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Austin police: Violent crime uptick could be 'here to stay' after spate of murders

(File photo by Christa McWhirter)

In the last week, four people have been killed in Austin, bringing the total number of homicides in 2021 to 16—five more than at this time last year and triple the number that had occurred at this time in 2019, according to Austin Police Department reports.

This month alone, the following homicides and violent crimes have occurred:

  • March 22- An unidentified man was killed and an unidentified woman was hospitalized with a gunshot wound after a shooting Monday afternoon at a motel in Northwest Austin. Preliminary interviews with witnesses and the injured victim suggest there were two suspects involved, according to APD.
  • March 21- Christopher Ray Martinez, 40, was shot to death in the parking lot of a pawn shop on East Riverside Drive early Sunday morning. "The motive for this shooting appears to be anger and jealousy over a woman in whom both men had a romantic interest," according to APD.
  • March 18- An unidentified Hispanic male was shot to death early Thursday morning in North Austin after an argument with the suspect, who remains at large.
  • March 17- APD responded to a shooting at Tellers Bar on Trinity Street early Wednesday morning. Surveillance video shows a suspect shooting into a parked vehicle; a bar employee who was asleep inside was struck and transported to an area hospital with non-life threatening injuries.
  • March 14- Jorian Donte Hardeway, 24, was shot at Club Swing on East Seventh Street early in the morning and pronounced dead after being transported to a local hospital. Homicide detectives have not yet identified a possible suspect, and the motive remains unknown.
  • March 1- Two food trucks in North Austin were robbed at gunpoint by the same suspect early in the morning while employees were closing up for the night.

This string of homicides has raised concerns that the increase in violent crimes seen in 2020 is not an outlier but a lasting trend. APD Lt. Jeff Greenwalt attributed the uptick to a number of different factors, including an increasing number of people being released from jail early as a result of the pandemic, wider use of personal recognizance bonds and the ongoing reimagining public safety process, which has included police budget cuts.

"The murders sometimes come in on a daily basis," he told Austonia. "Hopefully it's a short-lived experience that we're going through, but when you look at the grand scheme of the direction of the criminal justice system it seems like this might be something that's here to stay until we make a correction."

The Austin murder rate hit at least a 10-year high late last year and has reached levels not seen since the mid-1990s. In November, Greenwalt said it was too early to tell whether the City Council's decision to cut the police budget was a contributing factor. But he feels differently now, saying that the cuts have impacted the number of officers on patrol, the availability of specialized support units and goodwill in the community. "It shouldn't surprise people that, if you take away resources from the police, crime goes up," he said.

Overall, the violent crimes are due to typical causes, Greenwalt said, citing domestic violence, robberies and disturbances among friends and acquaintances. But their increasing frequency is something the department is looking at very closely. "It's going to be really interesting to see how 2021 turns out because 2020 was such an anomaly that we were wondering if it was just going to be one of those weird, unusually high years or if it was the beginning of a new trend," he said.

Criminal justice reform advocates and local elected officials point out that, despite this uptick, Austin's violent crime rate remains relatively low for a city of its size; in addition, the increase both predates the council's decision to cut police funding and is mirrored in other cities where police spending has remained steady.

It may be too early to tell whether budget cuts and ongoing criminal justice reforms have had any statistical impact on the local violent crime rate, Greenwalt said. But anecdotally he feels the two are connected. "We don't have A) the people or B) the budget to go out and do some of the things we used to do in the past," he said. "And a lot of these things are combining together and trickling into an effect where crime is rising."

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