Use-of-force trial highlights challenges of policing downtown Austin

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Police leaders explain, the officers they have patrolling downtown face a complicated set of calls: from the homeless people who sleep on the streets each night, the many tourists who come to town, the large numbers of intoxicated people in the entertainment districts, to the tens of thousands of people who commute in to work each day. 

Austin Police Association president, Ken Casaday, patrols downtown several times a month to keep current on his policing experience. 

“You have a lot of things coming together down there, you have the homeless shelter, you have people moving in and taking advantage of [the homeless], you have people selling drugs for drug dealers, you have alcohol and mental health issues, then you throw on top of that all the college kids, then you throw on top of that Sixth street,” Casaday said.

Casaday explained that many of the challenging elements that come with patrolling downtown — people who are intoxicated, people who are fighting — could be seen in the February incident brought to a Travis County Court in the past week.

APD Officers Robert Pfaff and Donald Petraitis stood trial this week for charges related to their tasing of Quentin Perkins, a witness to the shooting they were responding to back in February. A jury found Pfaff and Petraitis not guilty on all charges, sending the message that they did not feel the officers used excessive force on Perkins. At the time of the incident, officers said that Perkins did not comply fast enough with their commands.

Body camera video from one of Pfaff and Petraitis’ fellow officers was shown in the courtroom, that video showed a chaotic, nighttime scene involving a group of people near where 12th Street meets Waller Creek. The video also shows Perkins on his knees with his hands up at the time he was tased. All of this happened in a matter of seconds after officers arrived. 

Cassaday attended the trial and stands by the officer’s actions, he believed their tasing Perkins made the scene safer so that EMS could come in and take care of the shooting victim. 

Assistant Chief Justin Newsom with APD can’t weigh in on the trial, but he was able to talk with KXAN about officers who patrol in downtown, an area he oversees. Newsom explained there are around 100 officers who patrol downtown.

“Very few crimes happen against people in downtown Austin,  there are a lot of disturbances among partiers, there are the obvious issues with the 400 unsheltered homeless,” he said. He also noted that downtown officers get special training to equip them for the unique set of circumstances they’re likely to encounter in the area. 

Newsom said that the most common calls APD responds to downtown to are “disturbances” or fights, often between people who are intoxicated. Newsom estimates Austin Police are called to at least one fight each day downtown. 

“We train our officers to use the minimal use of force necessary and a lot of times that is the taser,” he explained, adding that tasers are used by police fairly often downtown. 

“When you’re breaking up a fight it’s pretty hard to do that without using some type of force against combative subjects,” Newsom said.

Within the Austin Police Department,  use-of-force is referred to as “response to resistance.” Consistently, the downtown police district has far and away the highest numbers of “response to resistance” among all of APD’s districts.

In 2017, the downtown police district used “response to resistance”  734 times, the next highest districts used “response to resistance” 390, 256, and 250 times. 

Newsom noted that officers today are expected to do more social work than ever before, especially so in downtown where some of Austin’s most vulnerable populations live. 

“It’s a constant balance between enforcing laws and taking a softer approach with the homeless and those who are mentally ill,” he said.

In October of 2018, Newsom explained that a spree of shootings prompted APD increased their numbers downtown. But when the shooting stopped, those extra officers were removed.

Newsom recognizes that downtown Austin — and Austin’s entire police force — will need more staffing to meet the increasing number of people and set of responsibilities police have today.

“You add more people, you add more demands and the only thing that you can do to continue that is if we add more officers,” Newsom said. “So hopefully at some point, we will be able to have a sufficient number of officers to keep up with the steady growth that Austin has.”

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