AUSTIN (KXAN) — Republic Square is the latest location downtown to implement private security.
The pilot program, run by the Downtown Austin Alliance, began Oct. 1. Security guards monitor the park from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. It will run through March 31.
“Obviously in Austin we have challenges with not having enough police officers on the street, so extra eyes and ears paying attention to things we don’t want to see happen in the park is critical,” said Dewitt Peart, CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance.
He said the program will include an unarmed guard that will monitor activity overnight.
“We were experiencing issues related to encampments, activities related to drugs, we were finding excessive needles,” he said.
Amanda Baez said she’s at the park almost every day.
“I love this park. I use the bus every day. And when I’m waiting for the bus I love to come here and get some breeze,” she said.
Peart wants everyone to feel like that about the park.
“We want it to be clean and fresh and people feeling welcome,” Peart said.
Private security elsewhere downtown
In August, a group of businesses near Sixth and Brazos Streets pitched in to hire private security to patrol during the day. They monitor the intersection from the corner to the alleys.
“The best news I’ve heard in four years,” Jesse Fortney, owner of Gnar Bar, said. Gnar Bar is near the intersection where security guards are patrolling.
KXAN spoke with one of the guards off camera, who said their primary goal is to break up large groups of people experiencing homelessness who gather on the street.
The Austin Police Department said it has been made of “several areas where quality-of-life crimes are occurring.” Such discussions have led the department to implement more high-visibility operations in impacted areas.
“Some building managers and owners have expressed needing constant security in these areas,” the department said in a statement. “APD cannot commit these resources to certain areas 24 hours a day/seven days a week, and is aware that some business owners and managers opted to hire private security to ensure their businesses are protected.”
Challenges with hiring private security
Another group of downtown businesses previously tested out private security patrols but decided to nix the guards after a few months.
“It started out as a good deterrent,” said Teghan Hahn, CEO of Wild About Music, which is on Congress Avenue near Sixth Street. “Then we did start to have issues though with them showing up, or with them being overly aggressive or overly passive, depending on the guard.”
That is why Glen Bhimani, CEO of San Antonio-based BPS Security, said having properly trained, licensed security guards is imperative.
He didn’t provide security guards for Hahn’s case but explained that in general – security guards don’t have the same privileges police officers do. For example, when it comes to using force, guards have to abide by the same rules everyone else does when it comes to defending people or property.
“We’re allowed to use the minimum force necessary to stop the threat,” he said. “You can be arrested if you’re a security guard. That doesn’t protect us in any way.”