AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk received two official letters Tuesday afternoon from Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza and County Attorney Delia Garza. Each requested information on the steps the city is taking to address an increasing number of reports that some Austin police officers are declining to investigate crimes because they say the district and county attorney’s offices will not prosecute the cases.
According to the letters, this is not the first time these concerns have been raised by the district and county attorney’s offices. APD’s Interim Chief Joseph Chacon was made aware of this issue at a meeting on June 23.
The DA’s letter states, “we notified the Interim Chief that those officers falsely claimed the policies our offices ‘prevented’ them from investigating suspected criminal conduct when members of our community confronted those officers about their inaction,” and that “failing to investigate crimes reported by our citizens for perceived political gain is a gross violation of the public trust and makes us less safe.”
Following that meeting, both the district and county attorney’s office says it’s continued to receive additional reports of some APD officers “playing politics with public safety.”
“We just received the letters from the Travis County Attorney and District Attorney,” the City of Austin wrote in a statement. “We are reviewing the information and will be in contact with both of their offices to gather more specifics on the concerns outlined in their letters. Following that, the City Manager and his executive team will work with APD leadership to determine what action may be necessary after fully reviewing the information.”
KXAN also reached out to APD and the Austin Police Association – the union representing the city’s police officers – for a response. APA President Ken Casaday issued a statement, largely pointing to budget cuts and “inexperienced” prosecutors as actual public safety threats – further calling the complaints “scapegoats for (prosecutors’) failures.”
“Our officers are working under extremely difficult conditions with the crisis level of defunded staffing,” Casaday wrote, in part. “Our patrol resources are drastically reduced, our investigative staff are impacted, and the overall morale is taking a beating.”
Following KXAN’s initial report, APD shared a link to an internal video message Interim Chief Joseph Chacon sent to all department personnel last month, after concerns first surfaced. APD also reiterated Chacon’s message in a statement to KXAN.
“The men and women of the Austin Police Department (APD) work hard each day to keep the Austin community safe. We continue to work with the Travis County Attorney and District Attorney’s Office to ensure Austin remains one of the safest cities. Our messaging to department personnel through internal communication and daily briefings, clearly and consistently directs officers to continue enforcing the law and follow all COA/APD policies. If there is an allegation that an officer has violated policy, we will investigate the matter, and hold the officer accountable, as appropriate.”
KXAN brought one specific incident – cited in the district attorney’s letter – to his attention on July 2 in response to a local small business experiencing repeated vandalism.
Zack Bartlett, the company’s manager, told KXAN its vehicles had been vandalized about 10 times, four of which occurred since May 21. Each time, it resulted in stolen equipment, broken windows and slashed tires.
Bartlett said two APD SUVs showed up after the fourth incident on July 1, and that – despite the suspect being in plain sight – APD officers refused to act. He further stated officers told him “the issue is at the DA level,” and that APD officers had been ordered to stand down and ignore reports of vandalism involving people experiencing homelessness.
The DA’s letter also cites a community member’s post on the app Nextdoor, which raised concerns about an officer declining to investigate a man who allegedly exposed himself to children. The letter does not elaborate on the specifics of other reports.
In another complaint, a member of the Windsor Hills Neighborhood Association reported that APD officers said it was “fruitless to take actions related to concerns about suspected criminal activity because the District Attorney and County Attorney would ‘just let them right back out on the streets.’” The complaint was one of several received by the DA’s office which KXAN obtained.
Jose Garza notes he reminded Chacon during their June meeting that the district attorney’s office has not enacted a policy that prevents his officers from acting in such circumstances.
Further clarification was provided by Delia Garza stating “at no time has my office asked Interim Chief Chacon to direct his officers to NOT make an arrest if the officer believes a crime was committed. Nor have we stated or implemented a policy that blanket rejects any type of charge.”
The DA does note a policy of not prosecuting people for small amounts (under 1 gram) of narcotics unless there is a threat to public safety or is part of a larger investigation.
While County Attorney Delia Garza says there was a change implemented on March 1, 2021 related to how her office reviews cases, she states “it has never been the role of this office, or prosecutors in any jurisdiction, to simply rubber-stamp police arrests.”
Delia Garza says she relayed that same message last week when she had the opportunity to speak with a group of downtown business owners to clear up “inaccurate statements.”
As the district and county attorney’s offices await a response from the City of Austin, DA Jose Garza states “I am confident that the overwhelming majority of APD officers continue to perform an incredibly difficult job honorably and I am proud of the working relationship our office has built with other law enforcement agencies in Travis County.”
Both letters come following a forum hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance and Austin City Council member Kathie Tovo, which included discussion on how to help people, many of them homeless, who commit nonviolent crimes that aren’t necessarily going to be prosecuted by the district or county attorney’s office.
Jose Garza, Chacon and Delia Garza were all present at the forum.
“We have no rule in my office that we are not prosecuting any type of case,” said Delia Garza, whose office handles misdemeanor cases. “We are still prosecuting criminal trespass cases. We are still prosecuting every offense that falls within the jurisdiction of this office.”