AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Sobering Center downtown said it had an uptick in clients this week. To prepare for South by Southwest, the facility removed its COVID-19 capacity limit.
“People do come here to party and enjoy themselves,” said Travis County Precinct 2 Commissioner Brigid Shea. “Certainly during SXSW, there’s a spike in people who are drunk or inebriated in some way.”
Even though the festival ends Sunday, the crowds won’t be gone completely.
“On the weekends it’s highly concentrated,” said Police Chief Joseph Chacon. “I mean, in the Sixth Street area — we can have tens of thousands of people that are there.”
According to a new report released by Kroll Associates, the group analyzing Austin Police Department policy, more people downtown doesn’t equate to more arrests.
The graphs below show arrests in George Sector, which encompasses downtown, compared to the rest of the city. You can see the full report taking a look at downtown arrests and officer use of force here.
Chacon attributes part of this to the pandemic, but said another driving factor has been finding alternatives to arresting people under the influence.
“We are trying our best to have the lightest touch that we can, and one of the biggest things I can point to with that is the Sobering Center,” he said.
The Sobering Center provides people who police have deemed too intoxicated a place to sleep. Officers will take them to the facility instead of jail.
“People don’t get a record. They don’t clog up our jail or our hospitals, because both are extremely expensive,” said Shea. “Instead of going to jail, they get to sleep it off in the Sobering Center, and it’s a better outcome for everyone.”
City leaders believe this, combined with continued police training, will minimize the number of use-of-force incidents downtown.
According to the Kroll report, George Sector has the highest percentage of police use of force across the city.
Chacon attributes these numbers to the population density in the Entertainment District and the fact that alcohol is a common factor in the arrests.
“Alcohol is being consumed; sometimes a fight occurred,” he said. “If officers have to get in and break those fights up, it’s a use of force.”
APD classifies its use of force on a four-tier scale — four being the least amount of contact.
“If an officer is getting ready to arrest someone, and they go to put their hands behind their back, and the person resists, and an officer has to force their hand back behind them, that’s a level four use of force,” Chacon said.
“I’m just going to guess that if somebody learns that they’re going, be taken to a place where they can sober up rather than being taken to jail, they’re probably gonna be happier about that and probably going to be more cooperative,” added Shea.
The Sobering Center has also added an additional medic to the weekend overnight shifts during SXSW.
In addition to providing a place for people to sober up, the center also offers peer counseling and resources for treatment if needed.