AUSTIN (KXAN) – Austin Interim City Manager Jesús Garza announced Wednesday that he has suspended the City’s partnership with the Texas Department of Public Safety with the approval of Mayor Kirk Watson.
“I feel like we had a partnership that had promise to it,” Watson said. “But when you can’t defend certain actions, you have to, as I’ve said from the very beginning, you have to make changes.”
Watson defended DPS’ presence in Austin when KXAN sat down with him Monday to discuss the partnership, a stark contrast from Wednesday’s move to pull the program just two days later.
A spokesperson for Texas DPS told KXAN on Wednesday night, “DPS will continue patrol operations in the city of Austin as part of its responsibility to protect and serve Texas,” in the same capacity as outlined in the partnership.
The mayor said the tipping point was an incident where Watson said troopers pulled a gun on a 10-year-old boy.
“Well in the last 48 hours, I have learned of an incident that’s very troubling involving a man and his young son,” he told us Wednesday. Watson said he was briefed about the incident by the APD and the city manager’s office.
Council members told KXAN they learned about the incident from an article published by another news outlet, claiming a trooper pointed a gun at a 10-year-old boy. KXAN asked DPS about that incident. The department didn’t provide a comment, but offered to show us body camera video, saying it “speaks for itself.” A clip of the incident where guns are drawn is below.
“At no point in the body cam video did I see a gun pointed at a 10-year-old,” said Council Member Mackenzie Kelly. “I will say that I was shocked to hear that when that initially came out on the news but as with most things in this city and in the country as a whole, they require investigation.”
Council Member Zo Qadri felt differently.
“I was against the partnership from day one. I think that for me it was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said.
We obtained the DPS video after our interview with Watson on Wednesday and showed his office the video. He doubled down on his original sentiment that “the suspension of the agreement was the right decision.”
In-depth discussion with Mayor Watson on pulling the DPS partnership
“This partnership was an innovative approach to address acute staffing shortages that were years in the making. However, any approach must be in sync with Austin values,” Watson said.
On Monday, Mayor Watson touted the successes of the partnership – from reducing crime and traffic fatalities to getting illegal guns and drugs off the streets.
“As we sit here today, I would not anticipate that we would recreate the partnership,” Watson told KXAN Wednesday.
Watson emphasized the importance of securing a contract with APD and searching for additional public safety alternatives while the police department works to fill roughly 300 positions.
On Thursday, City Council Member Mackenzie Kelly sent a letter to the interim city manager, which she shared on Twitter, asking for a “comprehensive report outlining the decision-making process and factors” that led to the suspension.
APD, DPS partnership background
The partnership was first announced on March 27 and started March 30. It was created in consultation with Watson, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov Dan Patrick to support staffing shortages in APD. In May, DPS temporarily halted the partnership as troopers headed to border cities in the wake of the Title 42 immigration restrictions lifting. Troopers resumed work alongside APD at the beginning of July.
According to a press release, the partnership has led to a decrease in violent and gun crime, fewer traffic fatalities, shorter response times to calls for assistance, and seizures of significant amounts of illicit drugs, including fentanyl and heroin.
“Public safety is at the very core of what we do in city government and this partnership was a practical approach as the Austin Police Department faces serious staffing challenges,” Garza said. “We have heard Mayor and Council’s concerns about recent events and agree that we must have absolute certainty that any solution we put in place maintains the trust and well-being of our community members and that all law enforcement officers working to keep our city safe are on the same page when it comes to policing practices.”
APD Chief Joseph Chacon sent an email to city employees shortly after the city sent its release Wednesday, noting “questions from council and community have arisen.”
“While this news is disappointing, I know that each of you are working hard to keep our community safe and that you will continue this important work,” Chacon wrote. “Thank you for all that you are doing.”
On Monday, Bruce Mills, Austin’s interim assistant city manager, spoke at the Public Safety Commission hearing during discussions about the partnership. He noted then “We’re at a point in this city where we don’t have enough officers to police the city by ourselves. You can see I’m in support of the partnership because it’s out of necessity.”