The Saturday shooting, which took place shortly before 1:30 a.m. on the 400 block of East Sixth Street, sparked immediate responses from local police, fire and EMS workers, Austin Police Department interim Chief Joseph Chacon said after the incident. Chacon also said during a June 15 press conference that downtown remains one of the department's most well-patrolled areas in Austin given the number of officers on foot and in vehicles regularly keeping an eye on the area.
“Our best response times in the whole city are downtown because it's so tightly compacted and dense, and I have so many officers that are working there as compared to other parts of the city," he said. "I do feel like we’re doing a very good job just making sure that we’re keeping our staffing 24 hours a day in that area.”
Maintaining a well-staffed downtown force could leave other parts of the city more prone to delayed response times however, especially during what Chacon called the current "staffing problem" APD is experiencing amid retirements, resignations and a yearlong absence of new cadets.
He said that issue is a factor in this year's citywide jump in police response times to priority incidents, which have risen around 20% from an estimated 7 minute and 30-second average in recent years to 9 minutes in 2021 so far.
"That’s a significant increase and one of the drivers of why we are making these reallocations back to patrol," Chacon said. "One minute and 30 seconds when you’re in a critical situation can seem like an eternity."
APD did not respond to a request for comment on its evaluation of or possible changes to weekend patrol practices around Sixth Street in response to the June 12 shooting.
Along with APD's own staffing considerations, the rapid police response June 15 also highlighted what Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie said is a shortcoming of the city's overall strategy for keeping its downtown entertainment districts safe for visitors. While police officers were able to quickly arrive on the scene and administer first aid Saturday, even transporting some victims to hospitals in nonmedical vehicles themselves, the area's often-crowded conditions and lack of access for larger vehicles represented challenges for EMS staff traveling to the scene.
Xie said improved staging and access for first responders including Austin-Travis County EMS workers should be city priorities for securing downtown areas in the future, which increased funding for staffing and smaller vehicles such as gators could help facilitate.
“Yes it went according to plan. But is that the right plan for this type of thing or in the future? No," Xie said. “[Austin] is showing that we are becoming a large city with a very, very popular downtown nightlife, and that we do need to take the downtown response seriously and not let it impact the city the way that we’re comfortable doing right now."
Possible policy responses
District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose council district includes the stretch of Sixth where the shooting occurred, said June 15 that EMS staffing could be revisited by council members later this summer when regular meetings resume following their summer recess. Additionally, Tovo said she is interested in hearing more from City Manager Spencer Cronk and law enforcement representatives about further steps the city could take to secure popular weekend hotspots given previous shootings, including last week's along Sixth.
“I’m going to encourage them to share with us any recommendations from the past that have not been implemented as well as to survey the situation downtown anew now that the pandemic is lifting and we’re beginning to see the return of crowds," Tovo said. "[It’s] an important time to review safety issues downtown."
District 10 Council Member Alison Alter said she is considering the call from Austin EMS leadership for additional funding to support their downtown activities as well and noted a fiscal year 2020-21 budget amendment she sponsored along with council members Paige Ellis, Natasha Harper-Madison, Leslie Pool and Tovo has provided for additional ambulance capacity in Austin's core this year. Support for expanded EMS operations was shared by District 4 Council Member Greg Casar this week as well.
"I think we should absolutely look at the downtown ambulance situation. ... Part of our shift of dollars away from some of the excess in the APD budget was toward hiring more medics and bringing on more ambulances," Casar said. "I do think looking at safety and the crowds on Sixth Street is always a really important issue for us to continue to examine, how is it that we can have the safest environment down there?"
Prior to last weekend's incident, Alter had in April sponsored council's most recent resolution centered on gun violence that was approved 10-1 in the wake of a fatal Northwest Austin shooting in her district. Alter said preventing events such as this weekend's downtown shooting mainly remains tied to state or national action, despite the intentions and locally focused actions of many on the dais in Austin. And Mayor Steve Adler, who joined in supporting Alter's April proposal, on June 15 joined several other metropolitan mayors whose cities have recently experienced shooting incidents in calling for the passage of two U.S. House measures aimed at background checks and for President Joe Biden to prioritize gun violence prevention.
“We have to understand this was two 17-year-olds with guns who didn’t have another way to settle their dispute ... and absent that access to that gun this whole thing looks really different," Alter said. "We as a city don’t get to control that, and we need leadership on the state and federal level that will recognize that access to guns does not make us safer."
Representing the lone dissenting vote against council's April action on gun violence, District 6 Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said at the time she views the topic as one best handled by policymakers above the city level. On June 15 Kelly echoed that sentiment, saying gun violence responses are best tackled at the federal level, and also called for an increased police presence downtown to handle crowds and safety.
"We need to have a well-staffed and a well-trained police department. We need to get more cadet classes underway, and we cannot prevent our city from being safe by defunding our police department," Kelly said.
Alter said Austin's newly formed office of violence prevention—launched following recommendations from the city gun violence task force established via council resolution in late 2019—and its program manager Michelle Myles are essential to the local gun violence response as well. Alter said the creation of that office, and viewing gun violence through a public health rather than public safety lens, are among her priorities given initiatives such as the office's campaign on proper gun storage and interaction with victims of violence.
"We need to really zero in on the nature of that violence in Austin and target either a neighborhood or particular populations to make sure that guns are not the choice that gets made and that there are not guns accessible for folks who are underage or not mentally equipped to have them," she said. "The very specifics are in the hands of our public health experts to work with."