Austin police have made dozens of arrests this year through a new program aimed at curbing gun violence, which continues to be a lead cause of murders and aggravated assaults in 2021, Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon said.

Chacon provided an update on the Austin Police Department's Violence Intervention Program, which launched mid-April to combat local gun crimes, during a July 15 briefing. Chacon said officers contributing to the violence intervention program are focused on identifying the "most prolific" violent gun crime offenders, arresting them, and seeing them charged at either the county or federal level.

“It is gun crime that is driving our violent crime rate in two particular areas: homicides and aggravated assault that is not associated to domestic violence. Additionally, I’m concerned with the number of robberies that are being committed in Austin using guns," Chacon said. "For all of these reasons, it is incredibly important that we take an active role to get illegally-owned firearms off the street and to hold those that are doing the harm accountable.”

Chacon said the program so far has produced 57 arrests resulting in 158 gun-related charges. A total of 108 illegally-owned guns have also been seized through the program so far. The program is expected to continue at least through Aug. 31, at which point APD will assess its work so far and decide whether it should be continued or modified.

During his Thursday briefing, Chacon also said APD remains focused on specifically targeting the downtown area in the wake of several shootings there this year. He said police have seized a total of 55 guns downtown since January, and that the department will continue to send a variety of patrols throughout entertainment districts.

Chacon also appealed for Austinites to leave their guns at home when visiting the downtown area on weekends, noting a "recipe for disaster" caused by the combination of intoxicated visitors and frequent fights there.

“If you are coming downtown during the entertainment hours, don’t bring a gun. More guns downtown do not equate to greater safety. My officers cannot determine simply by looking at someone who is the good guy and who is the bad guy," he said.

While foot, vehicle, ATV and horse patrols remain heavily focused on work downtown, Chacon highlighted his perception of an ongoing staffing crisis at APD affecting patrols elsewhere. He also said the department may put some new financial incentives into place for officer retention or rehiring. He also said the department remains well below its budgeted 1,089 full-time officer total—a figure City Manager Spencer Cronk proposed to preserve in his draft fiscal year 2021-22 budget released this month.

“I’ve called it a crisis because it’s a crisis. We are down about 150 positions that are vacant right now, which has caused me to move officers from specialized units back to patrol. That has me greatly concerned, because as I reduce those other specialized areas it makes it very difficult and that is not good for our overall crime rate in Austin," Chacon said.