Some Austin City Council members are speaking out about the police department’s vacancies and ongoing problems at the 911 call center after a chaotic scene unfolded downtown on Saturday night.
Street racers took over an intersection at South Lamar Boulevard and Barton Springs Road, drifting in the middle of the street and setting off fireworks as throngs of people looked on at the mayhem.
One law enforcement officer was injured and several police cars were damaged in the fracas.
“Imagine for a moment that the incidents last night happened with large scale events going on,” Council member Mackenzie Kelly said Sunday, noting that she is “increasingly concerned about our police vacancies.”
“The possibility of a catastrophic cascading failure due to lack of support from our police department puts the city, its residents, and visitors at risk of danger.”
Council Member Alison Alter told the Austin American-Statesman that she happened upon the street takeover and called 911, but ended up on hold for 28 minutes.
The Austin Police Department’s emergency communications division has been dealing with a staffing crisis for several months, with the 911 call center lowering its minimum staffing requirements last August due to “unprecedented vacancy rates.”
In October, the average hold time for 911 calls in Austin was two-and-a-half minutes. Only about two-thirds of 911 calls were answered within 15 seconds that month, far below the national standard of 90% in 15 seconds or less.
Austin policy makers are directly responsible for the overall safety of their citizens & visitors. Looks like they failed to make the right decisions & continue to defund, destroy, & demoralize public safety. Austin was one of the safest cities, NOT anymore. @Austin_Police https://t.co/j6OTTQE1ct
— Austin Police Association (@ATXPOA) February 19, 2023
Kelly and Alter were the only two council members this week to vote against a one-year contract extension between the city and the Austin Police Association.
Nine other council members voted in favor of the one-year extension on the current contract, which will expire at the end of March.
The union, which is against the temporary extension, had been in negotiations with the city on a four-year agreement, but that deal appeared to fall through after the termination of City Manager Spencer Cronk last week.
“We can improve reasonable police oversight. Accountability is critical to maintain the bonds of trust between police and the community,” Council member Kelly, who is in favor of the four-year contract, said Sunday.
“But the simple fact is that we need more police officers in this city, patrolling our streets, downtown, and major events. We need more police responding to calls for service. We need more police to reinstate specialized units. This must be an urgent priority for the new mayor and the city council.”
Mayor Kirk Watson, who took office last month, has not commented publicly on the street racing takeover and did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sunday afternoon.
Austin’s city council and then-Mayor Steve Adler voted to slash APD’s funding by about one-third during the 2020 riots at the height of the “defund the police” movement. That vote was supported by an activist coalition led by groups including the Austin Justice Coalition. APD’s funding was later restored in order to comply with a state law passed in 2021, but by then, officers had left APD in droves, specialized units were reduced or disbanded, and cadet classes had been canceled, so the departed officers could not be replaced.
Additionally, Travis County District Attorney Jose Garza has indicted more than a dozen APD officers for actions taken to queltl the 2020 riots, which damaged the state capitol, blocked major thoroughfares downtown, and threatened police headquarters.