May 3, 2023 - News

No end in sight for Austin police partnership with state troopers

Illustration of several police cruiser lights, some of them transparent.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The policing partnership between the city of Austin and the Texas Department of Public Safety will continue indefinitely, Austin officials said Tuesday.

Why it matters: The partnership, which launched in late March and has led to widespread arrests of Black and Hispanic people, has proven divisive, with some Austinites supporting it as a crackdown on crime and others calling it unaccountable, racist policing.

What they're saying: "How long this program goes on has not been determined," Austin police chief Joseph Chacon said at a City Council work session.

  • Mayor Kirk Watson said the partnership "ought to be a common-sense bridge to when we can get police staffing to where it needs to be."

Between the lines: Watson predicted that the police union and city officials will hash out a new labor contract after this Saturday's election — which features dueling police oversight measures.

  • But even after a deal is reached, APD will still need to fill ​​roughly 300 vacant positions.
  • "That has very real implications on our ability to respond to the people of Austin when they ask for assistance," Watson said.

By the numbers: DPS recorded more than 10,000 traffic stops in Travis County in the first month of the partnership.

  • The percentage of stops involving Latino drivers jumped from 38% of county traffic stops in 2022 to 54% since the operation began.
  • "DPS was deployed to high crime/high call hot spots within the city, and the percentage of stops in these … areas are consistent with the population demographics," DPS director Steve McCraw wrote in a memo this week to council members.

Some community members have complained about racial profiling.

  • "It's the vehicular equivalent of stop-and-frisk," Council Member Council Member José "Chito" Vela III, who represents north-central Austin, said on Tuesday.
  • "I'm concerned about an exclusively data-driven approach to law enforcement," said Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who represents parts of East Austin, adding that her constituents "are reeling."

The other side: "I don’t look it as a negative thing when we go into a community," McCraw told council members. "I look at it as the community is safer when we go into it."

  • In the memo to Austin officials this week, McCraw wrote that traffic arrests had led to the seizure of heroin, fentanyl and guns, the recovery of stolen vehicles and the arrest of a driver for the alleged sexual assault of a 14 year-old passenger.

What's next: Council Member Alison Alter, who represents parts of northwest Austin, said the state troopers should be redeployed to major roads to cut down speeding, red-light running and other violations that could lead to traffic fatalities.

  • "DPS has indicated a willingness to shift strategy so that we’re not having a disparate impact on our communities of color," chief Chacon said Tuesday.
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