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Fixing Broken Windows?

Police tackle crime in downtown Austin

By Jordan Smith, 6:35AM, Tue. Nov. 6, 2012

Fixing Broken Windows?

First, a bit of bad news for downtown Austin: year-to-date, violent crime is up 16% while violent crime in the city's other police area commands has decreased 2%, Austin Police Chief of Staff David Carter told the Public Safety Commission Monday evening.

Here's the good news: Early indications are that the newly-implemented Public Order Initiative downtown is having a positive impact, reducing property crimes there, he said. "Knock on wood."

Year-to-date there have been 254 violent crimes in the downtown area command – the area bound by Lamar Boulevard to the West, Chicon St. to the East, 15th St. to the North and Lady Bird Lake to the South – APD Assistant Chief Raul Munguia told the Commission. And although the POI has been regarded by some as an anti-homeless initiative, Munguia and Carter noted that initiative numbers belie that notion. The number of individuals ticketed or detained as part of the initiative are nearly equal: 53% are homeless or transient, and "47% are not," Carter said. Of the 254 violent crimes downtown, 89 involved transients or homeless individuals; a homeless person was considered a suspect in 32% of those cases and a victim in 13% of those cases, said Munguia. Nearly 53% of the cases are considered transient-on-transient crimes, he said.

The POI was not created to clean the streets in the run up to the Formula One race next weekend, Carter reiterated, but rather as a broken windows-style initiative, where police show zero tolerance for the kind of street-level crimes that can, unchecked, lead to a larger breakdown of public order and safety. Since the POI launch Sept. 20, police have made 48 felony arrests and have cited more than 1,900 for misdemeanor infractions.

Nonetheless, a series of downtown residents addressed the Commission to say that even more police resources are needed to combat crime. Aggressive panhandling and public urination and defecation are a daily problem, residents complained. And although the 5th Street Community project of 2010 was successful in addressing street-level dealing along the 5th St. corridor, residents involved in that project complained to the PSC that the open-air drug dealing has now intensified just a block to the south, at East 4th St. from I-35 to Sabine.

Barry Lewis, a board member of the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, speaking in place of Madge Whistler, a key member of the team that made the 5th Street Community project a success, said there are four key things neighbors hope the Commission will understand and impress upon the Council. First, council and PSC members should take regular ride-outs with police so that they can see first hand what happens on the ground. Second, the downtown area should have an permanent squad of undercover officers. Third, city officials should recognize the "unique" nature of the downtown neighborhood – the country's third-largest entertainment district, home to 10,000 residents with another 1,000 housing units in the works. And, fourth, APD should re-up the foot patrols that have in the past been helpful in breaking up open-air drug dealing and other street-level crimes throughout the Entertainment District. Downtown is "developing a reputation, whether factual or not, of not being a safe environment" and the time to address that is now, Lewis said.

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