AUSTIN (KXAN) — If you call 911, you expect help to arrive as quickly as possible. In a life or death emergency, minutes matter and every second counts. In Austin, you might have to wait a little longer for that help to arrive.
Response times to the city’s most urgent 911 calls are “dramatically” slower, Austin Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon said at a luncheon last week at the Headliner’s Club.
“Whether it’s a minute 20, a minute 30, if you’re in crisis, someone’s breaking into your house or you’re getting assaulted,” said Chacon, “a-minute-and-half can feel like an eternity, so that’s why we have to get those levels down.”
Victim advocate Cathy Collins knows the pain all too well. Her brother Stephen Barbour was murdered in Austin in 1990.
“He was just a really very incredible loving person,” said Collins. “With grief, you never get over it, but you learn to live with it.”
Chacon said the rising homicide rate is at a level that “we’ve never really seen here before.” At the same time, responses to violent crimes are up. When it comes to the most critical calls called “P0” — shootings, stabbings, rape and domestic violence in progress — the current response time average is nine minutes and two seconds, Chacon said. That is a minute-and-a-half slower than the department’s three-year average of seven minutes and 30 seconds.
For the next most urgent calls, called “P1” — when a crime against a person has just occurred and the offender is still in the area — APD is currently averaging 10 minutes and 41 seconds compared to a three-year average of 9 minutes and 19 seconds. The response time is one minute and 20 seconds slower.
Chacon blames the problem on understaffing, which he said is “not sustainable” at current levels. He said too many officers are leaving and retiring, resulting in hundreds of projected vacancies with not enough new recruits to replace them.
The department is currently losing 15 to 20 officers a month, Chacon said, projecting 235 vacancies by May 2022, and 340 vacancies by May 2023.
“I’ve had individual meetings with each council member to explain the dire situation we are in,” said Chacon. “And I’m going to call it a crisis, because that’s what it is, and they all get it.”
On Friday, KXAN reached out to the mayor and every city council member. Councilmembers Vanessa Fuentes and Paige Ellis declined to comment.
“We need to have more police officers in order to get to scenes quicker,” said Councilmember Mackenzie Kelly, a former firefighter, who told KXAN this needs urgent attention. “It’s a life or death situation.”
“When you hear about these slower response times,” asked KXAN reporter Matt Grant, “is that acceptable?”
“It’s unacceptable,” said Kelly. “Absolutely unacceptable. We need to deliver public safety at a quality time to individuals who need it.”
“So what can you and the rest of the council do to fix this?” asked Grant.
“We can start by making the police department budget a priority,” she said.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death and nationwide reform efforts around policing, Austin City Council voted to cut more than $20 million from the police budget last summer. That resulted in the canceling of multiple cadet classes.
“Sixty seconds is life or death,” said Collins, who works with the Christi Center, a grief support network in Austin.
Collins is also concerned about the 911 response times. She is fighting to prevent other families from going through the same pain she did.
“That is someone’s son,” she said. “That is someone’s mother. That is someone’s grandmother. That is someone’s child. And that is critical that someone help them.”
Chacon said he wants to give retiring officers bonuses as an incentive to stay. He is also willing to hire back officers who previously resigned if they are in good standing.