Chief Countdown

May the (Police) Force Be With You on New Year's Eve

Austin Police Chief Stan Knee
Austin Police Chief Stan Knee (Photo By Jana Birchum)

A2K -- Austin's downtown millennial celebration -- is now just two weeks away. And some time between 6pm, Dec. 31, 1999, and 3am, Jan. 1, 2000, party organizers, the Austin Police Department, and an estimated crowd of 200,000 partygoers will finally know for sure if the first day of a new millennium will feel any different; they'll know whether A2K was the party of the century or, as critics have dubbed it, the eve of destruction. One thing that everyone has agreed on since plans for A2K started leaking out in June is that the party will be an event unprecedented in the city's history. In terms of sheer size and the number of variables -- from accessibility to security and emergency response to Y2K concerns -- A2K is arguably the city's most complicated undertaking ever. And while organizers have spent the better part of two months altering plans, fine-tuning details, and answering the critics, it won't be until the event itself that the basic A2K unknowns are answered: Y2K chaos? Random (or organized) acts of violence? Drunken conduct and drunken-driving casualties? Bad weather?

Organizers contend that those concerns are the same ones that plague every millennial event across the country, and that such concerns are part of the reason the city of Austin has taken it upon itself to offer its own event. In theory, it's far easier to protect and police a party you've planned than one you haven't.

Ultimately, the job of protecting and policing A2K -- as well as, simultaneously, the rest of Austin -- falls on Austin Police Chief Stan Knee.

Despite reports to the contrary, Knee asserts that his department has never been opposed to A2K. Knee says that from the time he and his staff agreed to sign off on A2K in July, the Austin Police Department has been amending its Y2K preparation plan with a documented game plan for A2K -- the "A2K Millennium Party Operational Plan." The plan, issued internally in draft form on Oct. 24, calls for approximately 415 officers to be assigned to downtown on New Year's Eve; the rest of Austin will have as much as double staffing. Although Knee won't offer a copy of the operational plan for review in advance, he insists A2K can and will provide a safe party atmosphere. Knee says he also knows that any plan with this many variables invites public concern, caution, and doubt. To that end, and despite a policy of rarely speaking publicly on police issues, Knee agreed to discuss the concerns surrounding Y2K in a one-on-one interview.

Austin Chronicle: First off, there's been some question as to how and when the Austin Police Department was approached about Mayor Watson's idea for a downtown party.

Stan Knee: I'm not sure it was the mayor, but we certainly received formal word that there was a group in the community wanting to celebrate the millennium downtown. They wanted our input from the very beginning, so we immediately began taking a look at some of the things they were presenting and making comments on them. The event has moved forward since.

AC: But an event is going to be handled differently if the event is planned by the city or if it were me planning it, right? It does come down to the mayor spearheading this thing?

SK: I think you'll have to ask him. What we deal with is the individuals or departments in the City Hall that have responsibility for major events. We deal with the issue of other law enforcement if necessary. We deal with trying to pull together our end of the spectrum. It really makes no difference to us who's going to do it. Most people probably don't realize we handle over 150 different special events every year -- from the Ricky Williams Heisman parade to the Motorola event with 150 officers. To us, it's another event. We simply had to fold it over into our plans for Y2K.

AC: Clearly it's different than just another event. In size, manpower, and number of unknowns, it's unprecedented.

SK: I think that it has unique aspects, but it is just another event. What makes it unique is that it's an event also tied in to the millennium, Y2K, and New Year's Eve. That does make it somewhat special for us. Other cities that have been doing this for decades are a bit more used to it.

AC: Wasn't this already going to be a complicated night, with or without a downtown party?

SK: It certainly is a complicated night. We've been planning, just like other law enforcement agencies, for the better part of a year for different scenarios, ensuring that our staffing and contingency plans meet the expectations of the community. That does make it a little bit different.

AC: You've had your plans for well over a year, but the A2K plans have been constantly shifting, to the point where it's only just now truly coming together. When they came to you in the summer, just under six months out, how concerned were you?

SK: Quite honestly, I'm not as concerned as you perhaps might want me to be or perhaps as the community might want me to be. I think we do a good job of planning and have the resources to handle the issues relating to Y2K as well as a millennium celebration. At the time we began our plans, we didn't know the electric utility would be Y2K-prepared. We were like other agencies that read Time magazine about the chaos of Y2K. Our planning was a little different a year and a half ago, a little different a year ago. And then six months ago, when we felt reasonably certain that this city had spent the right amount of effort to ensure that its government was Y2K-prepared, we definitely felt better.

AC: But isn't it difficult not to look at the idea of 200,000 people partying in one place on a millennial New Year's without imagining some kind of doom and gloom?

SK: I don't think there is [going to be] doom and gloom. I think that we're quite confident that the city stepped up to the plate. What we hope for is that it will be a good time throughout the city for people entering the new millennium.

AC: It appears one of the big issues between your department and the A2K planners was the difference between what you originally agreed to and the A2K that's planned now. When your department signed off on A2K, was there a plan for alcohol? And, now that there is, how does it change things?

SK: Alcohol was never the issue originally. Quite honestly, the issue originally was, should we have this party, where should it be, who should be there as far as entertainers and such? It's hard to say alcohol is a problem for the chief of police when you have Sixth Street with probably more bars per block than any place I can think of. We knew going in that there would be alcohol. The mere fact that somebody might have to walk a half-block down to Sixth Street to get it, as opposed to a controlled beer garden-type atmosphere, doesn't change much. I think as the party evolved, the organizers paid a lot of attention and worked with us to see the final plan that would be best for the citizens.

AC: One of those changes of plans was to limit the size of the closure. Isn't that a double-edged sword, in that you've got more of the city open to traffic and your vehicles, but more people now crammed into one place?

SK: When you looked at the staffing it took to ensure public safety in this wide downtown, then you dealt with the problems of shutting down early for stages to be built, and the fact that some companies would still have employees working down there. Then, starting to put the final touches on the overall plan, we started to make some minor adjustments and wound up with what's being called the L or the T. I think it's a good plan. It certainly provides us with an opportunity to move pedestrian traffic safely between Sixth and the concerts, as well as allowing for ample personnel to handle any problems that could arise.

AC: One of the other major concerns with the larger street closure seemed to center around your officers' visibility. How visible will APD be in a crowd of 200,000?

SK: If we have an event at the Convention Center or a city facility, we will get a general staffing level to the promoters that could be two per 1,000 if alcohol is used. In some instances it may be a little more if we think it's a young crowd or we anticipate confrontations or problems. I think that's a good number, and if we have 200,000 people and 415 officers, that's right in the ballpark. Without going into details -- and I wouldn't want to for our plans for New Year's Eve -- we have a number of officers who are not counted in that who have a secondary responsibility to respond to critical situations in the city, including downtown. I can say that's a base number, and there are additional resources if we need them.

AC: So I'll be able to see and count 415 officers down there.

SK: No. A large number of police officers are on this night, but certainly our plans carry on into the weekend in case something does happen. When you talk about 415, some will be on break, some will be on moving patrol, some will be on fixed locations. But in addition to that, there will also be a number of private security guards down there that the promoters, organizers, and Sixth Street have hired. It's not uncommon for a bar on Sixth to have six or eight security personnel inside the bar itself. My bottom-line point is that we've really looked at this and really feel we can provide for the safety of the public.

AC: With 400 officers downtown, what are the ramifications for the policing of the rest of the city? Does this pull away [from staffing in the rest of Austin]?

SK: It doesn't. The commitment in the plan is that every single district in the city will be staffed 100%. It's not uncommon to have about a 20% vacancy with vacations and sick [officers], but 100% of the positions will be staffed. In addition, the area commanders that are on duty that night will have at their disposal uncommitted police officers specially trained to handle situations that may involve large crowds or some other criminal activity. My best response is that even if there were not a party on Congress, most of the officers that are assigned there would still be assigned there.

AC: In that regard, business as usual.

SK: In that regard, it's business as close to usual [as possible].

AC: According to the latest plans, buses will stop at 2am, and there are only limited tickets for the buses. Clearly, people were going to be driving anyway, but doesn't this just put more potentially drunk drivers out there? How safe are the roads on a night like this?

SK: We just had a news conference on a stepped-up DWI policy. I can tell you that there will be additional officers aggressively looking for DWIs. We have streamlined the process so that officers who stop a DWI driver in a neighborhood or on a street can call a unit to handle the testing, transportation, and booking of that individual, so that the officer can go back into service and patrol his neighborhood. We will have zero tolerance from this point forward, including New Year's Eve, on DWIs. It is my hope that the people in this community understand that there's a moral obligation for them not to drink and drive. We can probably put 50 officers out there hunting for DWIs every Friday and Saturday night and keep them busy with arrests. We'll arrest nearly 5,000 DWIs this year. For a city of 600,000, that's a problem that plagues us not just on New Year's Eve, but throughout the year.

AC: But clearly, New Year's Eve is built around alcohol. This is "amateur night."

SK: I think that there's been a maturing of America and I think that in some cases, on New Year's Eve, there's a sense of responsibility that may not be there for a Christmas party or for a birthday party at a brewery. There's a heightened awareness, and I know people who aren't going anywhere New Year's Eve and stay at home because of DWIs. My hope is that the community of Austin steps to the plate. It's not a police problem, it's a community problem, and I don't see the party having an adverse affect. We are stressing the designated driver and saying that if you come to downtown or a bar on Riverside, one part of the party should not drink that night and you're the only one that drives the car. We're stressing the moral obligation as well as the designated driver.

AC: On a wider scale, is this the most politically complicated event you've seen?

SK: I've been in this business 30 years, 12 years as a chief of police, and I stay above politics. I see my job as providing for public safety. I am not afraid to tell anybody when I think that their decisions put the public at risk. I hope I've been able to do that my entire 30 years. So is this the most political? No. If you were in the budget process you'd understand politics in that world versus this one. I have found that this group wants this party to occur, wants it to be a good time, and have been more than willing to listen to us when we raised our hand.

AC: Is this the most logistically complicated event you've faced?

SK: I think the millennial New Year has been a significant event for some time. You find in police work very few events that you begin to plan a year in advance. We actually started planning for Y2K two years ago, before I got here. I think this certainly is one of the more significant events we've had to look at planning for. But there have been positive things too. We've gotten in a significant amount of training that we needed in order to prepare for this. I think that the incidents in Seattle recently show us that even perhaps what might be considered less significant conventions can create a scenario that puts police right back into the Sixties in regard to demonstrations. We've done a lot of training and looked at the equipment that we need.

AC: But it's training and equipment that you don't want to use.

SK: Absolutely. I'm not saying Austin is a Seattle. Having come from the West Coast, you have to understand that there are a lot of people in northern California and Oregon that take the issue of the environment to the absurd and feel very strongly and emotionally about that. Austin isn't like that. But as [the] capital city in the great state of Texas we need to be prepared to handle any kind of disturbances like that because they do in fact occur.

AC: Without showing your hand tactically, is this the kind of thing where you've monitored potentially threatening groups because this is a capital and we have a presidential candidate in town?

SK: Yes. We maintain a liaison with the Department of Public Safety, which is Governor Bush's protection. And since he is now a candidate, the federal authorities are also involved in looking after him and his family. We are deeply involved with each of those agencies. In regard to other groups, I don't think Texas is any different than other states. We have groups here that would like to see chaos and we're working with the state and federal authorities to keep our finger on the pulse of those groups. God forbid, but if anything were to happen, I think we'd be ready to respond.

AC: The best-case scenario is 200,000 people show up and go home safely. Does it get any simpler?

SK: It doesn't. But if people want to drink and act crazy, I can tell you they're going to jail. There will be a lot of families down there, including my wife, who will be looking to have a good time. It is my responsibility and this department's responsibility to do what's necessary to ensure that we do have that good time.

AC: Will you be on the street that night?

SK: I will be.

AC: And what still needs to be done in the next two weeks or so?

SK: We're 99% there on our side. That 1% are probably those unknowns that we thought we'd thought about, but said, "Gosh, I thought you handled that." There is that 1% we'll clean up between now and New Year's Eve. But if this were Dec. 29, I'd say we're ready to go. end story

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Austin police, Police Chief Stan Knee, Y2K, A2K, Mayor Kirk Watson, DWI, Charlie Jones, Lyle Lovett, Kelly Willis, Robert Earl Keen, downtown

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