AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Domain in North Austin has become an alternative to downtown Austin; a destination for Austinites of all ages and walks of life. But, it’s more than bars and restaurants. Together, The Domain and Domain NORTHSIDE offer visitors nearly 200 high-end stores, bars, restaurants and clubs.
Although the district has become an uptown destination, it hasn’t expanded without experiencing a substantial uptick in crime.
The number of police calls for service at The Domain in recent years has skyrocketed, putting an overwhelming burden on the Austin Police Department to respond to an increase in crime in the privately-owned shopping and business center.
The Domain shopping district, a SIMON Mall, has become increasingly popular since it opened the doors to the project’s first phase in 2007. A decade later, the third and final phase of the project is now complete. The Domain NORTHSIDE, which is owned by the Endeavor Real Estate Group, opened in fall 2016. With the introduction of its own bar and entertainment district, known as Rock Rose, the area has transformed into a miniature city bustling with families during the day and party-goers at night.
Grant Pollet has lived and worked in the Domain for the past year. He believes the growth has led to a rise in crime. In the short time he’s been in the area, he’s noticed multiple residential and retail break-ins, among several other crimes.
What Pollett is experiencing first hand is not anecdotal since data from Austin Police Department shows an increase in calls at The Domain. The number of times the APD has responded to The Domain rose from more than 2,900 in 2014 to more than 3,500 in 2016-a 20 percent increase. Since 2012, APD has been called for service at The Domain at an exponentially increasing rate the past five years, clocking nearly 20,000 calls.
However, during the same time period, the police force assigned to the North substation-the station responsible for responding to calls at The Domain-has gone up by just about 8 percent and has never topped 250 officers. The police force at Region 2 increased from 232 to 250 over the past four years. Most of the additions were brought in from 2016-2017. There were 11 officers, two sergeants and two corporals added between that timeframe.
Because The Domain is a mixed-use development, there are people walking to work, to play and to eat. Austin police say in 2016 there were three auto-pedestrian crashes on the property, one of which was a hit-and-run.
Pollet says he’s seen far more close calls than he’d like. “I’m not used to being in an environment where people are getting hit frequently. So, it’s very upsetting,” said Pollet. “Is it going to be a child next? Is someone going to get killed by being struck by a vehicle? It doesn’t make sense. Austin’s about a higher quality of living. In a city such as this, we can find a way to prevent these issues.”
Driving While Intoxicated cases increased by nearly four times since 2012. That year, six were reported. In 2016, 21 were recorded. Public intoxication has nearly doubled since then, as well, with 25 arrests last year.
Police say the larger increase in DWI and public intoxication cases can be attributed to the area’s expansion, especially considering the introduction of alcohol to the area.
“Whenever you have more people moving into a concentrated area, you’re going to have crime.”
“Whenever you get more and more people coming around and alcohol’s involved, you’re going to have issues,” said Sgt. Keith Bazzle, who is assigned to APD’s Region 2. “You have an influx of people moving there so, whenever you have more people moving into a concentrated area, you’re going to have crime. You’re going to get more crime.”
Bazzle said the goal is to combat crime and prevent it from happening altogether. To do that, he says APD officers carry out directed patrols.
“Officers go out when they have free time to just ride through to make sure everything’s okay. Or, if there’s a specific issue, they’ll go through and they’ll focus on that specific issue,” Bazzle added.
Austin police say the North substation carries out a large number of high visibility patrols across the shopping center, both in vehicles and on foot. They also say APD staffing at The Domain is highest in the evening hours. Both sections of The Domain have their own private security companies, as well.
However, as our KXAN investigation revealed, Austin police on the northside are strapped-desperate for additional officers to cover the expanding district and maintain public safety across the Region 2 area. Bazzle says staffing The Domain pulls his officers away from regular patrol throughout the district.
Mike Levy, a member of the Public Safety Commission for the City of Austin, says there’s a simple solution: hire more officers.
“We see the shortage at The Domain. They want officers. They need officers. We’ve got to acknowledge The Domain needs a greater police presence,” said Levy. “But, there are not enough cops to be there and everywhere else. They need a presence besides their own private security and it’s not available. There’s simply not enough police officers.”
But the call for more officers has been an ongoing issue for the department, regardless of The Domain’s presence.
“The Domain is simply symptomatic of a greater problem,” said Levy. “Austin needs 400 more cops in order to cover the needs and the geography of [the city]. We’re 400 cops short.”
Levy wants the city to make a plan-a commitment-to hire those officers in order to increase the authorized strength of the police department by 100 officers over the next four to five years. That way, Levy says, the city has time to hire good quality officers and it’s easier to balance the budget to deal with the increasing cost over time. “Without a commitment to make these hires, Austin will never be able to catch up.”
KXAN reached out to representatives with Simon Mall properties for an interview in response to the crime trend. The general manager of The Domain, Irma Castor, released the following statement:
In the last few years, we have seen significant growth in northwest Austin, as well as in and around The Domain development, with the addition of Domain Northside and the businesses located on Rock Rose, which are not Simon owned. Although the incidences on Simon’s property have not increased, we have adjusted security measures, as needed, and maintain a close working relationship with the Austin Police Department, in order to preserve a safe, comfortable shopping environment.”
Endeavor Real Estate Group, which is responsible for Domain NORTHSIDE, said in a statement that they will “continued to partner with the Austin Police Dept. for coverage and assistance to ensure a safe environment for everyone.”
Both companies hire private security officers. However, their grasp of power and impact is limited. Security officers do not have the authority to make arrests, nor do they carry weapons. The private security still relies on APD to respond any time a crime is committed.
Austin police say they work with both security companies in order to keep the area safe. For public safety reasons, however, APD would not go into detail on their operations and/or safety initiatives in the area.
A number of private security officers that are hired by The Domain and The Domain NORTHSIDE are actually off-duty APD officers that are in uniform.