The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

By Jordan Smith, January 18, 2002, News

More Crime = More Cops -- or Not

On Tuesday, Police Chief Stan Knee released the Austin Police Dept.'s preliminary crime statistics for 2001. Compared to 2000 figures, murders and rapes reportedly decreased from 33 to 28 and from 233 to 215, respectively. And there were 76 traffic deaths in 2001, down by one from 2000. Overall, however, violent crimes and property crimes all took an upward turn -- including robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and theft (including car theft).

Property crimes spiked in July, said Knee (adding that APD isn't sure why), and spiked again from October through December. The latter increase, he indicated, might be attributed to several factors: After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the department pulled 45 street response officers -- the core of the department's "community policing" staff -- off the streets and placed them into "homeland defense" duties such as guarding power and water facilities. As a result, APD had "less enforcement presence on the street," he said. "That coincided with some of the increase in crime, but I am not saying there's a correlation; I'm just pointing that out." APD has since returned the 45 officers to the street, he said. And the increase in robberies reported may be partly attributable to a departmental effort to educate recent immigrants and Mexican nationals about the importance of reporting crime. "As our population grows, we're probably going to have more victims, and we're probably going to have more crime. It means we have to rethink how we do police business."

This year, Knee said, APD will focus -- yet again -- on reducing traffic fatalities and on apprehending "career criminals," as well as entering into partnerships with the University of Texas and others for "outreach" programs to help sexual assault victims. By the end of 2002, the department will finally reach their council-authorized "strength" of 1,215 sworn officers; vacancies have been a perennial issue. "I think that's a key point to reducing the trend [of increased crime]," Knee said. "We don't know how good we can be because we've always carried vacancies."

But Knee failed to mention that nearly 200 APD officers will be eligible for retirement this year, a factor that might prolong the "trend." Recruitment was down in 1999 and 2000, when the economy was riding high. The retirement-recruitment gap prompted Austin Police Association President Mike Sheffield to predict that filling all vacancies will be nearly impossible. "Unless they do something radical, like over-hire, we'll never get ahead of the constant curve of officers leaving and retiring," he said. "We'll probably never get to that magic number of 'authorized strength.'"

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