Just a few blocks away from the Texas Capitol, many local business owners said they have felt a rise in shoplifting, vandalism and aggressive clientele.

“It’s always been a struggle downtown, but it has really escalated these last few years,” Wild About Music CEO Teghan Hahn said. “And it’s not just the stealing, it’s the aggression of the people who are committing the crimes.”

After years of struggling to respond to these calls due to understaffing, Austin Police Department officials unveiled a new plan in late September to increase patrols downtown.

Current situation

In late September, Interim Police Chief Robin Henderson ordered four to six more police officers to patrol hot spots downtown. Officers are also encouraging businesses to report crimes every time they happen and have offered help vetting private security companies.

The changes are in the early stages, and some business owners are feeling their impacts more than others.

"My staff feels like they're a nuisance when they call in, so I don't think they're feeling like there's any particular camaraderie or support," Hahn said. "I know my staff feels defeated and like there's nothing to be done."

Luci Rau, store manager at Royal Blue Grocery's Congress Avenue location, said she feels optimistic about the new patrols.

"Communication is a lot more smooth; response time is a lot quicker than it was in the past," she said.
How we got here

Henderson said APD’s shortcomings are due to a staffing “crisis” that has persisted for years.

The department is budgeted for 1,812 officers, and they had 1,483 as of Nov. 2. Short-staffing led

APD to pause responding to nonurgent calls in 2021 and regularly pull homicide detectives away from their duties to patrol downtown, officers said.

APD is also seeing fewer cadets make it through to graduation, Henderson said. Many cadets drop out because they will not be able to telework, Henderson said. Others leave over the extensive background check, or they fail the polygraph, physical, academic or drug tests.

As of press time, there are:
  • More than 300 police officer vacancies
  • 44% of most recent training cohort that has dropped out
  • 2 years without nonurgent call response
The breakdown

While some business owners reported a rise in petty crime, APD data shows vandalism, shoplifting, burglary and robberies have slightly decrased.

Henderson said APD data might be skewed as victims don't always call 911 or self reprot.

"There are times when people call 911 and they're on hold for an inordinate long period of time," said Bill Brice, senior vice president of investor relations at Downtown Austin Alliance-an advocacy groups for downtown business owners. "And it doesn't take too make repeated attempts experiencing that for somebody to say, 'I'm not even going to waste my time anymore.'"
What's next

While APD remains short-staffed, a key player in Austin's character-the Downtown Austin Alliance- is ramping up its efforts to keep downtown safe.

The DAA members don't want to be seen as first responders, Brice said, but the group is doing daily cleanups downtown and advocating for ordinance enforcement.

"When you have an environment that looks like it's well cared for, looked after [and] provided for, people behave differently than they do in areas that don't appear to be looked after," he said. "It did not take long at all for [cleanups and increased patrols] to have a visible impact on improving conditions downtown and the perception of safety improving as well."

To read this story as it appeared in the November print edition, click here.