Austin police and Travis County attorneys remain focused on preventing and prosecuting violent crime downtown as concerns over safety in the city center among residents and stakeholders have risen over recent months, officials said during a July 26 public forum.

The virtual session hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance and District 9 Council Member Kathie Tovo, whose district includes most of downtown, saw law enforcement and criminal justice representatives share insight on enforcement strategies and their hopes for next steps in combating violence in Austin. Dewitt Peart, president and CEO of the DAA, said the forum was in part called due to the past year-plus of increased violence in the city overall as well as several entertainment district shootings this year that have sparked broader discussions about downtown public safety responses.

“The increasing number of murders and shootings, and of course the mass shooting ... are of paramount concern to me," Tovo said during the forum.

According to Austin Police Department data, the city has seen a nearly 96% increase in murders through June of this year compared with the first six months of 2020, with the total count rising from 23 to 45 between those periods. Aggravated assaults are up about 15% citywide between the same six-month spans, rising from 1,428 through the first half of 2020 to 1,641 through the first half of 2021.

Similar increases were tracked within APD's George Sector in Austin's downtown. Murders year to date there rose from one through June 2020 to four through June 2021, alongside an increase in aggravated assaults from 80 to 91 over the same time. Personal crimes including murder, rape, assault and kidnapping are up 7% in George Sector this year, and property crime is up 12%, per APD.

Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon said APD consistently keeps the downtown area fully staffed, especially on weekend evenings, to curb some violence in the area. Chacon also highlighted ongoing APD initiatives such as the Violence Intervention Program targeting repeat violent offenders and said community support is an important piece of the department's approach. Chacon's suggestions for downtown visitors included planning ahead for their rides home and avoiding risky situations, calling 311 or 911 if a crime is witnessed, and keeping any personal firearms at home when out drinking.

On top of APD's strategy, specific changes to entertainment district safety planning could be launched this summer through a plan sponsored by Tovo and up for Austin City Council consideration July 29. Cosponsored by Mayor Steve Adler and Council Members Pio Renteria and Mackenzie Kelly, the resolution would direct the city manager to create a task force with members from several city departments to tackle Sixth Street pedestrian access and street lighting, the development of a "nightlife management plan," and coordination with bar owners on public safety and underage drinking enforcement.

If approved by council, new safety directives identified in Tovo's measure would be rolled out over the coming months.

Strengthening support

In addition to discussions over Central Austin violence, forum participants July 26 also dug into county-level discussions over the role of the criminal justice system in handling lower-priority offenses and the resources available to area residents. Both District Attorney Jose Garza and County Attorney Delia Garza pointed to the issue of a "revolving door" of people committing crimes due to poverty, mental illness, or a lack of food and housing, and said solutions to that cycle and its fallout do not involve law enforcement.

“If all of our community had their basic needs met ... I am positive we would not see these rising crime rates," Delia Garza said. "We need to think of investing in people before that 911 call was made, before they’re a case in our office or on a judge’s docket."

Chacon and the Travis County attorneys also expressed support for a proposal up for consideration by county commissioners July 27 relating to options for mental health- and substance abuse-based diversion away from the criminal justice system. If approved, that measure would move forward an analysis of the county's mental health diversion program this year to expand and potentially target people with mental illness or experiencing homelessness, and add a new program component for criminal trespass cases.

That plan is also the subject of a Tovo-sponsored council resolution in support of county diversion efforts that could be approved by city officials July 29.

Even with a focus on some ongoing diversion efforts in Travis County, county attorneys also noted that they remain focused on taking on violent crime. The pair said they are not limiting investigations or prosecutions in that area, even while promoting some actions geared more toward addressing community instability.

“Of course we must hold people accountable ... but if we are serious about addressing crime long term and reducing the incidence of violent crime in our community, we must also invest in solutions that increase stability in our community and that prevent crime, not just punishing people who engage in crime," Jose Garza said.