Similar to tensions Dallas faced four years ago, Austin officials are struggling between two conflicting results of inviting the state’s law enforcement agency to patrol their city streets.
Violent crime has dropped, but some Black and Latino residents say they feel under attack by the state troopers who largely set up shop in their neighborhoods.
In late March, local and state leaders requested that the Texas Department of Public Safety help the Austin Police Department as it grappled with short staffing and long response times to 911 calls. Police departments nationwide, including DPS, are finding it difficult to fill their ranks as retirements surge and new recruits are harder to find.
Almost immediately after troopers hit the streets, city officials this month began celebrating a drop in violent crime, most recently reporting that such crimes have been well below averages in each of the four weeks DPS has been embedded in Austin. But soon after came concerns of racial profiling and overpolicing in Black and Latino neighborhoods.
Last week, the Travis County Attorney’s Office released statistics showing that nearly 90% of those arrested by DPS on misdemeanor charges since March 30 were Black or Latino. As of Saturday, the office reported that nearly two-thirds of misdemeanor arrestees were Latino and almost a quarter were Black. Most charges were for drunk driving or low-level drug possession cases, including marijuana, which local officials do not typically prosecute.
On Tuesday, DPS released a racial breakdown of its traffic stops showing Hispanic drivers are being arrested and stopped at rates disproportionate to the city’s population — accounting for 54% of all stops in the last month.
Austin’s population is 33% Hispanic and 8% Black, according to U.S. Census estimates.
“The supplemental staffing has shown really real results in faster response times for assistance and decrease in violent crime,” Austin Mayor Kirk Watson said at a City Council discussion Tuesday. “The traffic enforcement, however, has been troubling. If there have been unintended or unwanted consequences, we must address them immediately. We want to ensure Ausitinites don’t feel racially profiled.”
The pattern is almost identical to the one Dallas City Council members and residents saw in 2019, when Gov. Greg Abbott sent DPS into the city to address a sudden spike in homicides. Though there were significant drops reported in violent crime, many Black and Latino residents felt harassed, saying troopers would pull them over for almost-expired vehicle tags or to question their immigration status.
“It appears to be a mirror image of what was done in Dallas and ultimately what led to a lot of people in that community — including local officials — demanding that DPS leave,” Chris Harris, policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition, said about the city’s partnership with DPS. “I think we’re getting close to that point here.”
In Dallas, state troopers pulled out of the city after three months, with DPS Director Steve McCraw hailing the endeavor as one that successfully prevented crime. Two weeks before the operation ended, a DPS trooper shot and killed a Black man who was holding a handgun after the officer pulled him over for failing to use a turn signal. Harris said he feared a similar incident would happen in Austin.
“It’s a powder keg, and I don’t see a good resolution,” he said.
With increasing pushback from local officials and residents, APD Chief Joseph Chacon said Tuesday his department was going to push DPS troopers into other parts of the city.
“We’re going to put them in more parts of the city to spread out,” Austin’s police chief said. “We can’t ignore the calls that we’re seeing coming out of [certain areas] and violent crime, but at the same time [we are] increasing traffic enforcement … to create the balance that we’re looking for.”
At the request of APD, DPS has largely been patrolling predominantly Latino neighborhoods, state and local officials said Tuesday. Police leaders said the areas were chosen because they have the highest crime rates and highest number of 911 emergency calls. McCraw said that explains the high number of arrests and stops of Hispanic drivers, saying that it’s misleading to compare the DPS enforcement data to citywide demographics.
“You see an up in the number of Hispanic drivers, Latino drivers,” McCraw told the council Tuesday. “But again, that’s reflected in the area that we operate. And we operate in the area that APD wants us to.”
Under the agreement with the city, 80 DPS troopers and 20 special agents have been working in the state’s capital city. The officers work 12-hour shifts for seven days, and then a new batch of officers is rotated in, McCraw said.
Over the past month, the agency has made about 12,000 traffic stops in Travis County under the operation — compared to about 18,700 stops DPS made in the county in all of 2022. McCraw reported the agency has made 780 arrests, about 60% of which were for felony crimes.
McCraw emphasized the felony arrests Tuesday, noting that his officers have seized guns and drugs — including pounds of deadly fentanyl. Troopers have also nabbed dangerous suspects, he said, including a man who was pulled over for a traffic violation and arrested for allegedly sexually assaulting his 14-year-old passenger.
But members representing districts that have a large Black or Latino population pushed back on what Council Member José “Chito” Vela calls a “vehicular stop-and-frisk” practice.
Council Member Vanessa Fuentes questioned how the 12,000 traffic stops were protecting their communities when only 6% of those stops resulted in arrests, based on the limited data DPS released Tuesday.
“When we know that over 90% of the stops that the troopers are making are not resulting in arrests … I’m having a hard time making a connection to how this is reducing violent crime,” she said.
Fuentes criticized the many citations piling up for expired registration and other minor issues “at the expense of our East Side communities.”
Vela argued that targeting only Latino-dominated neighborhoods creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. The areas are high-crime areas because they’re the places police go, he said, especially referring to low-level cases.
“You could probably do that same type of stop in Far West or in the mayor pro tem’s district and find quite a number of DWIs and quite a number of drug cases,” Vela said, referring to largely white areas.
McCraw said APD was rightfully having his troopers patrol “hot spots” within the city.
“If you send us in an area, that’s exactly what you’re going to see. You’re going to see stops,” he said. “What we’re doing is traffic and what people are seeing is prevention. We’re unapologetic about enforcing all state laws.”
“It’s not overpolicing, it’s overprotecting,” he added.
This article was written by JOLIE MCCULLOUGH of The Texas Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues. This article originally appeared at: https://www.texastribune.org/2023/05/02/texas-dps-austin-police/