After a highly touted Public Order Initiative in downtown Austin this spring resulted in dozens of felony arrests, Austin Police are aiming to hold violent crime levels to longtime lows through this summer.
But with annual overtime budgets spent, officers are being temporarily moved in from other areas through the end of September. It’s a tactic previously used for crowd control and safety during special events like South by Southwest every March, or November’s Formula One Grand Prix weekend.
“We’re already understaffed as it is, so when we have to borrow from other areas, that’s going to have an impact,” admitted Cmdr. Jason Dusterhoft. “But we really felt it was important for the jewel of the city, the downtown area where we’re getting so many businesses, so many people moving to. We want to make sure this stays as a safe area.”
Dusterhoft said public safety won’t be compromised in other areas of Austin because of who is rotating in. Instead of taking front line officers away from their patrol neighborhoods, those supplementing the downtown patrols are District Representatives like Ofc. Mike Whetston whose four-week stint downtown is nearly done. His policing career has been mainly in the northwest part of the city, known by police as ‘Adam’ sector.
“It's hard for me to either respond to the email or make any phone calls (when I’m on a patrol shift downtown), Whetston said. “So that's why I tell (my contacts in Adam sector) I'll be back on August 12th. I can address everything then.”
District Representatives are select officers in each sector attending neighborhood meetings - solving local problems, not racking up arrests. In the case of Ofc. Whetston, he is one of several ‘DRs’ in Adam sector, meaning his colleagues up north can pick up much of the slack in his four-week absence.
Police leaders decided to extend the rotations from one week to a full month so the temporary officers could better get to know the problem issues downtown and the problem people.
Ofc. Whetston said he believes he is making a difference in his temporary role by taking pressure of regular downtown patrol officers. He said they can take more time to attend to calls and connect with the community.
The downtown staffing boost is also being augmented with the addition of metro tactical officers from outlying areas of the city including policing sectors in the south and east. One commander told KXAN he is making sure any special operations teams give up only one or two team members at a time and have appropriate staffing to ensure officers’ safety.
The APD officer shuffle is expected to continue through September.
“We believe by bringing these resources down here temporarily, we can make the difference to where we can make this into a maintenance phase, where we’ve brought crime down and we’re going to keep it, said Cmdr. Dusterhoft who pointed out violent crime in his sector decreased 37% in May from earlier in the year.
And while business managers KXAN approached have noticed the more visible police presence - on foot, in cars and on bike – some say aggressive panhandlers remain a problem.
“(We’ve had a) couple of situations (in the past couple months) that have turned into kind of violent altercations with our staff,” said Yvonne Sharik, manager of the Easy Tiger Pub. “They'll be leaving work and the safety of our staff is our number one priority.”
Other business owners said transient people have come into their properties asking customers for money or expecting hand-outs from staff.
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