Austin (KXAN) — The University of Texas is planning to receive funding to allow its campus police department to patrol off-campus areas in the future.
On Sunday, UT Austin President Greg Fenves wrote a letter to the UT community, explaining that two students had been injured in a stabbing spree earlier this week. He also announced that the university is planning to hire additional police officers, expand patrols in the West Campus neighborhood, and update security-related technology.
UT Police Department Chief David Carter explained that because his department is a state-run police force, they have not been funded by the legislature to police off-campus. With the buy-in from state and university leaders, Carter feels optimistic that his department will be given the funding to do so, but he doesn’t know yet how many additional officers he would need to expand patrols.
Currently, Carter said, UTPD is patrolling off-campus intermittently and the hope is that this funding would allow UTPD to do more.
With those expanded patrols, Carter said his goal will be to, “supplement, not replace APD’s responsibility in West Campus or wherever else we might find ourselves.”
Carter explained that a combination of violent crime in Austin, the recent stabbing incident, and pressure from Governor Abbott prompted this new round of changes. Carter is working on crafting a plan for this funding request which he will present to President Fenves.
UT’s Police Chief doesn’t have a map yet of where these new officers will be placed but he explained that the area from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Dean Keaton Street to 32nd Street to Lamar Boulevard is what the department will focus on.
“The one thing that’s important to recognize is that our principle was to focus on areas where we saw a concentration of heavy foot traffic,” he said, noting that areas like 23rd and 24th Street will be high priority for UTPD.
A call to action
Late Thursday night to early Friday morning, Austin Police say multiple people were stabbed in downtown Austin on Neches street. Police have arrested the suspect who they say is a woman experiencing homelessness who confessed to the stabbings.
Sunday morning, UT Police Chief David Carter said in a Tweet that he was informed by a professor that a second student was attacked in the recent stabbing attack. Carter explained to KXAN that this second student had a cut to their head.
Carter confirmed to KXAN that two students were stabbed in the attack, but the students were not together, just in an area close to each other. Both students have been treated at and released from the hospital, he said.
“The primary reason for my Tweets really was to get the attention of our student community and to reassure them that it was important for them to stay in touch with us and let somebody know if they were, in fact, assaulted,” he said
Also on Sunday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott shared Carter’s Tweet, thanking him for his efforts to improve safety for UT students. The governor added that he has heard, “urgent pleas by UT students about increasing lighting and security tools around campus. “
“I shared my expectations to UT leaders & expect results next month,” Abbott continued. In a second Tweet the governor explained that he had made a request to UT leaders earlier Sunday to “redouble their efforts to keep students safe.”
Governor Abbott’s office confirmed to KXAN Monday that UT is following through on what the governor is asking.
“UT has realized, that they have to develop a strategy to keep their students safe, because they know they cannot rely on the city of Austin to do so,” said John Wittman, a spokesperson for Governor Abbott.
Earlier this month, Governor Abbott directed the Texas Department of Public Safety to increase patrols around state-owned properties as well as UT after two stabbing incidents. Wittman said those patrols are still ongoing.
President Fenves also posted on Twitter Sunday, stating that “after recent crimes in Austin,” he is working with UT System Board of Regents Chairman Kevin Eltife on “getting more funds to hire police, expand patrols, and upgrade security-related technology in West Campus. “
Eltife was formerly a state senator and was appointed by Governor Abbott to the Board of Regents in 2017.
In a letter to the UT community Sunday, Fenves explained that the two students injured in the stabbing were recovering well.
“Incidents like this serve as a reminder that we must remain focused on keeping members of the UT community safe,” Fenves wrote.
He explained the changes UT Austin has made to improve safety and security on campus since 2016. The university has increased the size of the UT Austin Police Department force and improved security in buildings across campus.
UT has received increased pressure to improve student safety following two student deaths in the recent past. In 2016, UT Student Haruka Weiser was killed as she walked home from campus, her body was found in Waller Creek. In 2017, a stabbing spree on the UT campus injured three students and killed freshman Harrison Brown. A Texas Department of Public Safety assessment in 2016 after Weiser’s death highlighted gaps in safety on campus as well.
Those two student deaths galvanized SafeHorns, a nonprofit advocating for safety on and around the UT Austin Campus.
Joell McNew, the president of SafeHorns, said that learning two UT students were injured in this recent stabbing, “was so upsetting.”
“Because we’ve been advocating for students and safety around the university for the last five years now and we haven’t seen any improvements,” she said. “We are so grateful for Governor Abbott, honestly, if it wasn’t for Governor Abbott, I don’t think these things would be happening.”
Safety improvements since 2016
Since Weiser’s murder, UTPD has begun working more closely with Austin Police, allowing UTPD to receive and broadcast updates about crimes that happen in West Campus. UTPD has also added more patrols in West Campus and more community policing efforts.
Chief Carter thinks those initiatives have gone well, noting, “those areas with the police presence have markedly changed.”
The university has added “celebrated entrances” to all buildings on campus, restricting entry and adding safety tools at each one. UT has also been supporting “Stop the Bleed” training and training to guide responses to traumatic events.
The city of Austin has also conducted a study of lighting in West Campus. The city’s transportation department says as a result of that study, they repaired all the nonfunctioning lights identified by the first quarter of 2019. Maintenance and repair of the lighting in the West Campus neighborhood is still going on, the Austin Transportation Department said. The city encouraged people to submit 311 notices to report lighting outages in the area.
But McNew said that these changes haven’t made the difference she’d hoped.
“Based on feedback from students and parents, they do not notice any difference at all,” McNew said. “Their perception is it’s still dark and scary.”
She hopes to see benchmarks for future improvements.
But not everyone in the UT Community is feeling the same fears McNew described.
UT student Jakob Lucas said, “I don’t feel like I’m in particular danger as a student.” Lucas is a Speaker of the 113th Student Assembly at UT’s Student Government.
Furthermore, he said, among his group of friends he hasn’t heard any fear or hesitation about going to downtown Austin because of the perceived safety risks.
Lucas said he thinks it is important that the university takes any steps it can to improve security and safety. He believes that both Chief Carter and President Fenves are acting in good faith as they propose these new security improvements. But Lucas has more reservations about Governor Abbott’s involvement in this matter.
“It doesn’t seem as if he’s concerned with UT students in any capacity unless there’s like a bad guy to paint or a bad guy to frame,” Lucas said of the governor.
Speaking of the governor’s tweets regarding the stabbing spree this past week, Lucas said, “I don’t think he contributed anything by amplifying the tragedy.”
Lucas also worried that the recent calls for improved safety around campus have a subtext that suggests people experiencing homelessness are connected to violent crime.
He said that when the campus is having conversations about safety, “I want to make sure that in that process that we don’t’ violate people’s rights, or criminalize homeless people.”
Chief Carter has been thinking carefully about how he talks about homelessness in the process of talking through these safety changes.
“We do and should be concerned and be thoughtful about how we address the issue of homelessness and people suffering from homelessness,” Carter said. “But that doesn’t mean we should excuse bad conduct or conduct that threatens other people.”
Which is why, Carter said, in his latest Tweets, he is not discussing homelessness.
“I’m discussing the issue that we have an uptick in violence, by whoever, that is occurring in the city of Austin,” he said. “And ultimately, what has to happen, in my view, is that there needs to be additional police presence.”
Carter added, “then obviously there needs to be thoughtful consideration [for] how to care and support homeless individuals to get out from that condition. Having them out in the street is unacceptable.“