AUSTIN (KXAN) — “You’re asking me to say I’ve put it off for this long, but the reality is I have not had time,” Austin Police Detective Andrea Mittel said during her testimony at a bond hearing for a man accused of multiple sex assaults.
“So you didn’t have time in six months to take what you believe to be a violent individual off the streets, you’re telling me you were that overworked?” the suspect’s attorney said.
Mittel responded, “Yeah, we’re low.”
Dublas Vasquez is the suspect referenced in Mittel’s testimony. He is accused of assaulting a woman at his West Campus home near the University of Texas in March 2023, while out on bond for another sex assault charge from last year, police said.
He wasn’t arrested in connection with the March West Campus incident until September.
Hundreds of Austin Police Department detectives have to work patrol shifts in addition to working on their caseload as the department continues to face staffing struggles.
KXAN spoke with leaders of the APD Sex Crimes Unit to discuss how they manage and prioritize cases while the department is strapped for staff. The unit has 20 detectives, three sergeants, one lieutenant and one commander.
“They do get assigned more cases in their queue than they’re capable of handling at any one time,” APD Sex Crimes Unit Commander Chris Vallejo said.
In 2022, 3,126 cases were assigned to the sex crimes unit, with 156-174 allocated to each detective over the course of the year. According to data obtained from APD through a KXAN open records request, these numbers have trended lower since 2018. But at the end of last year, detectives had to start filling in for patrol shifts more often to help out with the staffing shortage, therefore giving them less time to work on their investigations.
Vallejo said his team is extremely dedicated, and detectives often come in on their days off to work voluntary overtime to give their cases the attention they need. To help with the workload, Vallejo said, the unit is bringing in civilian employees to assist with certain tasks.
An accused repeat-offender
KXAN first covered Dublas Vasquez in 2022 when he was arrested and accused of sexually assaulting a woman in downtown Austin. Below is a list of his arrests and alleged crimes based on court records and proceedings.
- June 4, 2022: Alleged sex assault downtown
- June 14, 2022: Vasquez allegedly gets into a woman’s car at Barton Creek Mall, demanding sexual favors.
- November 2022: Police arrest Vasquez in 2022 sex assault case.
- December 2022: Vasquez was released on bond from the 2022 sex assault case.
- March 27, 2023: Victim tells police Vasquez sexually assaulted her on this date while at his home. The sex crimes unit officer investigating the case said in court Vasquez was under GPS monitoring at this time.
- July 2023: Police charge Vasquez with a misdemeanor in the Barton Creek Mall case.
- Sept 2, 2023: APD officer responds to calls from “several” women at Pease Park during daylight hours reporting a man following them and trying to get them to take him to their car or their home. The officer said in court that when he arrived, he saw Vasquez chasing a woman, and the woman screaming, so he stopped Vasquez. The officer said Vasquez threatened him. Vasquez was arrested on obstruction and retaliation charges. The suspect’s attorney said in court there wasn’t enough evidence to support Vasquez was chasing women around.
- Sept. 25, 2023: Police arrest Vasquez in the March 27 alleged sex assault. Vasquez goes back to jail, and a judge increases his bond on the 2022 charge and issues a $150,000 bond for the March 27 incident.
Vasquez’s attorney Jorge Vela said he can’t comment on this case directly but told KXAN over the phone that defense attorneys often try to “bring light to shortcomings in an investigation that may have compromised it.”
He said delays in arrest can also impact suspects.
“That can compromise or impact the ability to get exculpatory evidence,” Vela said, referring to surveillance video or phone messages. “This isn’t the first sex assault case where a delay in the investigation led to the loss of agility to obtain video evidence near the scene.”
Vasquez has not been convicted in the cases mentioned above. According to court records as of Oct. 26, all cases were still open. He has a pretrial conference set for Dec. 12, according to the Travis County court docket.
‘They’re in on a Saturday, they’re in on a Sunday’
Detectives have to balance their casework with 60 hours of patrol shifts per quarter, Vallejo said.
“Often times they’re in on their time off. They’re in on a Saturday, they’re in on a Sunday,” he said. “Of course, coming in your days off is voluntary, a lot of our folks do, whether or not that’s sustainable over time.”
Vallejo could not comment directly on Vasquez’s case because it is still moving through the criminal justice system.
Even with detectives having to split their time with patrol shifts, they were able to clear cases last year at their quickest rate in five years, according to APD data obtained through an open records request.
“To some extent, we’re impacted, but we try to make that up through our people who are dedicated to their investigations,” Vallejo said. “Try to make that up wherever we can to move the cases forward at a speed that is appropriate for the victim.”
Advocates: ‘The need will always outpace resources’
“The system is slow. And it’s not because there’s not a desire for the people in the system to get the job done,” Heather Bellino said. Bellino is the executive director of the Texas Advocacy Project, a group that helps connect survivors with legal services.
She said the trauma involved with sex crimes often makes it difficult for survivors to share information throughout the criminal justice process, as well as come forward in the first place.
Both Bellino and Vallejo emphasized the importance of taking a survivor-centered approach during sex assault investigations.
“You really need to talk to survivors about what their needs are, and you need to implement that within your strategies,” Bellino said.
Vallejo said doing so can contribute to the investigation taking longer.
“Sometimes a speedier investigation is helpful for the victim, sometimes it may not [be], it may traumatize them,” he said.
Difficulties with evidence and DNA can also hold investigations up.
“Anybody that is a victim of crime, that time where they’re waiting for justice is one of the most difficult periods of life,” Bellino said. “It just is.”
A day in the life of the APD sex crimes unit
“We’re here because we care deeply,” Sgt. Robert Barger said. “We’re all in this unit voluntarily.”
Every day, new cases come into the APD sex crimes unit, and Barger said a sergeant reviews each one.
“Those investigators will determine a plan of action moving forward for each case,” he said. “Those cases can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to finish up on. In some cases, it may take as long as nine months to a year.”
He noted it’s a difficult caseload to manage but said it is manageable.
“You have between 3.5-to 4.7-month period of time on average to get to writing a warrant on cases in our unit,” he said.
In 2022, 592 felony cases were reported to the sex crimes unit. That’s roughly the median compared to felonies reported to the department since 2018.
Barger discusses the daily workload in the video below.
Prioritizing cases and seeking solutions
When it comes to prioritizing cases, “priority would of course go for public safety,” Vallejo said. “Is there a public risk, is it a stranger case that needs attention, is it going to cause a panic?”
According to the latest quarterly report APD presented to the Public Safety Commission, the department is down 345 officers and the incoming cadet rate still isn’t keeping up with the rate of retirements and resignations.
“Trying to think outside the box,” Vallejo said when KXAN asked about the workload solution besides overtime work. City leaders said it will likely take years to build the department’s staffing numbers back up.
“We’ve hired temp civilian employees, retirees that have helped us and supplemented us in different parts of our processes and operations,” he said. “It’s a practice that works for us now, it’s just something we’re beginning to look at more seriously.”
Right now, according to Vallejo, those temporary positions are grant-funded, and he wants to explore ways to expand the program.
“Make them a staple,” he said. “What does that look like to be able to provide the same services we deliver, just in a different way?”