The Downtown Austin Alliance and Austin City Council Member Kathie Tovo hosted a virtual public safety forum on July 26, 2021 to gain insight from our panelists into the justice process. They discussed systems and procedures, interagency communication and coordination and tools, resources and alternatives that they use to help ensure public safety downtown. Panelists included Joseph Chacon, Austin Police Department (APD) Interim Chief of Police; José Garza, District Attorney and Delia Garza, Travis County Attorney. Strategic communications consultant Leslie Rhode served as the moderator. Panelist questions were developed in advance of the forum. To view a video of the forum in its entirety, click here.
Dewitt Peart, Downtown Alliance President and CEO, kicked off the program with opening remarks on safety in downtown Austin. Comparing crimes for the first six months of 2021 to the same period in 2020, the results are mixed, with some types of crime being up, while others are down. Comparing crime data for the first six months of 2021 to the same period for 2019, some serious crimes this year are pacing below 2019 levels, while others are up from 2019. One of the most concerning trends is the increase in shootings, particularly late at night in the entertainment district. Through June, there were four homicides in the Public Improvement District this year, compared to one for the same period in both 2019 and 2020.
Data shows that the city as a whole has been consistently ranked among the safest large cities in the country. However, there have been concerning increases in homicides, gun violence and other crimes across the city and downtown. At the national level, of the 70 largest cities, which represents about one fifth of the U.S. population, the murder rate has risen 35%. These headline-making crimes, combined with increasing numbers of people living on our streets, aggressively panhandling and experiencing untreated mental illness issues in the public space, creates the perception of an unsafe environment downtown.
The Downtown Alliance felt compelled to host this forum to address the growing concern among downtown property owners, business owners, residents and visitors and to learn how our police department, county attorney and district attorney are working to effectively reduce and address crime and improve public safety. We also wanted to provide our members and downtown stakeholders with information on what we can all do to keep ourselves, our employees, our patrons, and our property safe.
We have compiled a list of the forum’s questions and answers. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What policies and programs has each organization implemented, or plan to implement, to improve safety; divert, prosecute or divert offenders and ensure we have a fair and just system?
Interim Chief Chacon explained that APD is the most visible and first responders for these types of issues. APD staff make policy and practice decisions on handling these cases on a day-to-day basis. He then gave more information about several APD initiatives surrounding public safety. One is the Violence Intervention Program to target the top repeat violent offenders. This program has been responsible for 59 arrests and 65 charges filed and the seizure of 109 illegally-owned firearms.
To address violent crime, APD has been working with colleagues at District Attorney Garza’s office and the U.S. Attorney’s office to prosecute individuals responsible for these offenses. In addition, the Crisis Call Diversion program was implemented in late 2020 as part of the 9-1-1 call center to divert calls of a mental health nature to available counselors. From April to June of this year, of the 11,751 calls came in through 9-1-1 that fell into this category, 1,204 were diverted. This is the only call-taking center in the country that has added a fourth option on the call taking script, which is “Do you need police, fire, EMS or mental health services?” APD is also working with Council Member Tovo and other council members on partnering with the newly-created Office of Violence Prevention to look at how to look at the root causes of what is causing and driving violent crime, particularly downtown.
Travis County Attorney Delia Garza added that the County Attorney’s office is responsible for prosecuting misdemeanor crimes, as well as having a civil litigation division. The Travis County Attorney office is focused on prosecuting violent crime and diverting non-violent offenders. The bulk of cases are family violence cases and DWIs, and those are the cases where the office has significant backlogs. To help increase the safety of our community, the Travis County’s Attorney office is focusing more resources on family violence cases. More family violence counselors have been hired, and prosecutors have more resources to engaged with survivors sooner.
Eligibility for diversion programs like the DWI diversion programs has been expanded, so instead of putting people in jail, offenders have opportunities to get services. These programs are supported by recent research indicating that if you can divert people outside of the criminal justice system, specifically for misdemeanor type level of offenses, you can reduce the likelihood of recidivism. The Travis County Attorney office has also standardized its weapon forfeiture policy. According to recent constable reports, about 100 guns have been taken out of abusers hands — more than in the previous three to four years.
As a consequence of circumstances brought on by the pandemic, prosecutors have more time to look at non-violent cases sooner to determine if it’s a case that’s appropriate for prosecution — often, before the magistration process. County Attorney Delia Garza also clarified that her office has no role in enforcing public order ordinances, such as Prop B, and that there is no rule that the County Attorney not prosecute any type of case. The Travis County Attorney’s office continues to prosecute criminal trespass cases, weighing a variety of factors and looking at each case on a case by case basis. The office has not given any instruction to police officers to not arrest on any type of offense.
District Attorney José Garza and his office is responsible for prosecuting felony crimes and juvenile crimes, including acts of violence, or any crime that would threaten public safety. The DA office has prioritized resources to ensure that anyone who commits an act of violence or any crime that threatens public safety in our community is held accountable and held responsible. So far, this year, the Travis County District Attorney’s office has sought and received over 500 indictments for acts of violence, including capital murder, murder, aggravated assault, sexual assault, gun violence and crimes against women. The office has also created a major crimes and homicide unit so that prosecutors can support all law enforcement in the county who are investigating these serious crimes to ensure that cases are ready for prosecution.
The Travis County Commissioner’s Court is moving forward with a proposal to create a diversion center that can improve safety in downtown. The Travis County DA office has expanded the pretrial diversion program so that low level offenders have the support and services they need, with the goal of addressing the root causes of crime to reduce crime in the future. Travis County District Attorney Garza echoed County Attorney Garza’s statements about his office also not having a role in enforcing ordinances like Prop B.
Other initiatives include adopting new policies to improve communication with victims of crime to ensure victims are consulted and heard at every phase of a criminal proceeding. Also, the office has adopted, for the first time ever, a firearms surrender protocol to ensure that people accused of crimes who may pose a threat to our community don’t have access to firearms while their case is being adjudicated. Like the County Attorney’s office, the County District Attorney’s office reviews what are called probable cause affidavits, the evidence that makes up the basis of an arrest and the initiation of a criminal proceeding at the point that a case enters our criminal legal system, as part of the early case review process. This allows prosecutors to spend their time on the most serious offenses and those that have the necessary legal requirements to move forward in the process.
What role can we all play in keeping our community and property safe?
Interim Chief Chacon offered that it’s important to start from a common sense standpoint. If you’re going downtown and you plan to drink, have a plan on how to get home safely and avoid putting yourself in a position where you become an easy target of property or violent crime. If you’re planning on coming downtown, don’t bring a gun. Austinites can continue to be good stewards of our community by communicating with the police when you see that crime is happening and making sure that you call either 311 or 911, depending on whether or not it’s an emergency. If you see encampments right now that are not allowed under our new public order ordinances, call 311 so that officers can address these individuals through the phased implementation approach.
APD has invited public input is several current initiatives:
- Reimagining Public Safety Task Force
- Reimagining the cadet training academy
- Selection of a new police chief
Travis County Attorney Delia Garza added that if you feel you are in an unsafe situation, or if you feel your safety is at risk, or that of someone else, you should call 911. To be proactive in addressing crime, County Attorney Delia Garza mentioned that there are so many great organizations the community can support, and that it’s also important to invest in social services such as housing. She continued by stating that there is a revolving door of people who are in poverty, and of people who are suffering from mental illness, and that this revolving door through our criminal justice system is not new. County Attorney Delia Garza challenged the community to think of new ways of investing in people before that 911 call was made, and before these individuals are a case or on a judge’s docket.
District Attorney José Garza agreed, and reiterated that his office really depends on members of the community to report crime when they see it, to report crime if they are the victim, and to cooperate with criminal investigations. In addition, he mentioned that it is important to participate in the criminal justice process until a specific case has reached resolution. Travis County District Attorney prosecutors and José Garza are available and willing to sit down to answer your questions about any particular case or any particular crime that you may have witnessed or been a victim of.
District Attorney José Garza also mentioned that his office has enacted no policies that would prevent any law enforcement from investigating or making arrests in any type of offense, and that the office is continuing the practice of the prior administration not to prosecute low-level drug offenses. However, there is an exception for any drug offense where law enforcement believes that there is a threat to public safety.
The Travis County Commissioners Court recently passed a resolution to pilot a diversion center to address the needs of offenders who are determined to have some mental health needs and need services. How will this help public safety?
County Attorney Delia Garza highlighted the tremendous impact a diversion center could have on improving public safety by providing services to people who need them and taking advantage of the opportunity to use federal funding to create this community resource. She cited Harris County as a success story to keep cases out of the criminal justice system and provide an immediate solution in some situations, including criminal trespass.
Interim Chief Chacon agreed that a diversion center would provide APD, the Travis County Attorney’s office and the District Attorney’s office with another option for people who have committed low-level offenses who are in a mental health crisis to receive needed services without incarceration. District Attorney José Garza stated that historically, each year the Travis County District Attorney’s Office prosecutes more drug-related offenses than any other kind of offense. Those resources then are not being put towards acts of violence, including gun violence, violence against women and homicides. In Travis County, the percentage of people struggling with substance use disorder who also have unmet mental health needs is around 60%.
How is criminal trespass currently being enforced by APD?
Interim Chief Chacon explained that a police officer can be called to a scene when someone is committing criminal trespass. A property owner can issue a verbal notice to the person in front of the officer saying that they are not welcome on their property and that they need to depart immediately. Officers then write an incident report documenting that notice, and the notice becomes part of the official record that stands for a period of one year. If that person returns, and the officer sees that person on the property, an arrest can be made. If the person refuses to leave when the property owner makes the initial request and an officer is present, an arrest can be made immediately for criminal trespass. Those cases are typically referred to the county attorney’s office.
Property owners should call 911 to report any activity they witness that is against the law, including theft, criminal mischief or vandalism. While officers will respond as quickly as they can, resources are limited, and so calls are being prioritized, and hold times can be long. Business owners, homeowners and residents can also meet with district representatives to schedule a site survey and receive guidance on how to improve safety at a particular location.
District Attorney José Garza added that while his office does not have a role in enforcing criminal trespass cases, the office does accept and prosecute criminal trespass. As mentioned previously, the bulk of cases are DWIs and family violence cases, and cases are prioritized due to limited resources and the severity of the offense.
In handling repeat offenders and repeat felony offenders, the Travis County District Attorney’s office evaluates each case individually to assess the potential threat to public safety caused by that conduct, based on the facts and circumstances. The District Attorney’s office then gathers the strongest evidence possible to prosecute, evaluates the criminal history of the person accused of the crime to make sure that the public is safe and consider the harm to the victim.