Austin Police expands program to combat gun crime in downtown district

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Police Interim Chief Joseph Chacon announced the department’s Violence Intervention Program (VIP), which targets gun crime in the city, will be expanding in the downtown entertainment district.

Chacon said there have been at least seven shootings in that area since January, including June’s mass shooting on East 6th Street, resulting in 21 victims total with a range of injuries.

Additional officers will be on the streets downtown and in the real-time crime center to monitor the department’s camera system in efforts to seize illegally-owned firearms. Since January, Chacon said 55 firearms were seized in the downtown area.

Chacon emphasized his officers also need the help of the community to bring down gun crimes.

“Our message at this point is simple: if you are coming downtown during the entertainment hours, don’t bring a gun,” Chacon said. “More guns downtown do not equate to greater safety. My officers cannot determine simply by looking at someone who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.”

VIP was announced in mid-April as a concentrated effort, in partnership with the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and various federal law enforcement officials, to combat a rise in violent crime.

“We are intentionally focusing our combined efforts on cases that are violent in nature, and this plan will work well to fight back against criminals who would do harm to Austin residents,” said Chacon in the press release.

Within two months of launching the program, Austin Police seized 78 firearms and arrested 44 people. On Thursday, Chacon gave updated numbers, saying officers have now arrested 57 people for 158 gun-related or other violent crime charges, with 108 illegally-owned firearms seized citywide.

Chacon said gun crimes are driving up the violent crime rate in two areas — homicides and aggravated assaults not related to domestic violence. He’s also become concerned with the number of robberies being committed in the city using guns.

The most recent crime report from May reveals murder is up 79% and aggravated assault is up 15% year-to-year. Robbery is down 5%, however.

“It’s incredibly important that we take an active role to get illegally-owned firearms off the street and to hold those that are doing the harm accountable,” Chacon said.

The Austin Police Department said this is a multi-department operation. The Major Crimes Suppression Unit, Firearms Unit, Mid-Level Narcotics Unit, Robbery Unit, Aggravated Assault Unit and Homicide Unit all contribute, collaborating with federal partners to investigate and seize illegally-possessed firearms. Crime analysis is also done to track trends and apply the data to future investigations.

Chacon said on Thursday the department will also be working closely with the newly-formed Office of Violence Prevention, which operates under Austin Public Health.

“We want to provide data and any other assistance that we can to address root causes of violent behavior and to help mitigate and prevent trauma in our community,” Chacon said.

The program will run through at least Aug. 31, and Chacon said APD will reevaluate if the program needs to continue or any modifications that need to be made.

Anyone with information about people or groups in possession of illegal guns or who are engaging in crimes involving guns should call the Crime Stoppers tip line at (512) 472-8477 or use the Crime Stoppers app. You may earn a reward of up to $1,000, and you can remain anonymous.

Community engagement

Austin Councilmember Greg Casar is leading an effort to get community organizations interacting with harder hit neighborhoods to de-escalate situations that may ultimately lead to violent crime.

Casar said he supports the mission of both APD and the District Attorney’s Office but said the third prong of combatting violence must come from the people themselves.

“We have seen that in cities that are successful in curbing gun violence, we have police and prosecutors working on gun violence but also these community-based programs backing them up,” Casar said. “We also need to do our part with these community organizations to go door-to-door and send credible messengers and credible leaders in the community to de-escalate conflicts, especially among youth.”

Casar said Austin City Council has already set aside funding from the budget, and City Manager Spencer Cronk has already spoken to a handful of community groups. Casar believes city council will vote to sign off on a contract before the end of the summer. This group would be tasked with hitting the streets and spreading a message of peace.

“We really need to go and end those conflicts and find other paths for people, so we can bring our gun violence rate back down and remain one of the safest cities in the country,” Casar said.

Reach KXAN’s Alex Caprariello by email at alexc@kxan.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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