Interim Austin Police Department Chief Joseph Chacon said Monday that several factors are driving Austin's record high number of homicides this year and that "we need to do everything we can as a community... to stop that number from growing."
Austin saw its 60th homicide over the weekend at a nightclub on North Lamar Boulevard, breaking a record set in 1984 when 59 people were murdered in the city. Murders are up 74% over last year in the city as of the end of August—for which Chacon blamed the number of guns circulating in the city, as well as the release from prison of people previously convicted of violent crimes.
Chacon said that 49 of the city's murders have been solved and that the department has "very solid leads" on several of the eleven homicides that remain unsolved. APD has increased the size of its homicide unit from 12 to 14 detectives in response to the gun violence, and Chacon said that the department may continue to shift personnel to meet its policing needs.
In general, Chacon, who is a finalist for the permanent police chief job, wants to see more police officers on the streets. But the department's staffing issues predate the pandemic and were further affected when police cadet classes were halted last year (resuming in June this year) and as officers are out after contracting COVID.
In November, Austin voters will vote on a proposition to add hundreds of officers to the department—a measure that opponents say doesn't address the root causes of crime.
But the increase in murders is not specific to cities that cut their police budgets last summer, rather, it is part of a nationwide pattern that experts have linked to the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"This really is a national phenomenon," Chacon said. "It is something that is being seen by big cities all across the country. We are collaborating as cities to determine what the driving factors are for why that's happening, but it is not something that is unique to Austin."
After two back-to-back homicides early Sunday morning, Austin reached a 60-year high of 60 homicides this year.
The number is the highest the Austin Police Department has recorded in its 60 years of record-keeping and surpasses the murders in 2020 by 25%, when the city saw 48 slayings.
The numbers came quick early Sunday morning, when police officers responded to a call at the El Nocturno Night Club on 7601 N. Lamar Blvd after reports of gunfire. A man was found with several gunshot wounds at the scene and was later pronounced dead.
Less than 10 minutes later, officers responded to a reported stabbing downtown. When they arrived at the scene, they found an injured man who later died. No more information has come from either report.
According to the Austin-American Statesman's Tony Plohetski, the homicide rate when using 2020 census data is 6.2 per 100,000 residents, up from a previous high of around 5.0 in 2020.
Austin Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon said the city's "boomtown" growth is now being met with "boomtown" problems.
"This is about us truly becoming a big city," Chacon said. "We are starting to experience big city problems. Having said that, I still think that among the big cities, that we remain one of the safest in the country."
Rising crime in Austin has been part of contentious political debates, including a controversial proposition from Save Austin Now to increase police staffing and statements from Gov. Greg Abbott.
Some politicians have pointed to Austin's police budget cuts following the George Floyd and Michael Ramos protests in the summer of 2020 as the culprit for the city's rise in crime. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick said the city is "now one of the most dangerous cities in America and definitely in Texas."
But some, like Chacon, say this is more indicative of a nationwide uptick in violent crime in recent years. According to the most recent FBI crime data, Austins violent crime rate sat at 400 incidents per 100,000 residents, or 28th out of the nation's 30 largest cities, in 2019. The city's murder rate for 2019 sat at 3.2 murders per 100,000 residents in 2019, putting Austin in the middle at 15th among Texas' 25 largest cities.
Still, Chacon worries that murders will only rise as the year's final four months come to a close, and the department responded in May by introducing a Violence Intervention Program aimed at preventing gun violence.
"As we go through criminal justice reform, we cannot forget why we have a police department, which is to keep the public safe," Chacon said. "So, we are looking at public safety through that lens, as well."
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A coalition of more than 80 local organizations launched a campaign Thursday to defeat the Save Austin Now-backed Proposition A, which calls for adding hundreds of city police officers and other measures to the Austin Police Department.
At a gathering at the entrance to Barton Springs, speakers included two members of City Council, Vanessa Fuentes and Alison Alter, and Carol Guthrie, business manager of the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees, Local 1624, a union representing the city of Austin and Travis County employees.
Proposition A, put on the ballot after gaining petition signatures, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
The proposition comes just more than a year after Austin City Council voted to cut its police budget by a third in the wake of protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and killing of Michael Ramos in Austin.
"Prop A is a total reversal of the shift that Austin went through during and after the protests of the summer of 2020," said Chas Moore, founder of the Austin Justice Coalition. "We need every Austinite who posted a black square last summer, every Austinite who marched with us down Congress Avenue, every resident who called into council… to vote no way on Prop A."
Members of the coalition to defeat Prop A raise their fists. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
They are facing a strong political organization. Save Austin Now launched the proposition following their successful spring campaign to criminalize houseless camping in the city, which overwhelmingly. This proposition would install minimum police staffing levels for APD and add training requirements for officers among other initiatives.
"Our city can afford the same number of police officers that the city authorized just two years ago. City Hall may not support law enforcement, but city residents do," Save Austin Now co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek said in a statement.
If passed, the city's budget office has estimated that it could cost as much as $120 million each year for the next five years.
Barring a tax increase, that money might come out of other areas of the city's budget, mentioned by attendees. The Barton Springs setting was no coincidence. Some held signs that read "PROTECT AUSTIN PARKS & LIBRARIES!"
"If Prop A passes, all of these services will be on the chopping block," City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who represents southeast Austin, said. "We're talking about neighborhood public libraries, neighborhood swimming pools, mental health services, and many other services that would no longer be accessible."
Anti-Prop A signs were distributed at the event. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
Democrats in the area are overwhelmingly opposed to the plan. Katie Naranjo, chair of the Travis County Democratic Party, painted Save Austin Now as deceptive in a message similar to one propagated by Adler last month.
"They call themselves by another name," Naranjo said of Save Austin Now. "They're a wolf in sheep's clothing. If you signed the Republican Party's petition and you're a Democrat, you're not a bad person. You were lied to."
Save Austin Now has bipartisan leadership, though members of its board are affiliated with the Travis County Republican Party and Austin Police Association.
Attendees listen to AFSCME Local 1624's Carol Guthrie address the event. (Abe Asher/Austonia)
Prop A backers argue that increased crime in Austin since the outbreak of the pandemic means that the city needs to employ more police officers. Austin has seen a spike in murders in 2021 in line with a national increase, even as the rate of violent crime nationally has remained steady.
"This is a straight attack on Black, Brown and Indigenous folks that have been saying for years that we need to change the way we do things," Moore said. "The way we do policing now does not make us feel safe. We don't need more cops, we need more resources."
Early voting begins on Oct. 19.
Save Austin Now's Prop A will include their own language, budget estimate after Supreme Court ruling
The Texas Supreme Court voted unanimously Wednesday for the city's Proposition A ballot language to be replaced with Save Austin Now's captioned ballot language, but the court held that a budget for the proposition must be included on the Nov. 2 ballot.
The proposition, which was placed on the ballot after receiving enough verified signatures on a petition, was rewritten by City Council on Aug. 11. Save Austin Now hopes to mandate minimum staffing levels at the Austin Police Department to two police officers for every 1,000 residents, increase cadet training and implement measures to improve police response times. City Council members added new language and a city-budget staff estimate that the requirements could cost between $54.3 million and $119.8 million each year for the next five years.
Former Travis County Judge Bill Aleshire filed a lawsuit on Aug. 20 against the city for Save Austin Now due to its language and inclusion of the budget in the proposition. According to the Texas Supreme Court ruling, certain language will be taken out and the petition language will be inserted before the city's cost estimate, which will remain at the end of the proposition.
BREAKING: City wins on most critical issue on disputed ballot language.
The Texas Supreme Court held today that the $271.5 million to $598.8 million cost of Prop A must be included in November ballot language.
— Mayor Adler | Get vaccinated! (@MayorAdler) September 1, 2021
Save Austin Now co-founders Matt Mackowiak and Cleo Petricek said that City Council's rewrite of the ballot was negatively biased against the cause. Supreme Court Justice Rebeca Huddle and the seven other justices unanimously voted against the city's rights to rewrite the ballot.
"The City did not have carte blanche to rewrite the petitioned caption wholesale, and abused its discretion by doing so," Huddle wrote.
Council Member Greg Casar and Mayor Steve Adler, who celebrated the inclusion of the budget, argue that the proposition will allocate too much city money to the police budget. Meanwhile, Mackowiak and Petricek called the vote a "big win for every Austin citizen."
Aleshire also celebrated the Supreme Court ruling.
"The Supreme Court's Opinion today will strengthen the rights of every Austin voter to be able to initiate ordinances without political interference by the City Council in manipulating the ballot language for the proposition," Aleshire said. "It is wonderful to see the Court enforce the Austin City Charter voter rights of the citizens of Austin."
Prop A will be included on the Nov. 2 ballot.
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