AUSTIN (KXAN) — An email from the Travis County Attorney to city staff about concerns with the DPS partnership in Austin led KXAN to discover her courts have had to process nearly triple the amount of misdemeanor arrests from the agency than it did last year.
County Attorney Delia Garza sent the email in June, days before troopers were set to resume their beefed up Austin patrols following a hiatus when more resources were needed on the border. KXAN obtained the email as part of a public information request about DPS’ patrols in Austin.
In that email, Garza addressed stretched resources in her court system, as well as a backlog.
“With an increase in arrests that are low level, nonviolent types of arrests, it pulls our prosecutors away from doing work on more violent types of crimes,” Garza said in a sit-down interview with KXAN last week. “In terms of violent crime, we really do believe our prosecutors should be concentrating and working on our family violence cases that we have, our DWI cases that we have.”
Garza said the additional workload slows down the process for all cases.
DPS misdemeanor arrests breakdown
According to arrest data from her office, DPS issued 563 misdemeanor charges in 2022. So far this year, that number is at 1,663.
This year, DPS issued the most charges for DWI with 388 total, according to a report from the County Attorney’s Office. The next highest charge was Possession of Marijuana < 2 Ounces, with 300 charges issued. Last year, those numbers were at 82 and 94, respectively.
Records show 647 DPS cases still pending in Garza’s office this year. Prosecutors also spent time reviewing — and ultimately declining — 308 other cases.
The below chart shows a full breakdown of case statuses in the County Attorney’s Office from the start of the year to mid-September. This total — 1,024 — is different from the aforementioned 1,663 charges because the office said some cases involve multiple arrests and others were misdemeanors from other counties.
Many arrests, Garza said, stemmed from traffic stops involving non-moving traffic violations.
“It was stops for expired registrations, not wearing a seatbelt, those types of things,” she said. “I just don’t understand the need to bring additional law enforcement to our community to be stopping people for nonviolent, non-moving traffic violations.”
DPS said its heavier presence in Austin — which resulted from a critical staffing shortage within the Austin Police Department — “is reducing violent crime, as well as decreasing traffic fatalities and improving the public’s safety across the city.”
DPS traffic stop experiences
Susana Almanza, a community activist, has long raised concerns about DPS’ presence in Austin, saying the initiative unfairly impacts communities of color.
Those concerns grew when a trooper pulled her over in early September.
“I’ve seen all my friends and neighbors being stopped and then finally it happened to me,” she said. “The fear — the fear that people have felt. All of those kind of feelings came to the forefront.”
While her traffic stop didn’t result in an arrest, she’s worried about her neighbors.
“This is a low income community. Any time you have to pay a tremendous fine, it really impacts the whole family,” she said, referring to the Montopolis and Riverside communities.
According to a DPS activity log on the Austin Violent Crimes Task Force, the name of the initiative that now involves 110 additional troopers patrolling in Austin, DPS had made 51,800 traffic stops since the partnership began on March 30. That number is as of Sept. 15. DPS also halted its patrols in Austin to help at the border from mid-May to early July.
Between those traffic stops and DPS special operations, the agency issued 1,451 felony charges and 1,673 misdemeanor charges in that time frame.
Austin defense attorney Ben Gergen said the spike in arrests has kept his office busier than ever with “extra cases filed that have not been filed in the last three years,” like certain arrests for low-level drug possession.
“For some people, that stress can send people in the right direction — it can motivate them to make those positive changes in their life,” he said, specifically referencing a client who told him they wouldn’t have gotten themselves to rehab if DPS hadn’t arrested them. “But for a lot of people, they don’t have the money to hire an attorney.”
Solution to the court backlog?
County Attorney Garza said while her prosecutors all have additional workloads, “we’ve been able to handle it, but we have no idea when their presence here will end.”
“There’s been discussion of an additional docket in on of our [Justice of the Peace (JP)] courts because of the increase, which would mean more staffing, more resources,” she said. “We didn’t account for that in this last budget cycle, so this could potentially result in us going to the Commissioners Court to ask for funding to make sure we’re staffing those dockets right.”
The exact amount of funding needed for that is unclear because the County Attorney’s Office has not made an official plan to request this yet, but the county tells us JP courts as a whole currently cost $1.63 million to $2.93 million annually to operate.
How long will DPS stay in Austin?
DPS began its operation in Austin at the end of March to help amid a police staffing shortage. It included 80 troopers to patrol the streets and 20 agents to work on special operations.
It began as a partnership, but the city ended it in July after a traffic stop that concerned the mayor’s office.
The same day the city announced the end of the partnership, Gov. Greg Abbott directed troopers to stay in Austin. He also doubled down, adding an additional 30 troopers to patrol the streets, bringing the total number of patrol troopers up to 110.
“When we’re deploying law enforcement resources, we need to make sure there’s precision in how we’re doing that. Because we don’t want people to lose trust in the criminal justice process,” County Attorney Garza said. “The majority of misdemeanors are low level crimes, and if the objective is to address any type of violent crime, I’m not sure how the practices we’re seeing right now are meeting that objective.”
When KXAN brought those concerns to DPS, the agency pointed to several APD briefings that addressed the reduction in violent crime as more troopers patrolled the streets.
According to the Austin Violent Crimes Task Force report as of Sept. 15, the agency also:
- Seized 7.72 lbs. of heroin
- Seized 615.57 lbs. of cocaine
- Recovered 220 stolen vehicles
- Seized 209 firearms
- Worked 359 crash investigations
The state has not indicated how long patrols will stay in Austin, and the city said it will take “years” to fill the roughly 300 vacant APD positions.