KXAN Austin

Austin City Council to consider using code enforcement officers for certain public safety calls

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Code Enforcement officers could begin handling certain low-priority emergency calls and calls for service if approved by Austin City Council next week.

Council member Jimmy Flannigan is sponsoring the resolution, which specifically directs the city manager to “identify and implement improvements to the Austin Code Department, and to identify relevant budget and fee amendments to reimagine public safety utilizing the Austin Code Department.”

He referenced studies on 911 calls in Austin, noting a large portion of these calls have “no threat to property or life.” He said utilizing an alternative service for these low-priority calls might be more cost effective.

“We might be able to have more folks out on the street. We might be able to have a different type of response,” he said.

He thinks this resolution could help the Code Department function better, expand their duties and respond to more late-night parties, improper uses of a house as an event or wedding venue, or short-term vacation rental violations.

“The moments where you need Code Enforcement don’t fit neatly into the limited hours of service that department currently provides,” he explained. “By the time Code Enforcement shows up, the thing isn’t happening anymore.”

The Code Department’s current hours of operation are from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. After that, all service requests to 311 are referred to the police or fire departments until 7 a.m.

Flannigan said he’s heard from officers who are frustrated with the current “inefficiency of the system.”

“This bizarre duality where they both feel like they have to run from call to call to call to call, in this hyper intense environment, but so few of the calls really result in the type of response that they were needed for,” he said.

This tension became especially apparent last weekend, after city data showed more than 170 calls to 311 about potential COVID-19 gathering violations on Saturday and Sunday. According to the city, the Austin Police Department’s dispatch center took in at least 45 more.

The city said police responded to 17 of those calls, and firefighters responded to seven. The code department closed 74 calls, and according to their dashboard they went out and physically inspected around 25 of those calls.

The Code Department told KXAN investigators previously their department is currently responsible for ensuring proper signage is maintained and if the staff are social distancing and wearing masks. However, if it is a complaint related to business occupancy limits, customers not social distancing or customers not wearing face masks, the complaint is referred to other entities, like the fire department, police department or the city’s public health department.

Flannigan said he is in communication with the Code Department about what changes could be implemented, if the resolution passes — including the suggestion to expand the hours where Code Enforcement officers are staffed.

Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association, said he would support the use of Code Enforcement officers for certain types of calls to lessen the burden on officers. Still, he worries about Code Enforcement responding to burglar alarms and suspicious person calls, noting those calls can get out of hand quickly,

“It’s fine, until it isn’t,” Casaday explained.

One 911 call analysis by AH Datalytics, paid for by the Austin Justice Coalition, showed officers spend a combined average of 25 hours, 20 minutes each day responding to burglar alarms. The study showed more than 95% of these calls were categorized as “false alarms.”

“You might go to 50, and they are all false, but that 51st might be someone coming out and shooting at you,” Casaday said. “Those are 911 calls that need to be answered by police officers.”

If the resolution passes, he cautioned city staff to look carefully at which types of calls are delegated to the Code Department.

“I think there’s a valid concern that we would be sending the wrong staff to the wrong call, and it certainly seems easier… if you just have one gigantic department responding to everything,” Flannigan said.

Yet, he argues that’s just not the case, adding that the current budget doesn’t allow for that. He suggested training Code Enforcement officers to “triage” a situation to determine if APD or EMS back-up would be needed on a call.

“If we can think about shifting how we might rebalance and have two departments staffed 24/7, each at a lower [rate] than the police is staffed now, you can start to see how to balance work,” he said. “If we do the math right, then it will actually be more affordable to the taxpayers because code enforcement is a more affordable function than policing.”

Council will vote on this proposed resolution at their meeting on Oct. 15.

When asked for a comment, a spokesperson for the city said, “Austin Code does not comment on City Council items preemptively.”