AUSTIN (KXAN) — An Austin City Council member is calling for a reexamination of the city’s decades-old no-public alcohol consumption ordinances, which ban public drinking downtown and in several historically minority neighborhoods in East Austin.
In December, Austin City Council approved a resolution that directed City Manager Spencer Cronk to analyze the city’s six no-public consumption ordinances and provide data on the number of citations written, categorized by age and ethnicity.
Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who sponsored the resolution, wrote “… while presumably relevant sections of Chapter 4-9 were enacted to promote and assist in ensuring public health and safety, investigating the history and impacts of these provisions on the residents of the city is consistent with the city’s efforts to undo and combat racism and inequality.”
Only areas of Austin that ban drinking in public
The ordinances were approved by the Austin City Council in the 1990s when the council was made up of at-large members instead of members elected by geographic districts. Texas does not have any state laws limiting public alcohol consumption but instead allows cities to implement local restrictions.
Zones 1, 3, and 4 of Austin’s no-public consumption ordinances refer to “central business districts” west of I-35 in downtown. Zones 2, 5, and 6 refer to single-family residential neighborhoods east of I-35, which have historically been made up of minority populations and fall in what the 1928 Austin Master Plan designated as the “negro district.”
In a memo sent to the Austin City Council on May 4, City Manager Spencer Cronk concluded that it is “likely” the no-public consumption ordinances were passed by the city council for safety purposes and to reduce public alcohol consumption.
Cronk’s report will be forwarded to the Austin Public Safety Commission for a recommendation.
“I would say they need to take a deeper dive,” Harper-Madison said. “Some of those areas do make sense, the downtown drag, I get it. There are other areas including residential areas where it does not make sense for that to be the rule and I certainly don’t think it’s adhering to our desire to keep Austinites safe.”
Cronk provided citation data from 2015-19, which showed 659 total citations for public alcohol consumption. In 2015, 45% of citations were written against black and Hispanic residents. Eighty-six percent of citations over the five-year span were written in 2015.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan has requested more information from Cronk about the signficant drop-off in citations and is waiting for a response.
“When you have laws on the books that have random or inconsistent enforcement, you often find disparities related to race,” Flannigan said. “In Austin, the data, at least in the last couple of years, the numbers are so low it’s kind of harder to draw those specific conclusions.”
KXAN requested guidance from an Austin Police Dept. spokesperson about why citations for public alcohol consumption drastically decreased after 2015.
In an email, an APD spokesperson said: “It is unclear why there was a drop in citations issued between 2015 and 2016, but as always, we encourage our officers to use the lowest level of enforcement to gain compliance with ordinances and laws.”
Austin Mayor Steve Adler announced in 2016 that he would create a task force to “address institutional racism and systemic inequity in Austin,” though it’s unclear if the drop in no-public consumption cases is connected.
In 1993, Texas restricted a city’s ability to implement no-public alcohol consumption rules and limited the restrictions to only “central business districts.” While the Austin ordinances were grandfathered-in to the law, it’s notable that the East Austin zones would not be legal if proposed today.
An Austin City Council member would have to propose an amendment in order to change the ordinances. No proposals are currently being considered, though Harper-Madison said she is anxiously awaiting the recommendation from Austin Public Safety Commission.