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Austin PD’s Chief Chacon tags gun prevalence and police staffing in understanding 2021’s record murder count

Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon is addressing the high murder count in Austin for the year. (Bob Daemmrich)

Austin has seen 89 homicides in 2021—with two days left in the year—an 80% increase from last year’s 48 killings.

The surge in violence, including a Sixth Street shooting that left 1 dead and 13 injured, an officer-involved "gun battle" between teenagers in the entertainment district and a hostage killing of pediatrician Dr. Lindley Dodson, has left some worried that the historically laidback town of Austin is no longer safe.

Austonia spoke this week with Austin Police Chief Joseph Chacon about the surge and what can be done.

Chacon told Austonia much of the uptick comes down to one thing. "It's about guns," he said. "It's about gun violence and the number of illegally owned weapons that we have on the streets and have been seizing off the streets."

In terms of a solution, Chacon said his number one issue has become staffing, or lack thereof, as the department struggles to recruit and retain officers. Officers are leaving the force at alarming rates, something that Chacon said comes down to a burnt-out force and increased criticism of police after 2020's police brutality protests. The force is currently short 200 officers, Chacon said.

Homicide count vs. homicide rate

Chacon points out that the city’s homicide rate, which relates the number of crimes to the size of the city, makes Austin one of the safest cities among the United States’ 40 largest.

Still, Austin's homicide rate of 9.25 per 100,000 residents is the highest the city's seen in 30 years.

New patterns arose amid the pandemic. While the department says overall crime, including violent crime, actually dropped in 2021, homicides still reached a record-breaking number.

Chacon said officers needed to adapt by asking the right questions and pinpointing crimes into their correct categories to prevent and curb homicides.

"We have to wonder, was that happening before and we just weren't asking the right questions, or are we seeing that more now?" Chacon said. "I think we're getting good at the data, and that's why we're able to parse out things that are more violent in nature... regardless, it's concerning."

Combating crime

APD and the city have created new approaches to stamp out violent crime this year, including the Safer Sixth Street Initiative for the now-notorious entertainment district and Chacon's own Violence Intervention Program, which targets gun crime in the city. But it'll take real time to see if these initiatives work, and criticism is only mounting for Chacon and city council.

Chacon chooses not to look at the problem from a budgeting lens and has said that Save Austin Now's Prop A—an initiative seeking to reverse police budget cuts to increase officers to two per 1,000 Austinites—was based on "older methodology." Instead, he said that a full analysis from the department's research and planning unit will be released early next year to help fill holes in his staff.

"We don't have our arms around it quite yet," Chacon said. "We've just got to really be smart about the way that we're doing it."

Approach to policing

In the wake of Austin and national concerns about how different people are policed, Chacon said specific demographic groups won’t be targeted.

“I think what's important for the community to know is that we're not going to be focused on particular areas of town or on particular groups of people. This is going to be really laser-focused on those who are committing the crimes, specifically if they are serial offenders or prolific offenders and to target those people that are committing the crimes. I feel like that is going to be the way for us to really be effective as an organization and drive down violent crime."


Bites & Sips: what's new in food and drink
Consumable Content

  • San Marcos favorite Industry Burger opens "mid-October" on E. 5th, featuring "low key healthy" Texas fare.
  • Cinnaholic at The Arboretum opens Friday, October 14, serving "create your own" cinnamon rolls and other sweet treats.
  • San Francisco's Marufuku Ramen opens next Wednesday, October 12, in the Mueller District.
  • Carpenter Hotel announces its popup food truck, Lil Carpenter, open Fri-Sun both ACL weekends, serving what you want, early to late, coffee to donuts, to dogs/burgers/fries/beer.
Airport braces for high traffic this month with ACL and F1 drawing in travelers

(AUS airport/Instagram)

With major entertainment events slated for October, the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is gearing up for a busy month.

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