APD Chief Joseph Chacon (left) seated by Chief Data Officer Jonathan Kringen (Screenshot via city of Austin)
Two things about the City Council’s recent Public Safety Committee meeting: Austin police are very pleased with the Texas Department of Public Safety for helping them police the city for the last six weeks.
And, the few dozen Austinites who provided public comment at the meeting feel vulnerable to crime.
The May 22 meeting served mostly as an evaluation of the APD/DPS partnership, put on pause a week ago to allow the 100 troopers who had patrolled the city to move south to detain people crossing the border. The partnership was controversial for the short time it was in effect, with a recent study finding that nine out of ten of those arrested by DPS were people of color from East Austin. Most of these arrests were reportedly for misdemeanors and were dismissed by County Attorney Delia Garza.
Nonetheless, Chief Joseph Chacon and Chief Data Officer Jonathan Kringen portrayed the partnership as an unqualified success, saying that the presence of DPS officers reduced serious car wrecks along I-35 and gun-related crime. “I did consider it a success,” Chacon told Council Member Zohaib Qadri. “And what success, to me, looks like is, we are having a decrease in the number of calls for services as well as violent crime reductions.”
But as has been the case in prior public briefings on the partnership, APD made these sweeping claims without much evidence, beyond a few questionable charts, supporting them. The fact that Kringen’s data presentation accounted for about 12 minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting shows, to some extent, how much APD is interested in actually supporting their claims that the partnership, “conclusively,” has reduced violent crime and traffic collisions.
For example, with traffic collisions, Kringen shared slides showing that the average number of car crashes in the city had decreased since the partnership began. But the chart supposedly illustrating this finding is just a bunch of dots plotted on a graph, which doesn’t even include dates or the number of crashes represented by each dot. Based on the charts, it looks like the DPS partnership may have had an impact on traffic collisions, but by how much? It’s totally unclear from the provided charts, and Kringen did not elaborate at the meeting. Also, as with all of these findings, correlation does not equal causation.
Beyond that, we don’t know what other variables APD is considering in their analysis. Could other mobility improvements have helped reduce the number of traffic collisions? Weather patterns? UT students leaving town after graduation? Without providing more insight into confounding variables, APD is just asking that the public trust their conclusion that the DPS partnership is responsible for whatever impact they claim.
At any rate, APD’s claims were forgotten during the public comment portion of the meeting, with speaker after speaker expressing the fear that the city was descending into lawlessness. Many reported seeing fewer patrol cars, described exceedingly long response times after 911 calls, and said their neighborhoods were less safe. A group of Asian Americans said robberies were surging in their north Austin communities. Lifelong Austinites, pastors, and business owners said the city had changed. All expressed support for the DPS patrols, although that does not mean that the group was representative of all of Austin. After all, because this meeting happened during the workday, many working class Austinites were excluded.
It was an hour and forty minutes into the meeting before the first person spoke against the partnership. Chris Harris of the Austin Justice Coalition said that DPS uses an antiquated model of policing – enforcing traffic laws as a pretext for looking for other crimes, a variation of “stop and frisk.” Harris also made oblique reference to the fact that APD is short approximately 300 officers and continues to have a difficult time recruiting new ones. “The reality is the reality: recruitment of law enforcement nationwide has been falling for the better part of a decade,” Harris said. “You, the policymakers, have to find alternative ways to address our public safety challenges because those new officers are not walking through that door.”
It was a sentiment shared, to some extent at least, by GOP strategist and Save Austin Now co-founder Matt Mackowiak, who celebrated the recent graduation of 33 recruits from APD’s cadet program but said DPS’s presence was still needed. “We have a math problem in this city,” Mackowiak said. “As of about six days ago, we had 338 police vacancies …. It’s a wonderful thing that we had 33 cadets graduate recently … but we’ve only gained 33 and we’ve lost 108 since the beginning of this year.”
Chronicle reporter Austin Sanders contributed to this report.
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