Austin police’s new unit targets high crime areas; efforts include enforcing homeless ordinances

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — Seven people are now behind bars for trespassing. Austin Police arrested them Monday at the “Willow Creek Tunnel.”

It’s an area the Austin Police Department calls a hotspot for crime, as well as a place where homeless people hang out and sometimes sleep.

The officers who went out there Monday were members of Region 3 Innovative Safety Engagement, or RISE. Senior Police Officer John Nelson said RISE formed about a month ago to “reduce violent crime and reduce crime in general in the Riverside area.”

It’s part of the city’s Riverside Togetherness project.

Nelson said RISE members target one specific area and work on chronic issues, rather than going from one 911 call to another, over and over again.

The Willow Creek Tunnel is located near East Riverside Drive and Willow Creek Drive.

“The tunnel is contributing to a lot of issues because one, it’s used for shelter for homeless, and that’s a watershed protected area, so we have a general public safety [issue] if there’s flooding,” Nelson explained. “Also, it’s down below street level, and it’s very poorly lit.”

He told KXAN “disturbances, prostitution, narcotics trafficking and violent crime” can be linked to the tunnel, so RISE started going out there a few weeks ago.

“We want to gain voluntary compliance, and part of our unit’s goal is to minimize harm,” Nelson said.

The City of Austin’s homeless camping rules prohibit people from camping, sitting or lying in flood-prone areas. A police officer can also use his or her judgment on a case by case basis to determine if there’s a public safety issue.

With the tunnel, Nelson said the rules are clear.

It’s a high flood risk area, and there’s a “No Trespassing” sign. He told KXAN RISE has been telling people over several weeks they cannot be there and warned them that they’re trespassing.

“The first step is always going to be voluntary compliance and having these individuals, out of their own effort, pursue services and agencies,” Nelson said.

The weeks of warnings, however, didn’t work for the seven people arrested.

A woman who often stays in the tunnel, but was not there Monday, told KXAN even if police give them a warning and time to move, the problem is there’s nowhere else for them to go.

“We have two decisions. We can help people, or we can harm people,” said Julian Reyes who lives nearby. “Which one is this? Is this helping somebody or harming people?”

Reyes believes police shouldn’t be involved in the camping issue at all. “We need somebody here that can deal with mental health, medical issues and housing. That’s the only people that need to be involved in this,” he said.

But people like David Montoya said homeless camping has been an issue. “That’s driving out businesses that’s struggling to make ends meet with high cost of rent,” Montoya said.

He told KXAN if anyone is trespassing and violating the city rules, “If they can enforce it, by all means, they should do that because these people can’t be living under tunnels and throwing trash, and just not abide by what the city codes are.”

Nelson said when RISE officers interact with people who are homeless, they hand out laminated pamphlets that have phone numbers of service providers.

He said, “The larger, the long-term effort would be to find housing all of these homeless individuals.”

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