For decades, downtown Austin’s Sixth Street Entertainment District has served as a live music destination, enjoyed by college students and visitors to the city. But police are grappling with a violent crime increase there, and Austin is looking to other cities for help. Our investigative team traveled across the country to learn how Arlington, Virginia, changed the culture of its own entertainment district and reduced crime.
AUSTIN (KXAN) — It seemed like another fall weekend night downtown. By midnight, thousands had gathered on Austin’s Sixth Street, with the Austin City Limits crowd from Zilker Park mixing themselves in.
Then, things took a turn.
“We got one with one gunshot wound at Sixth and Sabine,” said Sgt. Al Garibay, who works on the Austin Police Department’s Downtown Area Command, or DTAC. He and other officers started running east, with KXAN investigators right behind.
Just three blocks from the heart of the Entertainment District, a gun battle between two groups had taken place. A 17-year old was in critical condition, and he’d later die at the hospital. The gun battle prompted an officer to fire his own weapon, but police have not said whether the teen was shot by that officer or someone else.
Violent crime is on the rise here in the Sixth Street Entertainment District, located between 5th and 7th streets and stretching from Brazos Street to the west and Interstate 35 to the east.
Using APD’s crime maps tool, we found there have been six homicides in the district this year, compared with one each of the previous two years, and none in 2018.
The 51 aggravated assaults police have reported in the district in 2021 represent a 59% increase from 2018. The numbers are current through the last week of October.
In a recent affidavit, one officer even called it a “high crime area,” noting “numerous shootings, robberies, assaults, murders, as well as other firearm investigations.”
“The encounters escalating in violence are certainly concerning,” said District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, who represents Downtown and West Campus.
Tovo sponsored the “Safer Sixth Street Initiative,” which passed in June following a mass shooting there that killed a man and wounded 13 others. The resolution asks the city to take action in making Sixth Street safer and more welcoming. That could mean adding more lighting, changing the entertainment district’s layout or collaborating with bar and venue owners on types of safety training.
“We can always increase and improve the communication and partnerships,” said Brian Block, who works for the city and is lead coordinator for the initiative. “That’s really what we’re after, in making it more formal, adding formal training, adding formal meetings where we can enhance that dialogue.”
A new approach across the country
Austin’s Safer Sixth Street Initiative recommends a team of city officials engage other cities with entertainment districts to learn more about best practices for managing and policing them.
“There’s a real kind of movement in the U.S., and globally, on managing, planning and managing for nightlife and entertainment,” Block said.
Among the cities Austin has engaged with are Seattle, San Francisco, New York, Orlando, Las Vegas, Arlington in Virginia and Sydney, Australia, according to an October memo.
One of those cities, Arlington, is home to the Clarendon Entertainment District. Like Sixth Street, it’s an area with more than a dozen bars, and it draws thousands from the Washington, D.C. metro area on weekend nights.
“They’re here to have a good time and be safe,” said Dimitrios Mastoras, a former Arlington County Police Officer and current Nightlife Safety Consultant.
But Mastoras said the Clarendon District wasn’t always as safe as it is now.
“We knew we had a bustling nightlife area. And we also had a lot of violence,” said Mastoras, recalling the summer of 2015, when he says eight officers were assaulted.
“People were at their wit’s end,” he commented.
So in 2015, while working for the police department, Mastoras led the creation of the “Arlington Restaurant Initiative”. That’s why KXAN investigators traveled to our nation’s capital, to learn more about this effort and how officials there say it helped changed the culture of the Clarendon Entertainment District.
The Arlington Restaurant Initiative, as Mastoras explained, is essentially a shift toward guidance, training and support, rather than enforcement.
“I’m not concerned with how many tickets and arrests are being made down here,” he said. “I’m concerned with, ‘Do people feel safe?'”
Mastoras told us the initiative involves a collaborative approach with bar owners in the Clarendon District and other Arlington County agencies. It includes training bar employees in sexual assault intervention, first aid and fake ID detection.
The main idea is to build relationships, creating a constant flow of communication between bar staff and police. If an employee sees the butt of a gun or an overly-intoxicated customer, for example, police can intervene before situations escalate and potentially become violent.
“It seems like a pretty simple thing. Just saying, ‘Please call me by my first name, and I’m here to help you and here’s my personal phone number,'” Mastoras said.
‘Nothing like this had been tried’
Matsoras said it took months to get bars on board with the initative.
Take Toney Taheri, General Manager of Bar Bao. He told us years ago, his security staff was regularly assaulted.
“The environment wasn’t safe,” Taheri said. “There was no crowd control, so people could do whatever they wanted without any rules or regulations.”
At the same time, Taheri said bars in the Clarendon District didn’t have much of a relationship with Arlington County Police.
“You were scared that if you talked to the police you might get in trouble yourself,” he said. “[Now] I willingly go to the police and tell them what my problem is. Openly I can talk to them. Before, it wasn’t like that.”
But Mastoras was persistent.
“Even if I got told to take a walk, I’d be back the next week,” he quipped.
Over time, he said more bars saw the benefit of joining the initiative, including less liability and more positive exposure from the county.
“In the beginning, we had eight pilot restaurants and it grew to 45, 50,” Mastoras said.
More importantly, he said it created an entertainment district environment with higher expectations. Violent crime also went down.
Statistics we obtained from the Arlington County Police Department show assault and battery, assault and battery while resisting law enforcement, and malicious wounding (which is similar to what Texas calls aggravated assault) went down in the Clarendon District a combined 69% between 2015 and 2019. The number of overall arrests in the district dropped 30% in that time.
“What’s been done over here, I think it should be done across the country,” Taheri said.
More on accreditation for the Arlington Restaurant Initiative can be found here.
KXAN reached out to other cities that have entertainment districts, like Las Vegas and Orlando. Law enforcement there didn’t keep crime statistics specific to their entertainment districts that we could directly compare with Austin’s Sixth Street.
Could Austin do something similar?
Back in Austin, we asked Council Member Tovo about Arlington’s plan.
“I think some other cities have some good strategies that might work here in Austin,” she said. “I know that our bar owners and our staff in the bars and restaurants along Sixth Street want to ensure a safer environment, too, and I think they will be good partners in those strategies.”
There have been previous studies done on Sixth street safety in the last decade, including one on underage drinking. But Council Member Tovo says these were not city-commissioned and did not involve collaboration across several city departments.
“There’s no right strategy,” she added. “What we need to do is deploy all the strategies at our disposal.”
Director of Investigations & Innovation Josh Hinkle, Photojournalist Frank Martinez, Digital Director Kate Winkle and Graphic Artist Jeffrey Wright contributed to this report.