive $20,000 to deal with 16,000 total citations issued by DPS in a four-month period, with another 8,500 still pending.
The March-July DPS partnership with APD, negotiated between Mayor Kirk Watson and Gov. Greg Abbott, resulted in a concentration of arrests among mostly Black and Latino Austinites living on the Eastside. Despite being named the Austin Violent Crime Task Force, the majority of arrests were for misdemeanors including possession of marijuana, which the city has decriminalized. This means after these citations are processed most charges will be dropped, creating unnecessary work for the JPs.
Data from a Chronicle records request earlier this year showed that comparing April 1-18, 2022 to the same period in 2023, there was a 155% increase in citations for class C misdemeanors (those only punishable by a fine). Citations under the county’s “cite and release” program established to prevent arrests for low-level, nonviolent offenses increased from just one issued in that 2022 time frame, to 161 in 2023.
Plus, data provided by the county attorney’s office showed that in the first three weeks of the partnership, arrests had consistent racial disparity. White people accounted for just 12%, even though Travis County is 48% white. Black Austinites accounted for 23% of arrests and Latinos 65%, even though they account for 9% and 33% of the county’s population, respectively.
County Commissioner Brigid Shea called attention to these disparities in the December meeting, saying “There’s evidence of discrimination: The breakdown from the JP districts indicate that the precinct with the largest number of citations is Precinct 4, which is also the precinct with the greatest amount of low income residents of color.” About 4,000 of the pending citations are for Precinct 4, while the majority higher income and white Precinct 3 only has 95. The partnership ended in July after a series of incidents of police violence on the part of DPS troopers that were “not in sync with Austin’s values,” as Interim City Manager Jesús Garza put it in July. DPS has still been patrolling, although they left the city this month to focus efforts on the border.
“It’s important to call this out,” said Shea. “It’s a cost that’s being forced on us by the state.”
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