AUSTIN (KXAN) — As crowds of people descend on downtown Austin to ring in the New Year, more than 100 Austin Police officers are not able to work due to COVID-19 related reasons, according to the Austin Police Association.
APA President Ken Casaday told KXAN on Friday that 104 officers were out when he last checked, along with others not working due to other types of leave. That’s out of roughly 1,575 officers on the force, he said.
Earlier this week, Police Chief Joseph Chacon said he was “worried” about COVID-19, but that the department had several contingency plans to ensure a safe holiday. He said they would be overstaffing the downtown area, while still staffing other areas at 100%.
“We have an operations plan in place. We’ll be ready for New Year’s Eve,” he said.
KXAN asked the department to confirm the number reported by APA but hasn’t heard back.
Alan Trevino, President and CEO of Sentry Security & Investigations, said he encourages anyone going out on the holiday to go with a plan.
“Don’t go alone. Go with friends. Have somebody that is sober, somebody that makes the decisions,” he said. He assesses properties and helps clients come up with safety plans. He said Sentry does not work with any downtown bars, but he knows people who do provide those services on Sixth Street. In fact, he thinks most businesses there already have safety plans and training in place — plans that could be required under a newly proposed entertainment license, as a part of the new recommendations from the Safer Sixth Street Initiative.
The plan calls for more communication between APD or other city departments and businesses through these kinds of licenses. On Tuesday, Chief Chacon said they are seeing collaboration and cooperation with the businesses in the area on these recommendations.
“The good news is that we have a very strong alliance of businesses downtown that work with us all the time,” Chacon said. “A lot of it is going to be resource driven. So, if we’re asking them to spend money to put in new lighting or to put in new seating or to do these different things, of course, they’re going to be constrained right now by their own budgets. And we’re working with them to see how we can implement these different things.”
He said the Safer Sixth Street Initiative was a more holistic approach to revamping the downtown entertainment district.
To read the full memo of recommendations, visit this link.
“Not just solely looking at it from an enforcement — or APD is going to do everything — but looking at all the departments from the city that might be able to impact this,” he explained.
However, Trevino told KXAN he worried about how the plan would work if there was not enough a large enough law enforcement presence in the area to respond if there was an incident.
As a former highway patrolman with the Texas Department of Public Safety and member of the riot team, Trevino said he was called in to work dozens of Halloweens, New Year’s Eves and other large events. He wonders if the city has considered tapping these agencies for assistance.
“They are fixing a problem they created,” he said, ultimately critical of positions cut last year after changes to the city budget affected the department.
Trevino said he applauds the recommendation to add dedicated Austin-Travis County EMS personnel and a staging to the downtown area to help prepare for emergencies.
“It’s key,” he said.
Earlier this year, Selena Xie who is President of the Austin EMS Association told KXAN she worried they may not have the resources to create that staging area any time soon, as they faced staffing shortages. In the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, the association reported a “crippling shortage” with one out of 15 medics either positive with COVID-19 or are suspected to be positive.